His cremation would break a 400-year burial custom

Japan’s Emperor Akihito surprised the nation last month when palace officials announced plans for his funeral. His wishes for a relatively modest one and the act of planning ahead were widely seen as a good example in this rapidly aging country.

Akihito (who turned 80 earlier in the week), is still active, having made an official visit to India in November with his wife, Empress Michiko (79). But concerns have grown since he had heart bypass surgery nearly two years ago on top of prostate cancer earlier.

After an expert panel discussion for more than a year, the palace announced that Emperor Akihito would be cremated, and his remains placed in a mausoleum smaller than those of his predecessors, with Empress Michiko by his side at the Imperial compound in western Tokyo. His cremation would break a 400-year burial custom of the world’s oldest monarchy, as he wishes to trim cost, space and burden on the people, officials said.

The revelation was well received in the world’s fastest-greying nation, where 20 years from now one in three people will be senior citizens. Eroding traditions and changing demographics mean many of them lack younger relatives to look after their affairs or their graves.

“I really empathise with their feelings,” said Setsuko Imamura, a former part-time kimono-dressing instructor who turned 79 this month, and has been planning for her life’s end for some time. She has sorted out her finances, written a will and selected her favourite kimono for her burial, all kept in a box. She doesn’t want a ceremony.

Now, she is trying to reserve a spot in a group tomb, which would cost 300,000 yen ($2,900) per participant. That way her remains wouldn’t be abandoned. And someone, living members of the group or their relatives, would visit the tomb and lay flowers. “My husband and I didn’t have children, so we had agreed not to leave anything behind, and that’s how I want to live through the end,” she said. “I don’t want to trouble anyone.”

Ms. Imamura represents a growing segment of Japan’s expanding elderly population, particularly women who often outlive their husbands and are likely to die alone.

A 2011 national survey by Ibaraki Christian University sociology professor Kenji Mori showed that only about 60 per cent of Japanese had a gravesite with relatives to take care of it. The majority considered funeral ceremonies an obligation, and about 40 per cent worried the arrangements would cause trouble for relatives and neighbours.

More and more Japanese in their 60s and 70s are planning for their own deaths, just like the royal couple. A majority in Mr. Mori’s survey said funeral ceremonies should reflect the wishes of the dead.

Funerals used to be send-off rituals conducted by neighbours or families of the dead, but now the rituals are affected by business incentives and have lost their traditional meaning, Mr. Mori said.

“Life after retirement is long and many people are healthy and active. I think they want to take care of their concerns early on so they can enjoy the rest of their lives without lingering uncertainty,” said Kazuhiro Yoshida, a spokesman for Aeon’s funeral-related services.

The 2008 Oscar-winning film Departures, about a man who prepares bodies for funerals, inspired many Japanese to think and talk more openly about the topic.

At the high-tech temple Daitokuin, where indoor graves are operated by Nichiryoku Co., visitors can pray for up to eight of their loved ones at one of about two dozen card-operated booths, each housing a tombstone with changing nameplates for each family.

Nichiryoku and other companies also provide an after-death house-cleaning service for people who die on their own.

Masahiko Muraki from Nichiryoku, said he expects the need for the service would grow in coming years. “People finally started realising there is so much to do,” he said.

“It’s not just about funeral and grave. We’re all responsible for deciding the process leading up to the end of our lives.”

More In: World | International | News