Life changes but death remains the same, you’d think, but it’s no longer true. Diversity in life begets diversity in death, or at least in the disposal of our remains, says Shukan Post (Dec 25).
Funerals, symbolizing the sacredness of life, used to be solemn, reverential affairs, one very much like another, the presiding priest setting the tone, tradition ruling supreme. Imagine how shocking it was when, in 1993, actress Takiko Mizunoe held a “living funeral.” She was 78 and very much alive, but death was on her mind and the idea of dying seemed rather a lark – why not make a party of it? By the time she died in 2009, aged 94, funerals, for many had become parties.
There were other changes as well. The astronomic costs of a traditional funeral (reportedly the highest in the world) sparked a rebellion at last as the economy shrank. Private companies began offering funerals as they would any other product, appealing on the basis of cost effectiveness and personal appeal. Everybody is different, my life is not your life – why should all funerals be the same? No reason at all, was the swelling consensus. Among the results we see today are “balloon funerals” (ashes floating off into space in helium balloons), “natural funerals” (ashes scattered in the mountains, at sea, under a favorite cherry tree), “rocket funerals” (just lately coming into their own and literally involving the rocketing of ashes into deep space) – or no funeral at all: “You die, you’re cremated, the end,” shrugged Yuya Shimada in his 2010 book “Soshiki wa Iranai” (“We Don’t Need Funerals”).
There is a darker side to all this, Shukan Post points out. It lies in the unraveling family ties suggested by a response pollsters frequently receive to the question of why an alternative funeral is preferable to a traditional one: “I don’t want to burden the children.” In an idealized past, tending the ancestors’ graves wasn’t a burden at all but a deeply meaningful and enduring bond with one’s own past. A desire not to burden the children hints at an awareness that the children don’t want to be burdened – a thought to cast a shadow on one’s last years. Deepening the melancholy strain is the growing number of elderly people living and dying alone. They must make their own arrangements, which include graves that require no tending.
And so Shukan Post introduces us to what might be called the convenience-store funeral. The magazine takes us to a five-story building in central Tokyo, each story a collection of “worship booths.” You insert a card into a card reader and are admitted into a booth. On a liquid-crystal display screen appears the deceased’s posthumous name. A door opens and a miniature granite “grave” emerges. Affiliated with a temple in Kanazawa, the facility opened in 2013 and claims to have sold 1100 of the available 3758 “graves.” Price: 1.5 million yen – not cheap, certainly not the cheapest alternative burial available (a “nature funeral” would be under 200,000 yen), but when you consider the 2.3 million yen a tradition funeral can run to, it is attractively economical.
Even traditional gravestones are evolving as stone processing technology and techniques develop. More and more people want to be laid to rest under a stone of their own choosing or design. Without doing violence to traditional Buddhist motifs, the result can look like something that would not be out of place in a modern art museum. It is a new, less frightening face of death – one of many, with many more no doubt to come.© Japan Today