Definition: disposal of human remains in Japan
Time for another jolly post but this time about disposition. But why talk about such a topic during awareness month? Simply put, it is a problem that no-one talks about.
Global disposition options
The reason to address this first, it to highlight the differences between Japan and the rest of the world.
When considering disposition, 2 options usually come to mind: burial or cremation.
There are 2 main types of burial: natural burial and traditional burial. Natural burial is the type of burial that has been practiced for generations within the Jewish and Islamic communities and is slowly become more accepted in the western World- even though it has only been about 100 years since it was commonly practiced in the West.
A natural burial is simply burying a body, without any sort of preservation (embalming) in a grave to allow it to decompose and return to nature. In Islamic tradition, a body is washed, shrouded and buried within 24 hours.
Traditional burial (usually but not always) involves emblaming the body to help preserve it, placed into either a coffin or casket (yes there is a difference) and placed into a traditional cemetery with a burial vault (mostly in the US) or into the soil.
Side note: embalming fluid is highly carcinogenic and this fluid enters the water table…how nice.
The other main option is cremation. Cremation is the process in which all organic material (the body) and only non-organic calcium oxide and phosphorous pent-oxide remain. This process takes approximately 1-2 hours and in most countries, the bone fragments are, by law, ground up into the ash that we all know.
While there are different cremation services on offer, the simplist is known as direct cremation and just involves an organisation picking up the body, cremating it and returning the ashes.
The cost does differ on country but you are looking at approximately 1000 USD, 500 GBP plus, or 50,000 JPY (in Yokohama).
Other global options
- Alkaline hydrolysis: dissolving the body in an alkaline solution. Any organic material is not released into the air and breathed in by others, but instead go into the water system.
- Burial at sea: weighing down the body and allowing it to decompose in the ocean.
- Sky burial: breaking up the body and allowing it to be scavenged by animals- another way to “give back to nature”
- Human composting: allowing the body to be turned into compost and being reused
- Immurement: being placed into a mausoleum or tomb
- Mummification: a body is prepared and preserved to make it last a long time
- Plasternisation: think of the body works exhibit. It replaces body fats and fluid with plastic and it preserves the body.
- Donation: to either help future doctors (medical school use), help scientific research (including body farms and biomedical research, and military use (weapons testing – including biological)
- Cryonics: AKA cryogenics the art of freezing the body for possible future revival
*There are cultures that do practice cannibalism- sometimes for positives reasons (to keep them within the community) or negative reasons (because they could).
Disposition in Japan
Even though, legally, there are 2 options that are considered, in practice there is only 1: cremation.
While the UK’s cremation rate is about 70%, France’s at 20%, the cremation rate in Japan is above 99.5%- which is a fantastic number. Burrial is legal but is forbidden in most prefectures or as per local by-laws. Exceptions can be made for religious reasons but new graveyards are forbidden from burying bodies.
Problems with cremation in Japan
Japan has a severe aging population and over 1,000,000 people die each year in Japan. The problem is that even at the largest crematorium, there is still a “waiting list” for corpses.
There are more bodies than crematoria (the plural of crematorium) available and during the traditional Japanese funeral, the family waits in the “lobby” (actually is the funeral hall) while the body is being cremated. Then then pick out the bone fragments from the warm remains and place it in an urn.
Fun fact: this is the only time in Japan when it is acceptable for more than 1 chopstick to move an item at once. 2 people may need to work together to move a large bone fragment into the urn. So, if you do this in public, it may remind someone of this situation and cause flashbacks, so just don’t.
Alternatively, there is a growing trend: 直送 lit. direct delivery or direct cremation- as this is a much cheaper option. It is also the option for those that are from low income backgrounds, live or die alone or the homeless (their funerals are organised by a civil servant).
A traditional Japanese funeral service, not including cremation or the burial plot, ranges from 500,000 JPY to 2,000,000. Cremation usually ranges from 70,000 to 170,000 JPY and if a grave is wanted, prices usually range from 350,000 to 2,000,000 JPY. The final gaijin price range for everything is 920,000 JPY to 4,170,00 JPY (plus tax). This is a massive price: 8,400 USD to 38,000 JPY- considering the average price for a ‘massive’ funeral in Japan in $5,000- Japan is extraordinarily more expensive.
While it is cheaper if you do not require a plot or take the cremation price from Yokohama (12,000 JPY for residents and 50,000 for non-residents), or choose a small family orientated wake, you are sill looking at 3000+ USD.
Please note, I have NOT talked about the annual fees for grave maintenance, the headstone and other fees e.g. food and drink at funerals etc.
Other options for cremains (cremated remains)
- Internment in a home shrine (extremely traditional)
- Internment in a sky scraper grave
- Interment in another mass memorial
- Interment is a communal grave (extremely cheap option)
- Interment in a company grave
- spread on the winds (not really practiced in Japan)
- Shot into space (a small part of you only)
- up-cycled into jewelry, pictures etc
The Japanese problem
With the amount of dead bodies, and with the limited space available, there is no-where for the dead to go. The tradition of the family plot is unfeasible for those who live in major cities- even those within the industry, do not wish for a traditional Japanese funeral as it would put “too much pressure on their families”.
Cremation is the norm within Japan and will continue to be so- it was the way the Buddha was given back to nature after all. It is just strange that a funeral is so much more expensive than a wedding.
The one positive to Japanese death culture is simple: there is active death awareness. Unlike in the West, death is a taboo topic but with Japan’s death culture and festival (お盆- Obon which takes place in August) is is an active part of life.
Thank you for reading and happy exploring.