Updated: 07/03/2014 12:31 | By Agence France-Presse

A dying business: family graves in Japan

Every once in a while, Kumiko Kano meets a group of people with whom she has decided to spend eternity, one of a growing number in Japan who are shunning the expense and commitment of a traditional family grave. 


A dying business: family graves in Japan

Ryukai Matsushima, a Buddhist priest whose father pioneered a movement of seeking gravemates, walks past a communal resting place at his temple in Tokyo, June 4, 2014 - by Kazuhiro Nogi

Instead of shelling out millions of yen (tens of thousands of dollars) on an elaborate tomb, which, according to religious custom must be lovingly tended by descendents, Kano and her late husband decided to be interred in a collective grave alongside thousands of others.

"My husband saw his eldest brother rack up huge costs for the family gravestone, and we decided that we didn't need one that would be a burden to our children," said Kano, 74.

"Today, children don't always live near your place. Visiting a graveyard would be difficult if they live abroad, for example," she added.

Instead, the couple joined a group for prospective gravemates that has established a collective final resting place, and organises meetings -- from a book club to countryside excursions -- so that ties may be formed before members are laid to rest.

In native Shintoism, as well as in imported Buddhism, successive generations have a duty of care for dead ancestors, who exist on a continuous plane with those still living.

Photographs of departed loved ones stare out from altars at the family home, where they are prayed to and offered gifts of fruit, alcohol or cigarettes in exchange for the protection they offer from the netherworld.

Their mortal remains are cremated and the ashes are kept in urns, which are stored in a costly tomb built on sacred ground.

The heavy granite obelisk bears the family name and will be the final resting place of the oldest son and his family in each coming generation.

Younger sons must establish their own tomb and daughters are co-opted into their husband's grave.

- 'All sorts of background' -

Kano and her late husband, decided about a decade ago they did not want to build a new tomb, joining communal resting place group "Moyainokai" which means "working together".

Her husband Jiro was buried in their grave at the age of 76 in 2008, where he is now one of 3,000 whose remains rest there. 

Ryukai Matsushima, a Buddhist priest whose father pioneered the movement, said Moyainokai was established 25 years ago "for people who were worried about their own burials because they had no kin or had only daughters".

"It's unfair that some people have someone to look after them when they die and others don't, just because they chose a lifestyle of staying single... or they didn't have children," he said.

Group members meet for excursions to the countryside or gather as a book club "to nurture ties not based on blood," he said.

Kano, for example, recently visited a distant temple with some of those she will spend eternity with.

It's no longer just a lack of offspring that is causing a rethink among those entering the autumn of their lives.

"Today, people with all sorts of backgrounds... whether they have children or not, show interest in a collective grave like this," Matsushima said.

"Among them are women who say they don't want to be buried with their husbands."

A generation ago, married women had no choice, and would automatically be included in the family plot.

"But now you can say you don't want to be buried there," he said. "What was a religion for the family is transforming into a religion for individuals."

- No longer joining husbands -

Syohei Maekawa of Club Tourism International, which takes its clients on tours of possible final resting places, says wives wanting to escape their husbands in the hereafter are not uncommon.

"I've heard some of our customers talking to each other, saying 'it's off the record, but I don't want to join my husband's family grave,'" he told AFP.

Some of the different options being offered are for ashes to be scattered at sea or for burials under trees.

Toyo University sociology professor Haruyo Inoue, who is also director of a not-for-profit organisation promoting such possibilities, says wives who do not want to lie with their husband for eternity are the fifth largest group of people seeking alternative afterlives.

The largest category, she says, are couples with only daughters, followed by those with sons (and potentially also daughters). Childless couples are third, while single people are fourth.

"For the wives, it's not necessarily because their relationships with their husbands are bad, but rather because they want to do things their own individual way," she said.

Mitsuharu Nojima, of Club Tourism International, says the growing movement of people looking to get something a little different out of death is the natural result of the huge changes that have rippled through Japan since World War II.

"Seniors today are feisty with desire for self-determination -- they were in their 30s during the years of Japan's bubble economy and they were used to creating new things," he said.

"They have the energy to get what they want," Nojima said.

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