Bereaved Families Facing Longer Waits for Cremations in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun

According to a June survey, bereaved family members had to wait for as long as six to eight days to cremate their loved ones last year, and the longer waiting periods are putting psychological and financial burdens on bereaved family members.

A 50-year-old woman in the city of Moriguchi, Osaka Prefecture, who lost her father in January this year, said she had to keep his coffin at home for five days until cremation. “The funeral hall told me it would cost ¥20,000 a day to store his body at the facility,” she said.

“Although it was in the middle of winter, the body had begun deteriorating a bit, so we had to put a makeup [on him],” she said. “I wish I could’ve said my final goodbye while his body was still clean.”

Similar issues have occurred often in large cities in recent years, and with the number of deaths rising in Japan, the problem is expected to get worse.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s demographic statistics, the number of deaths in the country hit a record high in 2022 at 1,568,961, up 129,105 from the previous year. The figure is up 25% compared to 10 years ago when deaths totaled 1,256,359.

The All Japan Cemetery Association conducted a survey for the first time in 2022 on crematories and funeral homes across the country.

According to the survey, 177 facilities had stored bodies at their facilities in fiscal 2020. Waiting for a cremation slot was the most common reason at 44.1%. A total of 31.4% said the longest wait was six to eight days, followed by two to three days at 16%, and three to four days at 13.7%.

The association believes the COVID-19 pandemic was not the reason for the longer waiting periods, because the number of funerals did not increase significantly when the pandemic broke out in 2020, compared to the previous fiscal year.

According to the Yokohama city government, the largest municipality in the country, the waiting period at city-operated crematories was an average of four to five days in fiscal 2020 and five to six days in fiscal 2022. The city government is currently building a new crematory at a cost of about ¥22.1 billion.

However, constructing new facilities is not always a simple process, because the support of residents around planned sites is required, and as the number of deaths in Japan is expected to peak in the 2040s, few local governments are considering building new crematories.

“People may have to consider cremating bodies on tomobiki [days, which are considered unlucky days to hold cremations], or cremate [before a formal funeral ceremony] if there is an open slot at a crematory,” said Mutsumi Yokota, a researcher at the All Japan Cemetery Association. “People will have to reconsider how to mourn and hold funeral services.”