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Pricey family graves a fading tradition in aging Japan

Family graves a fading tradition in Japan as bereaved opt for cheaper and more convenient alternatives

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

Contributing Writers

Last month, a man was arrested by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police for leaving human remains at a garbage collection station near his residence in Adachi Ward. The remains had been cremated and were mixed in with shards of funerary urns, and according to a report on NHK News, the man admitted to dumping the urns but claimed he knew nothing of the ashes and bone fragments.

As it turns out, the man is a reburial contractor. He runs a service to help temples and public cemeteries move remains out of graves that have been abandoned or which families say they no longer plan to maintain. Reburial contractors charge for removing the remains and “closing” the grave (haka-jimai) and then they either transfer the remains to a new grave or dispose of them in a legal manner. Dumping them in a residential refuse station, however, is not one of these legal options.

It’s worth noting that the man is also a tombstone salesman, a business that has been declining for years despite a graying population and a rising number of deaths each year. According to the Japan Business Press, revenues from tombstone sales amounted to ¥450 billion in 2000. By 2015 they had dropped to ¥250 billion.

As trains, expressways and planes fill up with travelers heading back to their hometowns during the Bon festival, the annual celebration where Japanese pay respects to their ancestors, it’s timely to look at the rapidly changing situation in the graveyard business.

Twenty years ago, the practice of sankotsu (scattering bones) started to become more accepted despite laws that greatly limited how a family could dispose of ashes. The law has since been changed and more people are choosing to scatter the ashes of loved ones at legally designated locations rather than interring those ashes at a cemetery — the traditional practice. Consequently, sankotsu has become an increasingly viable alternative to interment for individuals and even families, so much so that it has given rise to its own industry.

Prior to the amendment to the law it was extremely difficult to get permission to scatter remains, and it’s still illegal to bury any remains outside of a certified cemetery.

Now, ashes can be scattered at sea or on private property with the permission of the landowner. What was initially a practice tied to a request made by the deceased person has increasingly become an option for families who want to save money. The cost of traditional funerals and maintaining family graves can be very high, but more than that the whole process takes time and effort and many people now think it simply isn’t worth it.

Graves are expensive. Tokyo Metropolitan Government-run Aoyama Cemetery, the most famous graveyard in Japan, has a lottery system. In 2017, whenever a grave site became available there were about 14 applications to lease it. The sizes range from 1.6 to 3.98 square meters and they are priced from ¥4.37 million to ¥10.8 million. Maintenance fees are relatively cheap: ¥1,220 to ¥2,440 a year. For comparison, the city cemetery in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, charges ¥325,500 for a grave plot, with a management fee of ¥5,280 per year for residents at the time of their death and ¥7,920 for nonresidents.

Some cemeteries lease plots in perpetuity as long as the lessee and their heirs take care of the grave, while some public cemeteries have fixed-term leases that need to be renewed. The retail cost for a tombstone ranges from ¥700,000 to ¥2 million.

Grave sites in Japan are family plots, meaning only blood relatives can be interred there. The yearly fee goes into keeping the grounds clean and orderly, but it is the family’s responsibility to maintain the grave itself, and if a family neglects to do so for a given period of time, the cemetery operator or temple where the grave is located can close the grave and have the remains and tombstone removed. At Aoyama, if the maintenance fee has not been paid for five years, the operator can unilaterally revoke permission for use of the grave.

Counter-intuitively, closing graves has become big business as the boomer generation starts to die. The ohaka (family grave) system is a remnant of older Japan, when families extended far beyond the nuclear family and everyone lived within close proximity to one another. They often had a family grave at a local temple that they supported financially.

After the war, more young people moved away from their hometowns to live in cities. Traditionally, the oldest son is responsible for taking care of the family grave, and as long as he remained in his hometown he did so.

But now the family structure has tightened, and for those who don’t live near their family graves, traveling home for Bon, yearly memorials and general upkeep has become inconvenient. Consequently, many boomers, while facing their own mortality, have decided to close family graves and either move the remains closer to where they live or dispose of them altogether.

Closing a grave is not cheap, either.

According to our research, it costs between ¥500,000 and ¥1 million, depending on the company, the location of the grave and how many individuals’ remains are contained within it.

If the customer is moving remains to a new grave, the process is relatively straightforward, but what if the customer simply wants to dispose of the remains? For additional fees, the company can do that, too. The service in Adachi, however, seems to have opted for an illegal method of disposal.

Businesses and nonprofit groups who only take care of disposal are on the rise, too, mainly because of the country’s demographic shift.

More and more people are dying without any direct connection to their families and with no desire to buy a cemetery plot for themselves and loved ones. In a survey of six Japanese cities carried out by the sankotsu service company Inori, between 33 and 60 percent of respondents said they have no family grave. Of these, 34 percent in Tokyo and 51 percent in Osaka said they have no intention of leasing a grave site for themselves or their families. The No. 1 reason cited is “not wanting to be a burden on my children,” but 13 percent also mentioned the expense.

Sankotsu services essentially take the cremated remains directly from crematoriums, grind them into a powder and dispose of them legally. Some hire a boat and scatter them out at sea, while others scatter them on specially designated plots of land, sometimes under a tree chosen by the deceased. Some turn the powder into trinkets, like amulets, paving stones or even statues of Buddha.

The savings are considerable. We’ve found that some sankotsu companies charge as little as ¥25,000 per individual, and that includes extra services, such as having a priest say some words during the scattering ceremony or having an employee disperse flowers at the site.

Customers, however, should be aware that in most cases the ashes will be deposited jointly with other people’s remains. There are even companies that accept remains by package delivery, who will dispose of them without ever meeting with the family in person.

This is where the changing face of mourning comes in. Because ancestor worship is considered central to family life in Japan, there is a certain guilt attached to sankotsu, even when it’s done according to the will of the deceased individual. But it seems more people are coming around to the idea that once a loved one is gone it’s too troublesome to maintain a grave for the express purpose of extended mourning, which according to Buddhist dogma can last for decades.

Local governments are also turning to such services because it is beyond their capacity to store unclaimed remains in their possession. Thanks to the country’s family register system (koseki), if a person dies alone the authorities can contact relatives. But these days relatives often want nothing to do with the remains, and the authorities can’t force them to take them. In such cases, the remains are turned into powder and interred en masse in containers or buried. Some contractors “recycle” the remains and actually sell them as building materials.

And for those who wish to keep the ritual but are averse to keeping the family grave because of location or cost, they can opt for nokotsudo, multifloor structures usually built near train stations for maximum convenience, where remains are kept in storage and can be visited at any time. Depending on the wishes of the family, the actual remains can be viewed or the visitor can simply pray to a photo of the deceased while the remains stay in storage elsewhere in the building.

After all, mourning and praying for the soul of a loved one is something that takes place in the heart, and doesn’t require the physical presence of the deceased’s essence. In any case, the cost of keeping remains at a nokotsudo is only a fraction of what it is to lease a grave.

According to funeral researcher Midori Kotani during an interview on Tokyo MX TV, fewer people today care about the old formalities related to the dearly departed. The criteria now are “low cost and convenience.”

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan.