When funeral rites become high tech

Posted on Thursday, April 21, 2022 at 06:59

Settled in a room on the sixth floor of an elegant building in Tokyo, Masayo Isorugi identified herself with a smart card and waits for an automated system that presents her with a box containing her husband’s funeral urn.

The 60-year-old widow is one of a small but growing number of people in Japan who are choosing to move away from the traditional funeral rites and family crypts often found in the countryside in favor of facilities like Kurama-ryu.

While Mrs. Isorugi waits in the cabin, an automated stacking crane moves behind the wall almost silently and selects “Zoshi,” the box containing her husband’s urn, Joe’s ashes.

Then gorgeous wooden sliding doors open, like an elevator in a luxury hotel, to reveal a shimmering black stone altar with the coveted ‘zushi’ in the center, while an image of Go appears on a screen beside it.

“I initially thought that this kind of service might lack warmth and that I might prefer the traditional grave on the floor,” Isorogi told AFP.

“But now I think it’s better to have somewhere I can go when I want to pray, rather than a family basement that I can rarely visit” because it’s two hours away by train, she adds.

– neglected heritage graves –

In Japan, it is customary to place the ashes of the deceased in a family vault that has been used for several generations. Eldest sons are generally responsible for maintaining the tomb and paying annual cemetery expenses.

However, the accelerating aging of the Japanese population and the mass exodus from the countryside have created an imbalance between the number of tombs that need to be preserved and the number of young people willing to take care of them.

“I have a traditional cemetery in this temple, with about 300 graves,” said Tomohiro Hirose, a Buddhist temple monk who also runs the Kurama Ryoen services.

“But there are no more relatives to keep about half of the graves. The family transmission has been lost. Soon they will be neglected, or they are already neglected.”

Faced with this problem, more modern cemeteries have appeared, offering to preserve ashes for a certain period of time up to three decades in general.

Ash is preserved in columbarium complexes. But the names of each deceased, even QR codes are engraved on personalized plates, and the monks continue to pray for the souls of the deceased.

– Buddha statues made to order –

Behind the meditation cabins of Kurami Ryu hide a robotic warehouse worthy of an industrial complex, capable of storing 7,000 “zushi”, each of which could contain the ashes of many members of the same family.

The device was supplied by Daifuku, a Japanese company specializing in logistics systems which considered itself the first to introduce such an automated solution to a Japanese temple, in the 1990s.

Daifuku “has built such systems for about 60 burial sites” in Japan, Hidenobu Shinaka, an official with the company, has since told AFP, adding that other countries in Asia would also be interested.

These tombs of a new type have another advantage for families: their cost. Buying a place in one costs about 6,500 euros, half the cost of a traditional cemetery, according to Kamakura Shinsho, a company associated with cemeteries.

At another Tokyo temple, Kokokuji, more than 2,000 glass statues of Buddha adorn the walls of an octagonal space. Each one symbolizes members of the same family whose ashes are kept at the site, and lights up when a loved one digitally identifies themselves.

They can also light up the entire space on request, or produce different subdued colors to aid in meditation.

Technology does not change the way we pray for the dead, says Taejun Yajima, the monk behind the creation of this space: “I wondered how these people could rest in a warm environment, and here is the answer.”

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