For people who are unable or unwilling to arrange ceremonies for interring their relatives' ashes in tombs, the option of putting the deceased's remains into a parcel and then sending them to a temple is becoming increasingly common.
Aided by a host of temples across the country and using a Japan Post Co. parcel service, this emerging "human remains delivery service" is a back-up option for those who cannot afford to pay for burials, or who feel too detached from the deceased relative to hold a conventional send-off.
People can use one of the many intermediary firms appearing online to help them send remains to a participating temple. One such company is Nagoya-based Pro Co., which has links to about 40 temples across Japan, and which handles about 30 to 50 applications per month. Since its foundation in 2010, Pro Co.'s services, which cost about 30,000 yen to 50,000 yen each, are becoming more popular.
One person who has recently sent human remains in the post is a 65-year-old man who lives alone in the Kanagawa prefectural city of Atsugi. At the end of April, he sent the remains of his one-time common-law spouse in a Japan Post "Yu-Pack" parcel to a nonprofit organization in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, which supports people struggling to find a resting place for their deceased loved ones.
About two years ago, the man found the then 52-year-old woman dead in her apartment nearby, after she had hanged herself. Their relationship as partners had finished but the man continued to look after her due to her ill health. The day after her body was found, the man received a telephone call from the police saying, "The woman's relatives have asked for it to be known 'they couldn't be contacted'" -- effectively meaning the man had to take care of dealing with the remains.
Originally from Kyushu, the woman was the third daughter of five siblings and spent her childhood in a children's home after being alienated from her mother. In her suicide note, she wrote about the anguish of her strained relationship with her mother.
In the months leading up to the second anniversary of the woman's death, the man looked for somewhere to bury the remains but could not afford to buy a grave. It was then that he stumbled across the NPO in Tokyo on the internet. He realized that he could send his former partner's remains to a suitable place for 50,000 yen. At first, he was reluctant, but given the poor state of his legs, he decided to take this option.
"Sorry that it's come to this," the man said repeatedly as he rubbed the woman's urn. Later, he sealed the urn with some adhesive tape, put it in a parcel and sent it to the NPO. The remains now rest at Nanshunji temple in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, in a group burial plot.
Lately, the number of people who are reluctant to organize funerals for deceased relatives is increasing, and it is becoming more common for local authorities to carry out cremations and burials using tax money. Factors such as weakened family ties and poverty have led to this trend, and consequently, services such as the "human remains delivery service" act as a social safety net.
However, it has not been that straightforward. There have been cases of judicial rulings stopping organizations wanting to carry out this service. Specifically, a temple in the city of Iyo in Ehime Prefecture, which promoted this particular service on the internet, filed a suit demanding the Iyo Municipal Government annul its decision to revoke the temple's charnel house management license.
During the initial hearing at the Matsuyama District Court in 2013, the judge dismissed the suit, saying, "It is not possible to rule out the commercial impression generated by this service," in relation to the temple accepting human remains at a cheap price regardless of religious persuasion or without an interview with the chief priest. The temple appealed the ruling to a higher court where it lost again, and the ruling was fixed.
According to the chief priest of this temple, cases of divorced spouses sending remains of former partners stood out, adding, "How many people are driven to do this, because they have no alternative? Is the government aware of the reality?"
Professor Yoko Nagae of Seitoku University, who is an expert on differences in handling the deceased across various countries, says, "If the surviving relative is in poor physical shape, then it seems inevitable that this kind of service should be used. However, I am not that comfortable about people who choose it or offer it because it is convenient or commercially viable. I want people to respect the dead, wherever possible."