Local govts must not overlook poor management of operators

With an increasing number of people choosing to dismantle ancestral tombs, columbaria — structures containing compartments where ashes are stored — are becoming popular. These facilities allow people to mourn their deceased loved ones for a long time, making it all the more important that their management be checked by local governments.

Hakuhoji, a religious corporation and an operator of a columbarium in Higashi Ward, Sapporo, has effectively gone bankrupt, becoming unable to continue managing the ashes that it had received to store. The four-story building was reportedly auctioned off and passed into the possession of a real estate company.

The columbarium opened in 2012 and attracted customers by touting such advertising slogans as “eternal memorial service for peace of mind” and “near the station with a comfortable surrounding environment.” With individual plots priced from ¥300,000 to ¥2.5 million, the operator has sold plots to 773 customers in total and received the ashes for storage. However, half of the plots in the facility reportedly remain unsold.

It must be said that the operator was too lax about its sales outlook and cash flow management plan. Regarding refunding customers, the operator said it is “not in a situation in which that is possible.” Customers spent a great deal of money on storing the ashes, but now there is no place for them, which has an enormous impact.

When the Sapporo city government conducted an on-the-spot inspection, it was unable to confirm the presence of some documents that are required to be kept and disclosed under the Graveyards and Burials Law, including a balance sheet. There is a possibility that the accounting procedures were sloppy, making it an urgent task for the city government to ascertain the actual situation.

In fiscal 2020, there were 13,038 columbaria nationwide, up by more than 10% in the past 20 years. The increase is particularly conspicuous in urban areas, growing 1.5-fold in Tokyo and doubling in Osaka Prefecture.

Among them, there is growing demand for facilities inside buildings because they offer plots more reasonably than tombs and many of them are easily accessible. A number of such facilities are said to accept thousands of ashes regardless of religious sect.

Only local governments, religious corporations and public interest corporations are allowed to operate cemeteries and columbaria, and the current system does not allow ordinary private companies to do so. Due to the nature of the facilities, their operators are required to remain in operation continuously and be not-for-profit. They also need to obtain the local government’s permission to open one.

Nevertheless, if a religious corporation at risk of going bankrupt invests beyond its means, it is a big problem. The bankruptcy of religious corporations that operate columbaria has also occurred in Fukui Prefecture and Sendai.

A situation must be avoided in which families who have lost their loved ones also lose a place to mourn the deceased.

In response to the Sapporo case, it is only natural that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has notified local governments to conduct thorough instruction and supervision. Local governments must keep a strict eye on operators’ financial condition, among other circumstances, not only when they open facilities but also afterward.

Users should also make a point of checking the activities of religious corporations that operate such facilities as much as possible before signing contracts.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 28, 2022)