Neglected Graves Increasing: Consider System Fit for Today’s Society amid Changing Views

Graves where children or relatives of the deceased are not there to manage them have been increasing. Amid the declining population and the diversification of views on family life, this is becoming a societal issue that the central government and the public need to seriously address.

Of 765 municipalities nationwide that operate public cemeteries, 445, or 58.2%, reported neglected graves and funerary urns, according to a recent survey conducted by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

Should these numbers increase, cemeteries and relevant facilities could go to ruin and become hotbeds of illegal dumping. Degraded tombstone areas also pose a great risk of collapse in the event of a disaster.

Municipalities often become aware of the existence of neglected graves and urn niches when management charges are overdue. Across 238 municipalities, the amount of such delinquent fees has reached ¥447.98 million.

Public funds have reportedly been used in some cases to prevent tombs neglected for many years from falling apart or to remove weeds from them.

It was the first time for the central government to conduct such a survey. As the traditional form of the family is rapidly changing, it is an urgent task to grasp the actual situation of grave-management and devise measures.

Only 3.5% of cemeteries and columbaria in the nation are operated by local governments. Most are managed by local community associations and entities such as temples and shrines. The number of neglected graves found in the survey is likely only the tip of the iceberg.

To resolve the issue of neglected graves, local governments need to transfer cremated remains to communal graves or other sites and remove the tombstones after using official gazettes or other means to notify the persons related to the deceased that they must come forward within a year.

This is no easy task, however, as the process would be labor-intensive and time-consuming. According to the ministry survey, only 6.1% of municipalities polled said they removed neglected graves and urns over the five years through fiscal 2020.

The law on cemeteries and burials enacted in 1948 includes provisions concerning the transfer of cremated remains to other sites but does not specify how graves should be handled. It is natural that local governments have struggled to determine how long graves should be kept, how they should be disposed of and how the costs should be borne.

The central government must improve cemetery administration by taking steps, including legal reforms, in light of societal changes that were not envisioned when the law was enacted.

Public perceptions toward graves also have changed. In recent years, more people are feeling less reluctant to remove their ancestors’ tombs and return the plot of land.

Some people are also choosing to be buried in a communal grave rather than in a family grave, scatter their ashes in the ocean, or plant trees and flowers in place of gravestones. These moves may come from their desire not to burden their children or others with the responsibility of maintaining family graves.

Graves are places where one can feel a sense of connection with ancestors. This week, around the time of the equinox, is a good opportunity to consider the best way to go about this.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 23, 2023)