When a loved one dies, you want to say goodbye properly. A generation ago everyone knew what “properly” meant. Funerals were Buddhist, formal, crowded with friends and relatives and acquaintances, and very expensive.
Something new crept in during the 1990s. In 1993, actress Takiko Mizunoe held a “living funeral.” She was 78. Death felt imminent. Why not make a party out of it? She ended up living to age 94, but the funeral revolution she’d helped launch while very much alive proved lasting.
The collapse of the bubble economy in the mid-90s forced other changes. No disrespect intended, but cost mattered. Funerals shrank. Private enterprise entered a field once monopolized by Buddhist temples. Competition brought prices down.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in short, did not spawn the modern funeral. But fear of infection is accelerating a trend already well underway. A funeral now is more likely than ever to be small, informal and, says Shukan Josei (July 28), quirkily original.
At the peak of the bubble in the 1980s, the magazine recalls, the average Japanese funeral was attended by 280 mourners. The bubble’s bursting drove the numbers down to 30-40 in Tokyo, 50-60 in the provinces. Now, the pandemic raging, we’re talking 5-10 mourners in Tokyo, 20 on average nationwide.
Why have a funeral at all? It’s not a new question, and imaginative substitutes were devised beginning around 20 years ago – the burial of ashes at sea or beneath beloved cherry trees; the launching of ashes into space via balloon; and so on.
But it acquires fresh urgency in the new coronavirus era now upon us. More than ever, Shukan Josei informs us, funerals are moving online.
A company called Life Ending Technologies is at the forefront. “Buddhist priests were cancelling services due to the virus,” explains company executive Kyoichi Kurimoto. “So we started thinking, ‘What can we do?’” The possibility that emerged was to make the funerary sutra-reading “like telework.” The priest reads, and mourners “attend” the funeral while safe at home – online.
Nor need you dispense with such funeral customs as offerings of money and flowers. The metaphor here is not telework but online shopping. What earlier generations would have found bewildering, if not downright irreverent, is second nature now.
Then there’s the “drive-through” funeral. This, too, is spreading under the influence of the virus. A photograph accompanying Shukan Josei’s report makes it look very much like drive-through dining, except that the young woman carrying a tray to the car is not a waitress, and on the tray is not lunch but incense, an incense burner and other funerary appurtenances. You perform the rites of mourning in your car, “driving through.”
With no end in sight to the pandemic, the funeral as we once knew it is an increasingly endangered species. Not, Shukan Josei reminds us, that funerals are especially dangerous. In fact, it says, there’s been only one confirmed infection traceable to a funeral – in Ehime Prefecture in March. But COVID-19 is changing almost everything about the way we live. How can it not change the way we die?© Japan Today