A nation's dying industry

Burgeoning mortuary market spurs competition

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 143(11), 16 March 1989, pages 66-67

Before he died last year, Ito Shigeki, Japan's public prosecutor-general, wrote a collection of deathbed essays entitled When People Die They Become Garbage. Indeed, an increasing number of deaths is confronting Japan with an unprecedented waste disposal problem.

For many decades, Japan's death industry has been dying. It has started to grow again, though, and soon it should be healthier than ever. By 2035, about 1.8 million people will die each year--more than double the number of bodies that need post-mortem care today.

Between 1920 and 1975, the number of deaths each year--hence the number of bodies needing funerals and burials--fell by half from 1.4 million to 700,000, while the population doubled from 56 to III million. This four-fold decrease in Japan's death rate in just 55 years was the result of a rapid introduction of scientific medicine, and of nationwide improvements in public sanitation.

Japan now boasts one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates and the longest life expectancies for both sexes, but also one of the lowest fertility rates. Together these trends give Japan the world's most rapidly ageing population, with increasingly fewer younger people to support the elderly.

But the drop in the death rate is only an anomaly of the medical revolution, and the resulting longer lease on life for more people merely delays their death. The proportion of people aged 65 and older is now expected to reach 23.6% of the population in 2020, quadruple the 1950 and double the 1985 proportions.

But the millions of people who have swelled the ranks of the elderly will eventually die. As death catches up with them, Japan will also have one of the world's highest death rates.

Such demographics guarantee that dying and death will be growth businesses. But a booming mortuary market also means more headaches for bureaucrats who endeavour to keep the dying industry at least as orderly as the sex industry.

Some funeral businesses are trying to capture customers early by branching into the "silver service" market and helping older people enjoy their final years. One funeral parlour even sponsors gate-ball tournaments, the venue of geriatric rivalry and romance.

Department stores and other mass merchandisers have been trying to enter the market by streamlining the mortuary service "distribution" system. Funeral parlours, though, still have an advantage in the market place. For example, a national association representing about one-third of all funeral parlours, most of which are family-operated businesses, has gained the support of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in the form of tax breaks and protective legislation.

The short-term funeral sector covers initial mounting and burial. Centring on the hospital, home, funeral hall and crematorium, it lasts only a few days but involves many people in intense rituals. The memorial sector provides long-term care for the relics and mortuary tablets of the deceased, who are worshipped at cemeteries and home altars by fewer people and with less ritual until they are simply forgotten, their tombs abandoned, and the gravesites recycled.

In villages and small towns where extended families were tightly knit into highly self-sufficient communities, funerals and burials were traditionally conducted by resident associations. Anyone who had neighbours was assured of being cared for after death. Each community had its own funeral facilities and burial grounds, and a supply of elders who knew exactly what to do. Children witnessed numerous deaths, and by the time they were adults they were familiar with funerals. They had no need for illustrated "how to" funeral books and mortuary service directories.

However, the rapid move to the cities, the break-up of the extended family and social mobility have changed all this. Younger people are exposed to fewer deaths and funerals. Direct knowledge of dying and mourning is no longer part of conventional wisdom. More people have to rely on businesses which offer packaged funerals for fees that can ruin the small, isolated and unprepared urban family.

Many people buy life insurance as a hedge against funeral costs. Others buy funeral insurance or join mutual assistance groups that provide low-cost funerals. Some, like the elderly couple who left 600,000 yen (US$5,000) in a bag near the crossing where they jumped in front of a train, save enough money for their funeral before they die.

The money in the bag was for the couple's funeral. But this amount would barely cover the cost of an average funeral for one person, and it would not include the grave, tombstone, or family altar. And many families are paying several times this amount for the convenience of having a funeral parlour take care of everything from filing the death certificate to sending return gifts to mourners.

Some municipalities and private cooperatives are providing free or low-cost funerals through communally owned facilities. In principle, no one needs money to die, since welfare laws mandate mayors to bury the indigent, and unidentified, bodies at public cost. Like marriages and other rites of passage, though, funerals give families a chance to display their status. And there is no shortage of people who believe that the more elaborate the funeral, gravesite, crypt and home altar, the greater their own fortune in both this world and the next.

Speculation has inflated the price of land in corporate-rich, consumer-poor Japan to the point where most people can no longer afford to buy a home of their own. Cemetery developers figure that, as more people abandon their dreams of owning a nice house in this world, they will be investing their savings in an afterlife mansion in a "spirit garden" beside a rice paddy.

For families living in congested cities the most popular cemeteries are within a two hour commute and usually it costs about 1.6 million yen to buy 4 square-metres of land for a family grave. The average crypt and tombstone, probably made with rock imported from Africa, South Korea, India or China, will likely cost more than the plot, which stays in the family as long as someone pays the annual managerial fee.

Practitioners of Buddhism, which serves the eschatological needs of most Japanese and thus becomes more important as one gets older, will pay another 500,000 yen for a home altar and the candle holders, incense burners, offering stands, and other paraphernalia that go with it.

The altar protects the family's mortuary tablets, which bear the deceased's posthumous name as determined by a temple that typically receives tens of thousands of yen for this service. Temples are also paid commissions by the funeral parlours, cemeteries, and stonemasons to which, as agents, they send customers.

Japan's average middle-class family can easily spend one year's before-tax income--5 million yen--for the privilege of being buried and remembered after death. The Japanese Government allocated 2,000 times this amount--10 billion yen--for the funeral of the late Emperor Hirohito.

A quarter of this--or 10 times the immediate imperial family's annual taxfree stipend of 250 million yen--is for the mausoleum, now being built in the Musashi Imperial Cemetery near Tokyo. The tomb requires 730 square-metres of land, and 2,500 square-metres are needed for the surrounding grounds.