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Space burials, virtual grave visits among new ways to mourn

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kazue Miyanaga puts her hands together in prayer in front of a small cylindrical gravestone in her home in Fukui City.

Funerals and activities to remember the dead are becoming more and more diverse as lifestyles and families change. In an effort to suit their needs, an increasing number of people are dismantling their ancestral tombs and moving the ashes to a different location, due to the difficulty of maintaining them as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The places where people pay respects now also range from home to virtual spaces, as new ways to mourn spread.

Always by her side

Kazue Miyanaga, 66, of Fukui City, puts her hands together in prayer in front of a small, cylindrical gravestone in her living room every morning. “Mother, it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Miyanaga says to the gravestone, which is 15.5 centimeters high, 27 centimeters wide and 23 centimeters deep, and contains the remains of her mother.

Courtesy of Technical Brain Ltd.
A scene from a virtual visit to a grave

Miyanaga, who is not very adept at driving, began to think about dismantling her ancestral tomb with the death of her mother in October last year. It was not easy to visit the family temple, which is about 40 kilometers away from home. Since she also felt uneasy about going out during the pandemic, Miyanaga decided to keep her mother’s remains by her side and mourn her death at home.

“At home, I can take care of her remains well. It was difficult to manage the grave because it was located far from home, but now my mind is at ease,” she said.

According to Shinzo Masuya, president of Masuya Stone Industry Co. in the city, which sold her the gravestone, many people dismantle their ancestral tombs because they are aging or there is a lack of people to take care of the graves.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were about 115,000 cases in fiscal 2018 in which the remains of the deceased were moved to another location after ancestral tombs were dismantled, among other factors. This is an increase of 1.6 times over 10 years.

“More and more people are taking the opportunity to dismantle their ancestral tombs in order to change the way they carry out their memorials, reflecting the wishes of the deceased or their families,” said Chiaki Ishihara, 41. Ishihara is president of Kuyounokatachi in Osaka City, which mediates the way that ashes are transferred to graveyards in different locations and memorial services are held.

According to Ishihara, the number of consultations the company receives regarding such services is increasing year by year, and about 80% of those who have consulted with the firm choose graves for group burials or tree-side burials for which perpetual memorial services are conducted.

About 10% of people who consulted with the company are said to have chosen to keep the remains of their loved ones close at hand by means such as have the remains processed into artificial diamonds. “The options are increasing in accordance with the changing times,” Ishihara said.

Launched into space

New types of commemorations are also emerging.

Ginga Stage Co., a memorial-related company in Osaka City, commissions a U.S. firm to launch a capsule containing the ashes of the deceased into space. Their plans include one in which a capsule is sent to the moon. The cost ranges from about ¥500,000 to about ¥8 million, and 27 people have used the service since 2014.

Courtesy of Ginga Stage Co.
A rocket carrying a capsule containing ashes of a deceased person is launched into space.

In November, Tokyo-based system development company Technical Brain Ltd. opened a virtual “cemetery.” Family members can go to the cemetery online and visit graves as avatars. An official of the company said, “This service will be taken up by people who want to visit graves whenever they want amid digitization and the ongoing pandemic.”

Yoko Nagae, a professor at Seitoku University who is well versed in funeral culture, said that the idea of tending ancestors’ graves for generations is diminishing as the trend toward the nuclear family accelerates, and ways to pay respects are increasingly determined by individual values.

“Since perceptions about paying respects can differ among relatives, it is important to thoroughly discuss the matter before making a decision to avoid problems,” Nagae said.