High-Mortality Society: Ensure Smooth Send-Off for Deceased People

Japan, a country with a graying population, has entered an era of being a “high-mortality society” where deaths far outnumber births. It is important to create an environment in which the deceased can be cherished and a smooth send-off for them ensured.

There were more than 1.59 million deaths in Japan in 2023, a new record high and 65% more than in 2000. Deaths are expected to remain at a high level of above 1.6 million annually until around 2050.

As a result, situations where deceased persons cannot be cremated immediately are becoming increasingly serious. Most people are cremated after death in Japan, but related facilities have not kept pace.

According to a survey of crematoriums and other facilities conducted by the All Japan Cemetery Association, a public interest incorporated association mainly consisting of cemetery operators, the largest number of respondents, about 30%, said there was a “six to eight day” wait for cremation.

Such long waits are said to have been uncommon in the past. It cannot be said that Japan’s situation as a high-mortality society is being dealt with.

While waiting for cremation, people have to use a funeral home or other facility where bodies can be placed. However, in some cases, the cost is tens of thousands of yen per day.

If there are no public cremation facilities in the local municipality, the only option is to rely on crematoriums operated by other municipalities or the private sector. However, other municipalities charge a higher rate to people who are not local residents and often limit the hours of use.

Although there is an urgent need for entities, such as local governments, to build or renovate funeral halls and crematoriums, efforts to do so are often opposed by nearby residents, who see such facilities as a nuisance.

If cremation is delayed, it compromises the dignity of the deceased and increases the financial and psychological burden on the bereaved family. Local governments need to carefully explain the establishment and expansion of facilities and gain the understanding of residents.

A major factor behind the increase in deaths among the elderly is that people in the first baby boom generation, born right after World War II, are now advanced in age. Many of them moved from rural to urban areas during the period of rapid economic growth, which is particularly noticeable in such areas as the greater Tokyo region.

Municipalities in such areas have begun wide-area cooperation with neighboring municipalities for efforts, such as building crematoriums.

The city of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, and three other neighboring cities, which had jointly operated a funeral-crematory facility since the 1990s, built a second such facility in 2019. In Saitama Prefecture, four neighboring cities that do not have public crematory houses, including Asaka and Shiki, plan to jointly build one. Momentum for such efforts should be increased.

Another issue is to make the operation of existing facilities more efficient. The city of Yokohama is using its cremation furnaces more often each day, and has also started operating on “tomobiki” — one of the days in the six-day week of the traditional calendar — on which having a funeral is traditionally believed to bring bad luck. More of such efforts should be made in accordance with local conditions.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 31, 2024)