The death industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2009, 12:00am

Death is undergoing a resurrection in Japan. Since Yojiro Takita won the Oscar for the best foreign-language film at the 81st Annual Academy Awards in February with Okuribito (Departures), there has been new-found interest in that final step in everyone's life.

Not all of the revelations have been positive, although an American businessman who set up a company providing pre-planning for funeral services hopes that a wider examination of the industry will help eliminate some of the 'sharp practices' that are employed to squeeze a few thousand yen out of grieving relatives when they are arguably at their most vulnerable.

The average Japanese funeral costs about US$25,000, said John Kamm, founder and chief executive of the Tokyo-based All Nations Society, which will perform a similar service for about half that figure, albeit without the fee for a Buddhist monk or grave plot, which are among the highest expenses.

For a monk to come and pray at the family home for a couple of hours can cost as much as US$10,000, including the payment for a Buddhist name that the deceased will take with him or her to the afterlife. Made up of five, seven or 11 kanji characters, the longer the name, the higher the price.

But Mr Kamm said he had sat in bars with monks as they dreamed up these posthumous names and seen them drive off later in Porsches.

'It's a murky world and not something that most people know about,' he said, adding that with corruption endemic in political life in Japan it would not be at all surprising if some of the politicians who were reluctant to regulate the industry were accepting kickbacks from the operators of the crematorium companies.

That likelihood rises dramatically when one considers that the crematoriums in Tokyo's 23 wards are all owned by the same company, which Mr Kamm believes has some dubious connections.

'There is no doubt in my mind that this is a front company,' Mr Kamm said. 'The reason all the crematoria in Tokyo are privately owned is that immediately after the end of the [second world] war there were lots of corpses that needed to be disposed of, and the right-wing organisations stepped in and did not charge the government. That put the authorities in their debt and allowed them to set up their private organisation.'

A cremation in Tokyo costs 50,000 yen (HK$3,900), about 10 times that of one outside the capital.

Revelations that municipal government officials have been searching through the ashes of cremated residents to extract precious metals, with the proceeds from the recycled gold and silver going into the cities' budgets, has also understandably upset relatives.

The metals are primarily used in capped teeth or replacement bones, with the city of Nagoya reportedly collecting 12kg of gold, silver, platinum and palladium in 2007, worth more than 10 million yen.

The apparently widespread practice was uncovered by the Asahi newspaper in February, with relatives unaware of their loved ones' remains being 'mined' for reusable materials.

'The metal is no longer considered to be a part of the person, and we are just reusing and recycling the material,' said Fumio Nakajima, a spokesman for the Tokyo metropolitan government. Tokyo collected about 700 grams of gold, 500 grams of palladium and 1.9kg of silver from cremated bodies in 2007, adding 3.2 million yen to the city's bank account. The city also banked about 90,000 yen in coins left as offerings inside the coffins.

The practice has apparently been common for the past 20 years, although some cities have stopped after relatives found out and complained that it was disrespectful to profit from the deceased.

'Very few of the families know what happens and what happens in the crematoriums is kept very quiet,' said a Buddhist priest from Kanagawa prefecture, who often oversees traditional funerals. 'The crematorium will usually return the ashes of the whole body, but as they assume the families can't use the gold, then they're not doing anything wrong. And the families are usually too upset to ask about the details of their loved ones.'

Nearly 2,000 tonnes of bones and ashes are collected at crematoriums every year, with many of Japan's municipalities considering any unclaimed remains as abandoned.

The potential earnings from the funeral industry were 'gigantic', Mr Kamm said. With a population of 127 million and assuming that 1 per cent of the population dies each year, he says, multiplied by the average cost of a funeral service of US$25,000, the domestic market is worth a potential US$31 billion a year. And while the economic crisis is biting into household spending, people are always going to die and money will always be found to provide for their send-off, he says.

He is equally confident that a new venture he is setting up will fill another serious gap in the way Japan deals with death.

When Mr Kamm set up his company in Japan in 2003, he received threatening phone calls and public criticism from the heads of other funeral-services companies and crematorium operators that did not relish the competition. Today, he is an accepted member of the industry, but expects his latest venture to attract similar hostilities.

He launched a webpage last month offering families who have had a request for an autopsy turned down by a hospital the chance to have a full investigation into the cause of death carried out privately - a service that no one else has yet tried in Japan.

'There have been reports in medical journals that suggest that as many as 30 per cent of discoveries made in autopsies played a significant role in the death of the patient - but were not apparent when the person died,' Mr Kamm said. 'That's quite a high number, and in Japan I would say there is a possibility that it is even higher, because there has been resistance from hospitals and doctors for autopsies to be carried out.'

He has found a medical examiner in Tokyo, Yoshinobu Sato, who shares the same belief that the families of the deceased have the right to know the truth regarding the cause of their loved one's death. Dr Sato, who works at Kyorin Teaching Hospital, will perform investigations on Mr Kamm's behalf.

Mr Kamm expects to have a handful of requests initially, but he hopes that once the service becomes better known - and Japanese people begin to ask more searching questions of their doctors when things go wrong - that the business will quickly grow. 'This is a big issue and it's going to get even bigger,' he said, pointing out that it has implications for the legal profession and insurance companies as well as doctors and hospitals.

At present, there are two types of autopsies carried out in Japan. The first is when foul play is suspected, in which case a full investigation is required by law. The second type, however, is a family-ordered autopsy - and Mr Kamm said these were 'extremely hard to get'. 'Hospitals basically refuse to do them. The family has the legal right to request them, but the hospital will reply that it's not their policy.'

Mr Kamm said the reason was that Japan's tight medical circles did not want to see their reputations damaged, which would be the inevitable result of more autopsies revealing medical mistakes and leading to a rise in the number of malpractice lawsuits.