Every year hundreds of professionals convene at the annual ENDEX show. Known as the life-ending industry exhibition, the conference gathers leading companies showcasing their funeral service lines for the coming year.
There are many things you'd expect, the latest hearse models, a variety of tombstones, and numerous selections of ceremonial incense. Yet, some exhibitions occasionally make headlines: the roll-out of a robot funeral priest, the development of the pet funeral industry.
Media interest in the ENDEX exhibition and the industry as a whole speaks to a developing pain point in Japanese society. Undertaking responsibilities are increasingly straining families, funeral parlors, crematoriums, and budgets.
Spend some time in Japan, and it's quickly apparent that the country has lopsided demographics. On public transportation, in particular, there is a majority of middle-aged passengers and a disproportionate number of senior citizens. Frequently, there is a surprising lack of young people.
Numbers corroborate this observation. In Japan, approximately 33% of residents are 65 or over. Grayer citizens tend to live in rural communities that young people have long since abandoned. As such, these aging and economically isolated communities are beginning to struggle from a decline in resources. A dismal fertility rate worsens the problem: only 12% of the population is 0-14 years old.
Such disparity results in some odd statistics. As of 2008, the number of deaths exceeded births as the fertility rate hit record lows. Strangely enough, Japanese consumers purchase more adult diapers than baby diapers.
More problematic, however, is the economic effect such a steep population triangle has. The average retirement age in Japan is around 60. Pension benefits begin at 65, and with a third of the population eligible, funds are being squeezed. Some politicians are starting to admit there may be budgetary shortfalls as an increasingly limited labor force could effectively signal population collapse.
Sadly, families are struggling to pay their final respects properly. Traditional funerals in Japan are involved, steeped in elaborate and expensive Buddhist-Shinto customs. Although families desperately want to say goodbye with dignity, limited resources and stagnate salaries are making it more and more difficult for most to do so.
As a result, seniors and their families are breaking with tradition as they say goodbye on their own terms. They are making the necessary changes to limit costs while ensuring the deceased are well cared for. The undertaking industry is responding to this societal shift by introducing new services to meet families' changing needs.
In Japan, the deceased are often cremated, and several ceremonies take place around the custom. However, with crematoriums experiencing growing demand, families find themselves waiting for extended periods, sometimes a week or more.
During such strained circumstances, morgues are typically employed to hold bodies. However, according to Hisao Takegishi, a former funeral home director, morgues are unable to properly accommodate support grieving relatives as they await the final send-off.
Takegishi now heads Sou Sou, one of many corpse hotels helping to cover the lapse in care. In the case of crematorium backlogs, families can rent a room for their loved one's remains. They are allowed to decorate the room and are even allowed to stay the night if desired. Such services offer closure and ease anxieties during a difficult time.
Ruriden’s Glass Buddha Wall
As Japan's population grays, burial plots are increasingly expensive and hard to come by. Premium plots cost money, have long waiting lists, and require costly maintenance.
In reaction, overwhelmed families are increasingly turning to modernized charnel houses to care for the remains of the deceased. The burial houses can be surprisingly high-tech while costing a fraction of the price.
Ruriden is one such charnel house that has received a lot of online attention. Located in Tokyo, the futuristic temple houses 2000 deceased people. The remains of individuals are placed in lockers located in a giant wall of psychedelic, LED buddhas. Visiting family members simply swipe a card when entering. As they prepare to pray, the statue associated with their family member lights up, making it readily identifiable on the crowded temple wall.
DIY Funeral Kit
As mentioned, pressure is mounting to keep funeral costs down as typical services run as much as 1.5 million yen. To that end, Tsubasa Public Utility Co is offering cost-cutting DIY coffins complete with a cremation urn. At a fraction of the cost, the kit comes with an instruction booklet, a viewing glass, and everything needed to help the departed rest.
While the idea may seem odd, the DIY funeral kit speaks to a real need. With residents living longer, pension funds drying up, and families experiencing tightening budgets, there is an immediate need to keep costs down.
Yet, money isn't the only consideration. Elderly mourners may have difficulty accessing services why others just don't have the time. Some funeral homes in Japan are offering drive-through services to make things simpler.
Mourners can pull up in cars or mobility assist vehicles and perform all the traditional rights. They can write their names on tablets, pray, and provide a donation. They can even burn incense, all without going into the funeral home.
Post Mortem Services For Singles
Behind Japan's ailing fertility rate is another worrying indicator—the number of perennially single adults in Japan. Adults, burdened by intense business cultures and dire work-life balances, many have little time for romance, let alone dating. As such, many are forgoing families while living alone.
As such, on the other end of life, more residents are finding themselves isolated throughout old age. For everyone's final costs to be taken care of, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank is offering postmortem services for singles preparing for the hereafter.
The service manages clerical work for burial services, household cleaning services, friend and next of kin notifications, and a litany of the responsibilities involved.
The bank conducts its services by regularly sending emails to contractees. If an email is ignored, staff are dispatch to follow-up on the customer's condition. As 40% of Japanese residents aged 65 and over live alone, the financial house is preparing for tens of thousands of contracts.
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