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More Japanese Choose Non-Traditional Burial - 2003-09-29

More and more people in Japan are starting to plan their own funerals, leaving behind the traditional Buddhist practice of being buried with their ancestors.

Junko Hasunuma, 63, began to think about her funeral a few years ago. But when her husband died last year, she decided to take an unusual step.

She said three years ago, she and her husband decided not to build a tomb and be buried under it because that would damage the environment. It is her belief that we do not belong to this world. Our souls go back to nature after our bodies are dead. So, she says, when her husband died last year, she arranged to scatter his cremated remains over the ocean.

Ms. Hasunuma's decision is not common in Japan, but she is one of a growing number of people who are choosing a non-traditional burial.

A typical Japanese funeral is formal and expensive. A temple priest is hired to recite a Buddhist sutra, and mourners say good-bye to the deceased. After the ceremony, most bodies are cremated because land for burials is in short supply.

After that, the urn containing the ashes is placed in a tomb, usually next to ancestors in a family plot. Traditionally, a married woman's urn goes into her husband's family tomb.

After it is over, the family receives a huge bill from the temple. Japan's funeral costs rank among the world's highest, averaging $17,000 - about three times more than in the United States.

The demand for funeral services in Japan is quickly going up as its population ages. In four years, one in five Japanese will be 65 years or older.

But new research shows that many Japanese no longer want a traditional burial.

A recent survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living shows that 76 percent of Japanese are stating a preference for funerals that are less formal and more frugal and cozy.

Midori Kotani, who researches funeral issues at Daiichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo, says lifestyle changes such as late marriages, fewer children and rising divorce rates are having changing funeral and burial practices. She says some people now hold memorial services filled with cheerful music, bright flowers and fewer mourners.

More people, she says, think the hereditary system is old-fashioned idea and prefer not to be buried the family vault.

Mutsuhiko Yasuda, a former Asahi newspaper reporter, recognized this trend more than 10 years ago. He says he formed a community group offering nature-based funerals in 1991 after realizing that many people were concerned about the environmental impact of tombs. His group helps families spread ashes in areas such as mountains and oceans.

In 12 years, Mr. Yasuda's group has performed nearly 1,400 such services, which he says reflects people's growing interest in disposing of human remains in a natural setting. Another new trend is group graves. These are appealing to single people or couples with no children. They cost less and their descendants do not have the burden of caring for the graves.

Other Japanese people are choosing a unique service called a space funeral. A teaspoon of cremated remains is shipped to the Unites States, where it is shot into space along with satellites.

Ms. Kotani of the Daiichi Life Research Institute thinks people will continue to choose non-traditional services.