The business of death: Profiting from loss in Japan

Drive-through funeral parlours and virtual gravestones are latest examples of how bereavement is being transformed

Sobbing relatives huddled in grief; a final kiss on the frigid forehead of the deceased, the solemn march to the graveyard. For millions of people, the comforting rituals of mourning follow the pain of bereavement. Now a company in central Japan has dispensed with all that by building a drive-through funeral home.

Mourners queue in cars outside the parlour in Ueda city, Nagano, use an electronic tablet that registers their names, then leave koden (incense money, condolatory gift for the deceased's family) and mutter a prayer, all without leaving the comfort of their car seats. The bereaved family watches from a monitor.

Funerals in Japan are being transformed by the country’s collapsing demographics. Last year there were 300,000 more deaths than births. As the postwar baby-boomers who transformed the nation into an economic superpower pass away, bereavement has become a two trillion-yen (€15 billion) industry. By 2040, deaths are likely to peak annually at about 1.7 million.

Visiting and maintaining graves, long a core cultural ritual, is declining along with the gradual demise of tight-knit families and the falling population. City dwellers increasingly question the expense of keeping costly ancestral plots in the countryside that few visit, says Hiroyuki Ikeda, manager of a funeral services in Kawasaki, outside Tokyo.


In some big cities, budget-priced indoor graveyards have opened to help families avoid the expense and inconvenience of country plots often hundreds of miles away. Ruriden in Tokyo is equipped with locker-sized boxes containing the ashes of hundreds of people (almost all Japanese funerals end in cremation). The companylists prices and walking distances to local train stations.

Customised funerals, pre-death portraits and ash-scattering outings by groups to the ocean are among the services now available to ease the passage to the next world. The old are increasingly confronting the taboo of death by planning their own services, writing farewell letters, choosing their own coffins and making records of their lives.

One funeral-arranger encourages elderly clients to write a "love letter from heaven", delivered to family and friends after death. A fixed package includes an optional DVD, in which the soon-to-be-bereaved sends posthumous greetings and a digital trip down memory lane.

Scanning the codes embedded in headstones with cell phones connects family members to memorabilia, photos and videos of the deceased from an online site

In place of the grim photographs hastily placed on funeral alters after death in Japan, the firm offers a tailored portrait service particularly popular with women, says a company spokesman. “They prefer portraits that make them look younger; there’s less need to retake them afterwards.”

A company called Ishinokoe (Voice of the Stone) is selling QR barcodes, which are embedded in headstones. Scanning the codes with cell phones connects family members to memorabilia, photos and videos of the deceased from an online site linked to the virtual family gravesite.

These services are typically pragmatic Japanese solutions to the problems of a greying society. "We are seeing more elderly people in wheelchairs who can't get out of cars," says Masao Ogiwara, president of the company that runs the Ueda funeral parlour. "It takes them a lot of effort to come to services and in many cases they can't come at all. So we try to help them."

Economics helps drive the innovation. Japan is one of the most expensive places to die on the planet. The cost of a typical funeral runs to about three million yen (€23,000), including a fee paid to a Buddhist priest to chant sutras for the souls of the dead. Buddhist temples can charge up to 400,000 yen to compose a posthumous name for the deceased, known as a Kaimyo.

Funeral homes typically take advantage of a cultural unwillingness to haggle during a period of mourning. Customers are sometimes not even offered quotes for funeral services before beginning the burial process. Confronted with the exorbitant final tab, many wince, swallow hard and stump up the cash.

Like the old Latin Catholic mass, each step of the burial process is highly ritualised – and often barely comprehensible to the people paying for it. Procedure dictates that relatives must slide up to the new corpse and mutter a set phrase that means: "The facial expression is so very peaceful." Few can follow the sutras chanted during the ceremony.

Some of the latest industry innovations were displayed recently at an event in Tokyo's Big Site, an exhibition centre. Among the exhibits is a sutra-chanting robot, dressed in the robes of a Buddhist priest. Rural depopulation has left many Buddhist temples struggling to recruit priests. One estimate is that 40 per cent of Japan's 75,000 Buddhist temples could be gone by 2040.

Exotic options were once unheard of in Japan but businesses must try to stay one step ahead of customers

Amazon Japan has jumped in with an online monk-for-hire, who chants sutras at the click of a mouse. Yahoo Ending, operated by Internet giant Yahoo, sells a bereavement package that deletes internet accounts, sends farewell messages to friends from the other side, and automatically launches a memorial page filled with photos, video clips, and a bio.

Or why not take the powdered bones of a husband or wife, have them mixed with ceramic or quartz and fashioned into a pendant? "Do you want to stay together forever with that special person in their life?" asks In Blooms, one of many companies that now makes accessories for the bereaved. "We're here for you."

Exotic options like that were once unheard of in Japan but businesses must try to stay one step ahead of customers, says Ogiwara of the drive-through funeral home, which opens in October. Mourners just want to pay their respects, he says, but many work, and funerals often fall during the day. “Now they don’t have to change out of their work clothes. They can stay in their cars and say farewell as the deceased departs for the other world.”