From dispatching Buddhist monks to connecting grieving families with affordable funeral homes, Osaka-based end-of-life startup Uniquest Inc. is among the many firms that have been capitalizing on the growing preference toward simple, cheaper funerals and greater efficiency and personalization of services.

That trend is likely to accelerate as the novel coronavirus is leading to self-quarantines and cancellations of public events, prompting the bereaved to tone down rituals traditionally associated with death in Japan.

“The erosion of the nuclear family has seen a surge in elderly, often single-person households and growing interest in simple, affordable funerals,” said Daichi Kuroki, a marketing director at Uniquest, which runs an online funeral service platform called Chiisana Ososhiki, which translates to “small funeral.”

“I don’t think the funeral industry as a whole will be severely impacted by the pandemic compared to other sectors, but the coronavirus will likely ramp up demand for smaller funerals.”

In a shrinking, graying population where deaths have outpaced births for over a decade, funerals and related services are big business with a market of ¥2 trillion by some calculations. In 2019, the estimated number of births fell to 864,000 — the lowest since records began in 1899 — while the number of deaths marked a postwar high of 1.376 million, according to the health ministry.

Kamakura Shinsho, a publisher and internet company focusing on funeral services, said in a 2017 report that the average number of mourners at a funeral is 64. Based on 2019 census figures, that means up to 7.34 million Japanese could be participating in funeral services every month.

While Japan is one of the least-affected among developed nations hit by the coronavirus, with 2,603 cases, including 712 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and 66 deaths reported as of Sunday, concerns are mounting over an explosive epidemic leading to widespread lockdowns across the nation. And as practicing good hygiene and social distancing becomes the norm, funeral attendance is declining, and memorial services are being postponed and even canceled, Kuroki said.

Uniquest, which partners with over 4,000 funeral parlors nationwide and has mediated over 200,000 funerals to date for as cheap as ¥119,000, released a new service earlier this month that allows its clients to receive the customary kōden, or condolence money, via online payments. While the service is aimed at mourners who are physically or geographically incapable of attending funeral ceremonies to pay their respects, Kuroki said it may also become useful during pandemics when social gatherings are frowned upon, or even prohibited.

“We didn’t anticipate the virus when we were creating the system,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tokyo-based funeral service startup Yoriso Co. offers a limited-time option allowing the bereaved who are worried about COVID-19 to go ahead with the cremation of the deceased while postponing funeral and memorial services to a later date. While the plan was initially available for those applying between March 1 and this Tuesday, the company extended the period to April 30 considering the severity of the situation.

“We have been receiving daily calls from people worried about the virus and interested in the option,” said Katsumoto Nakahara, an executive officer at Yoriso, which works with around 900 funeral homes and 1,300 Buddhist monks.

Firms like Yoriso and Uniquest have been offering more transparent fees and packaged services to address the complicated rituals and unclear pricing associated with traditional funerals in the aging nation. The population of those age 65 or older stood at 35.88 million in 2018, up 320,000 from a year earlier, and accounted for 28.4 percent of the population, according to the communications ministry.

A typical Buddhist funeral involves a wake over the deceased by the immediate family, followed by a funeral the following day. During these ceremonies, guests customarily offer money to the bereaved and burn incense at temples and other venues as hired monks chant sutras before an altar.

The encoffined body of the deceased is then carried in an ornate hearse to a crematorium. Family and close friends collect bone fragments for a cinerary urn, and the event wraps up with a reception. Funeral fees, however, vary widely depending on the funeral home, with surveys putting the price tag at a general range of ¥1 million to ¥2 million.

While Yoriso offers the full deal for around ¥500,000, it also provides cheaper alternatives including a ¥253,000 one-day funeral that skips the wake.

“We’re similar to a sharing economy-based business in how we negotiate cheaper rates with funerals parlors by introducing them to new clients and allowing them to operate their facilities on days that may have otherwise been idle,” Nakahara said.

“But while the demand for funerals continues to grow, the pandemic is leading to direct financial loss for some, with receptions being canceled due to fear of contagion.”

In a questionnaire Kamakura Shinsho conducted earlier this month, 90 percent of the 128 funeral companies surveyed responded that the number of funeral guests are declining due to COVID-19 and that they believe that trend will continue.

Meanwhile, roughly 60 percent of the 2,000 people surveyed who have hosted or attended funeral ceremonies over the past 30 months wanted funeral homes to install alcohol disinfectants at the entrance of funeral halls, a request that is becoming increasingly difficult to meet due to the shortage of resources. What’s more, the situation is impacting those working on the front lines to treat the dead.

Katsuji Mizusaki, a ritual mortician who heads a company in Tokyo, said he and his staff have run out of facial masks and are reusing them. The company’s supply of alcohol disinfectants is also being diminished, he said. “I think we will run out in two or three months unless we can stock up again,” he said.

Mizusaki said funeral supplies including coffins are also running short, since many are made in factories in China struggling to reopen after the coronavirus shut down the economy.

And while it is advised that those who have died from COVID-19 be packed in a body bag at the medical institution and sent directly to crematoriums with minimal dressing and cosmetic enhancements, Mizusaki said he is worried of coming into contact with others who have died from pneumonia. “Maybe they weren’t tested — there’s no way for us to know.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.