You step inside and, at first glance, it looks like any other hotel lobby, but the uniformed concierge who answers the check-in clerk’s call leads you to a door that opens on a white-walled, 10-mat room in the center of which is a coffin. There is no polite way to say this. The Sousou Hotel in Kawasaki accommodates dead bodies. It’s part of an already large, rapidly spreading infrastructure for a rising trend: death with stripped-down funerals. Or no funerals at all.
Death is not what it used to be. It can’t possibly be, says Shukan Post (April 21). The sheer numbers militate against it – of the dying, the aging, the solitary who have no family near at hand (or anywhere) to see to last rites and tend ancestral graves with the loving care once taken for granted.
Health ministry statistics tell part of the tale. In 2015, there were 1.3 million deaths nationwide. In 2030, there will likely be 1.6 million. As more and more people live alone, more and more people die alone. In 2030, the ministry says, 27 million senior citizens will be looking ahead to a solitary death, perhaps unnoticed for days or weeks.
The elderly of past generations faced death with comforting thoughts of friends and loved ones seeing them off with rites of mourning – a wake, a funeral, prayers at fixed intervals, graveside visits by children and grandchildren. That still happens, but no longer as a matter of course. Even a loving family finds itself up against a demographic wall. The crematoria are swamped. They have more business than they can handle. At one end of the age scale: a waiting list to get into daycare facilities. At the other end: a waiting list to get cremated.
“When my mother died last year, the crematorium said we’d have to wait 10 days,” a 55-year-old company employee tells Shukan Post. “Dry ice won’t keep a body intact for 10 days. Reluctantly, I gave up on taking her home and left her with them. Thinking of her in something like a refrigerator for 10 days was very painful.”
The Sousou Hotel is run by Hisao Takekishi, who saw a growing number of people who for one reason and another could not be sped from deathbed to funeral and beyond. Interim accommodation for corpses sounds morbid but serves a growing purpose. When he opened for business in October 2014, he waited a long time for his first client. Slowly the initial aversion wore off. In 2015, he saw a 73% occupancy rate; in 2016, 90%. The average stay, at 9,000 yen a day, is 3-4 days.
The funeral is evolving. It may be evolving out of existence. Attempts to preserve it include new thinking on traditionally (by the Buddhist calendar) unlucky days for funerals. Maybe they’re lucky after all. They are in one sense: the crematoria are largely unbooked on those days. As more people in this less superstitious age take advantage of that, the opening is likely to be temporary.
Perhaps in the end it won’t matter. If prayer is a movement of the heart and burial a mere disposal problem, the proliferating internet rent-a-priest services, or organizations that take charge, with presumably varying degrees of ritual respect, of the ashes of the deceased, need not rob death of its solemnity. Nor is it trivial that the costs involved are a fraction of those of traditional funerals.© Japan Today