Summertime, and the dying is expensive

August 11th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku


Yoshida-san, we hardly knew ye

This is o-bon week in Japan, when the dead come back to visit the living briefly, so it’s as good a time as any to talk about the high cost of dying here. In 2009, 1.069 million humans were born in Japan as opposed to 1.44 million who died. Whatever that says about population shifts, morticians are obviously set to make a better living than obstetricians and midwives. In fact, the funeral business is doing horrendously well in Japan. The average funeral in Japan costs ¥2.31 million, about five times the average cost in the No. 2 funeral country, the United States (about ¥444,000). From there things just get reasonable: Korea, ¥373,000; Germany, ¥198,000; UK, ¥123,000.

The above figures are from theologian Hiroshi Shimada’s book “Soshiki wa Iranai” (Funerals Are Unnecessary). Obviously, Shimada doesn’t think much of the funeral business, mainly because it’s very much a business, even the so-called spiritual side. As the world now knows from the Oscar-winning movie “Okuribito,” the Japanese take very special care of dead bodies, but all that beauty of purpose and elaborate ritual comes with a price, and funeral homes try to make it easy for bereaved families by pulling all the various ceremonial necessities into a package that takes into consideration cremation, flowers; and because people are busy nowadays, the various time memorials, like the wake, the 7th-day observation, the 35th-day observation, etc., are all combined into a one-day funeral ceremony. The average price of the package is ¥1.5 million, with an extra ¥386,000 for feeding guests. This latter cost can be offset by the cash donations mourners traditionally bring to funerals, and Shimada again figures the average amount they will fork out is ¥750,000.

But all those sums still don’t add up to ¥2.31 million. The remainder is the payment that the family of the deceased pays to the temple where the remains will be interred. The priest who prays over the soul of the dead receives anywhere from ¥50,000 to ¥150,000, and that’s just for the prayer. Shimada points out what a racket this is by revealing that no one really knows how much one pays a Buddhist priest for a prayer, and so some people don’t take any chances and just give him way too much. Of course, he doesn’t refuse.

But the temple’s biggest charge is for bestowing a kaimyo, the special name that is given to an individual who becomes a Buddhist priest. Only in Japan, however, is this practice extended to the dead, who can basically become priests in the afterlife. And, as mentioned in an earlier post, the more money you pay, the better the posthumous name. Shimada says that Japanese temples basically make the bulk of their living not only from funeral rituals, but from this naming practice. Temples do not have regular services the way churches in the West do, and so do not have opportunities to collect contributions. They cater to the dead; or, more exactly, the survivors.

According to Shimada, this practice is maintained by a widespread belief that the law actually requires funerals, which, of course, isn’t true at all. “Processing” the dead is relatively inexpensive without the attendant ritual. The family must wait 24 hours after their loved one has been declared dead by the proper authority, and then they can just ship the body to a crematorium and collect the ashes. In fact, before World War II, most people did this and had ceremonies at home that did not involve morticians or priests. Again, you can blame urbanization. Most families don’t have the room in their condos to hold a funeral, nor the land to house a grave. The funeral business is also special in that customers tend to accept being gouged because of the somber circumstances: They’re vulnerable. Shimada says this aspect is changing somewhat. Families now actually ask funeral providers for cost breakdowns, whereas in the past they just received an unspecified bill and paid it.

Shimada is encouraged that Japanese are becoming more versatile with regard to funerals; scattering ashes and that sort of thing (though the legality of ash-throwing is tricky in Japan). Then, again, you can always opt for a Shinto ceremony, which is pretty elemental, and on average will set you back only ¥750,000.


One Response

  1. I remember my Japanese professor. His father died and he went home for a while , for the funeral and ceremonies. When he came back, he told us that he finds the funeral in Japan expensive and exaggerated. His siblings preferred to opt for more characters for their father’s Buddhist name and the estimated cost was more than 1 M yen (name alone).
    Japanese society is full of ceremonies, which means costly too.

    It’s hard to break tradition, but then,again, Japan is not the same as before. Economically, that is.


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