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Japan Seeing Burial Urns Piling Up Amid Fraying Familial Ties

Unclaimed cremation urns containing the ashes of the duly departed are piling up all across Japan, left destitute and creating storage problems for the country as a result of weakening familial ties and economic pressures amidst the country’s rapid aging.

In Japan, the dead are usually cremated at public expense, and, as such, are identified and known. However, in most cases, relatives either refuse or ignore requests to collect the remains, due, in part, to burials being expensive and time-consuming, a burden that’ll fall on relatives who might barely know the departed.

The abandoned remains reflect the demographic, economic and social changes in the country, where more and more elderly are relying on welfare, and families are more scattered, resulting in frayed familial bonds and obligations.

The problem is also expected to worsen, as experts project that deaths in Japan will go up from 1.33 million annually to 1.67 million annually by 2040, even as the country’s population declines.

Yokosuka City, in the Kanagawa Prefecture, for example, got swamped with so many unclaimed cremation urns that it no longer had space in a 3-century-old charnel house that was about to crumble. Desperate to hold remains, it combined the ashes of different people into urns that it was forced to store in a hillside cave, with an additional 50 urns sitting at its city office.

Japanese wages have barely climbed, which, on top of the fact that many of the children of the Japanese elderly were living on the same pensions themselves, meant that managing death costs, including arranging the burial, can be a huge burden.

According to sources from the death care industry, a traditional Japanese funeral, which include food, drinks, gifts for guests, as well as hiring a Buddhist monk to chant the sutras for the proper ritual, can cost at least 2 million yen ($17,800).

New businesses which offer no-frills funerals for $2,000 to $4,000, as well as government subsidies have tried to alleviate the costs, but with the number of elderly poor in Japan going up, this issue will continue to be a problem.

Government reports say that nearly 3% of the elderly in Japan were on welfare for 2015, which is double the rate compared to 2 decades prior.

Hisako Makimura, a visiting Professor of Sociology at Kansai University, say that there are more and more people dying alone, with no one to act as caretaker for their cremation urns and remains as Japan’s familial ties weaken, with couples having fewer kids and people moving further from home for their work.

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