Package funeral services take the (financial) sting out of dying

August 30th, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Funeral hearse

Your ride’s here

The Tokyo metropolitan government  has launched a jumokuso service for individuals. Jumokuso means “tree funeral.” For a fee, a person can have his or her ashes buried at the foot of a tree planted in a special park in Kodaira. The financial advantage of this particular burial model is that the person pays only once. Most remains are interred in family graves located in graveyards that are managed by either local governments or religious entities. Graveyards require kanriryo (administration fees) in perpetuity.

In principle, a jumokuso customer will have his ashes mixed with other customers. It costs ¥134,000 for roughly cremated remains and ¥44,000 for remains that have already been reduced to ash (a more involved and thus more expensive process). Enough space for 10,700 people is being planned for the park, and the first group of 500 “plots” was recently sold via lottery. There were 8,169 applicants.

Obviously, many people are not attached to the traditional Japanese style of burial any more, and it probably has a lot to do with the traditional funerals that go with it, which can be extremely expensive. A recent Asahi Shimbun article described a woman in her 60s who was shocked when she received the bill for her husband’s funeral. The funeral service company had quoted ¥1.7 million for the whole thing, but the invoice came to ¥2.6 million.

The company explained that the quote was only for the coffin, the altar and personnel. The extra ¥900,000 was for other items that couldn’t be estimated prior to the service itself, such as rental for the venue and hearse, food and gifts for guests, and the priest’s fee. The company’s excuse is that it didn’t know how many people would be coming, and the woman’s indignant response was, “Well, that’s because you didn’t ask.” Apparently, this is standard operating procedure in the funeral business, and most funeral service companies get away with it because customers are usually too flustered with grief to haggle over prices.

But that seems to be changing thanks to the giant retailer Aeon, which started its own funeral service business in 2009. Legend has it that several employees who worked in the gift department of one of Aeon’s stores overheard some customers complaining that they weren’t getting straight answers about costs from a funeral service they were patronizing. The employees got the idea of starting their own service with all costs clearly explicated in a kind of menu form.

The business has been a huge success. Aeon now has contracts with 460 funeral homes nationwide and receives some 43,000 inquiries every month. The service offers six basic plans ranging in price from ¥298,000 to ¥1,480,000. This pays for the usual altar, coffin and personnel. Prices for all the extras, such as food and venue and hearse and even the priest, are listed so the customer can simply choose the ones he wants or needs.

The effect on the industry has been dramatic. According to the Japan Consumer Association, the average cost of a funeral in 2007 was ¥2.31 million. In 2010, a year after Aeon launched its service, the average cost had dropped to ¥1.99 million. Some companies have taken the low-cost funeral idea even further. One company, Uniquest, offers a — excuse the expression — bare bones service: no wake, no funeral, only a cremation ceremony, for ¥178,000. For ¥498,000 you can add the wake and funeral, but only for a limited number of family members. These prices also include the fee for the priest, whose price is infamously difficult to figure out under normal circumstances. Uniquest throws about 10,000 services a year, and enjoyed ¥4 billion in sales in 2011.

It’s obviously a growth industry, since the number of people dying is projected to increase from now on. Even Family Mart is getting into the funeral business. Would you like an urn with that onigiri?

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2 Responses

  1. I find the last line pretty funny and sympathies with an average Japanese people who take their financial difficulties even to the grave. Classical example of Humanity being sidelined by the lust for money.

  2. I used to work a cemetery and I have to say that it was interesting to see what went into it. The main point of the cost for people in the US is the Vault coffin and the opening and closing fee for the people that dig the holes and I’m sure the mortuary picked up some cash for the hurst and the service and whatnot as well.


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