High-tech funeral rites in Japan

High-tech funeral rites in Japan

Masayo Isurugi settles into a cubicle on the sixth floor of an elegant Tokyo building, identifies himself with a smart card, and waits for an automated system to hand her a box containing her husband’s urn.

The 60-year-old widow is among a small but growing group of people in Japan who are choosing modern facilities like Kuramae Ryoen to break away from traditional funeral rites and family tombs typically found in rural areas.

While Isurugi waits in the booth, an automated stacker crane moves silently behind the wall and selects the “zushi,” the vessel containing the urn containing her husband Go’s ashes.

Sliding wooden doors open gently like a luxury hotel elevator, revealing a gleaming black stone altar with the requisite “zushi” at its center, while a screen next to it projects a photo of Go.

“First he told me that this type of service might lack warmth and that he preferred a traditional grave in the ground,” Isurugi told AFP.

“But now I find it better to have a place to go when I want to pray than a family vault that I rarely visit,” because it’s a two-hour train ride away, he explains.

In Japan, tradition dictates that the ashes of a deceased should rest in a family tomb that has been in use for generations. The older children are usually responsible for tending the grave and making the annual payment to the cemetery.

But the accelerated aging of Japan’s population and rural exodus have created an imbalance between the number of graves that need to be maintained and the number of younger generations willing to tend them.

“I have a traditional cemetery in this temple with about 300 graves,” says Tomohiro Hirose, a monk at the Buddhist temple who also leads services at Kuramae Ryoen.

“But there are no longer any parents tending half of the graves. The family transmission has been lost. They will quickly be forgotten if they are not already,” he explains.

Faced with this problem, more modern cemeteries have sprung up that propose keeping the ashes for a specific period of time, usually three decades.

These urns are kept in columbaria. But the names of each deceased, sometimes replaced by QR codes, are engraved on personal plaques, and the monks continue to pray for their souls.

Behind the Kuramae Ryoen collection stalls is an automated warehouse worthy of an industrial concern, which can house up to 7,000 “zushi” containing multiple urns from the same family.

The device was supplied by Daifuku, a Japanese company specializing in logistics systems that was the first to offer an automated solution for a Japanese temple in the 1990s.

Since then, Daifuku has built “similar systems for about 60 funeral homes” in Japan, Hidenobu Shinnaka, a company employee, told AFP, adding that other Asian countries are interested in their services.

These new cemeteries offer families another advantage: their cost. According to Kamakura Shinsho, a cemetery brokerage company, buying a spot in one of them costs about $7,000, half that of a traditional grave.

At another Tokyo temple, Kokokuji, more than 2,000 glass statuettes of the Buddha adorn the walls of an octagonal room. Each of them symbolizes the members of a family whose ashes are kept at that location and lights up when a relative is digitally identified.

The room can be lit by complexes if needed, or emit more muted colors to aid in remembrance.

Technology doesn’t change the way we pray for the dead, defends Taijun Yajima, the monk who created this room. “I was wondering how people can rest in a warm environment, and here’s the answer,” he says.