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Sun, Jan 09, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Japanese way of death creates golden business opportunities

As Japan runs out of space to bury the dead, innovation -- from more efficient crematoria to rental graves and virtual cemeteries on the Internet -- is the foundation upon which empires are being built


Embalmer Kenichiro Hashizume, head of Grief Support International, Inc, speaks about his business at his embalming room in Tokyo. Hashizume, who got his degree at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, says, ``My father was a mortician. I had intended to go into a different line of work, but I realized there was a real need to be met here.''


Hidenobu Murakawa stops his tour for a moment and apologizes for the interruption. The crematorium is his pride and joy. He helped design it and he clearly loves to show it off. But it's the midday crunch, and he doesn't want to disturb the bereaved.

With 15,000 cremations each year, this sprawling facility on Tokyo's western outskirts is the busiest in Japan. About 40 cremations are carried out here each day, though Murakawa boasts that he has accommodated as many as 94.

"Turnover is everything," he said as a procession of mourners walked back slowly from a row of ebony-and-gold oven doors at the end of a black marble hall, the smell of incense lingering in the air. "We're not a government-run operation. This is a private business."

And, as the crowds attest, business is booming.

Few nations are as rich as the Japanese, or as enamored of high-tech and the pageantry of life's rites of passage. With precious little space left for traditional graves, innovation -- from more efficient crematoria to virtual graveyards on the Internet -- is the foundation upon which empires are being built.

Of course, there's more at work than mere business savvy.

Japan's population is one of the most rapidly aging in the world. Families are increasingly fragmented, leaving no one to care for the old-style communal burial plots. And despite Japan's vast material wealth, the nation continues to struggle to find a spiritual identity.

But, even in death, there is no escape from the bottom line.

A typical funeral -- just the ceremony -- averages about ?3.5 million (US$33,000), compared with under US$10,000 -- plot and everything -- in the US or UK.

Though practically universal here, the cremation itself is a carefully packaged deal.

Murakawa, a former garbage incineration facility manager, explained that the 15 ovens at his crematorium are divided into three grades. For those willing to pay the extra fee, there are two "A" ovens, which have their own private hallway, a spacious area for viewing the remains afterward and various other accessories.

At the row of eight economy-class ovens, mourning parties pay their respects side-by-side.

"We try to provide dignity for all," he said. "But privacy is a commodity."

Murakawa's employer, Toda Mortuary, is a huge complex with morgue, private viewing rooms and reception halls. There's even a row of small apartments for people whose own homes are too humble to host a wake. At a separate out-of-town site, Toda offers regular graves, graves for groups, rental graves.

"Over there," Murakawa said, pointing across a parking lot filled with elaborately gilded hearses, "we're building another crematorium, just for pets."

Traditionally, after cremation Japanese are interred in family plots, usually on or near the grounds of Buddhist temples.

Plots can contain the memorial stones and ashes of several generations, each ancestor bearing a new name bestowed by priests for the afterlife. Fees to the priests can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how auspicious the name is deemed to be.

But tiny Japan, bursting with the living, has pretty much run out of space for the dead.

Tokyo's Aoyama Cemetery, renowned for its cherry trees and uptown location, is Japan's most famous graveyard. Since it opened in 1874, the remains of more than 110,000 people have been interred there, including politicians, writers, artists and actors.

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