Death Is a High-Tech Trip in Japan's Futuristic Cemeteries
Japan's techno-cemeteries replace tombstones with LED Buddhas and conveyor belts.
Yumiko Nakajima, a woman in her 70s, is selecting her grave. But instead of choosing a hunk of stone in a regular, outdoor cemetery, she has her sights set on a glowing blue glass Buddha statue inside Ruriden—a small, futuristic charnel house belonging to Koukoko-ji temple in downtown Tokyo.
Nakajima's chosen Buddha statue is flanked on all sides by a collection of 2,045 LED-lit statues of variant hues, spread across the walls of this alternative graveyard space. Each statue—which is placed on the wall inside a transparent glass casing—either already represents a deceased person or will do so in the future, once a visitor like Nakajima decides to have his or her cremated remains housed in a storage locker located directly behind the wall. Synced up to swipe cards, the statues glow a different color when a visitor arrives so they can be located more easily.
"It's fate that I got introduced to this style of graveyard. It's much more convenient," said Nakajima, as the technicolor Buddha statues reflected off of her glasses, and her shopping bags rustled beside her. "I don't want my relatives to go to the trouble of maintaining my tombstone when I'm gone."
In Japan, declining birth rates, shortages of space in cities, and skyrocketing prices for cemetery plots have brought on a radical rethink in how the deceased are both buried and commemorated by those they leave behind.
Traditionally, each family would own a plot of land and a stone tomb—together costing between 230,000 yen ($20,000) and 460,000 yen ($40,000)—in a physical cemetery in an urban area. As people die, their cremated remains are stored in burial urns and placed inside the family grave. The grave is passed down the generations and the upkeep of these tombstones and yearly maintenance fee are shouldered by living relatives, who will try and pay their respects as often as they can, or more likely during special occasions such as Obon—a three-day Japanese Buddhist festival during the summer that honors ancestral spirits.
Yet over the last few decades, advances in tech, as well as the changing lifestyles of the Japanese, have made high-tech graveyards a cost effective alternative. Cemeteries like Ruriden—which pack symbolic representations of the dead in orderly columns and house their actual remains in locker spaces—have gained ground in Japan.
Such cemeteries often use smart cards to allow people to store their information and that of their deceased relatives so that they can swipe to enter the building, and swipe once again to light up and distinguish their specific Buddha statue from the rest.
Nakajima is just one of many early adopters of these space-saving and economical tombstone alternatives. Originally from Tokyo, she married a man from Kyoto, and when he passed away two years ago she buried him in his family grave in his hometown. Nakajima has no children and doesn't want to oblige her younger brother to travel all the way to Kyoto in order to pay his respects at her husband's family grave. It is usual practice in Japan for married women to be buried in their husband's family tomb.
So she decided that when she died, she would split her remains between her deceased husband's family tomb in Kyoto and a locker behind her chosen Buddha statue at Ruriden. This, she said, would make it easier for her elderly brother to visit whenever he wanted to. He also wouldn't have to bear the burden of cleaning her tombstone, refreshing flowers by an outdoor grave, or paying slightly higher yearly maintenance fees of up to 12,000 yen ($105) so that weeds didn't slink across it.
"All these glass Buddha statues are like your compatriots, and you'll be there with them once you die"
Taijun Yajima, the head Buddhist priest at Koukokuji temple to which Ruriden belongs, constructed the glitzy burial ground in 2006. Back then, it was the first of its kind in Japan, according to Yajima, but its format has since caught on and other Buddhist temples across the country have followed suit. Yajima said his idea was borne of the necessity to adapt to changing social norms.
"In the past, everyone had a grave each, but space became an issue so family graves that house many people were established. These were passed on from generation to generation," Yajima told me. "Now, however, there are fewer and fewer children in Japan, so some people don't have anyone to take on the responsibility of caring for their tombstone anymore."
Yajima aimed to solve this problem. For him, the central idea of Ruriden is to provide a resting place where people without children or large families will not feel alone in the afterlife.
"The people who usually register for a plot here are either single or don't have children—they feel sad that they don't have family, but they know that once they're dead, they'll be surrounded by others like them in Ruriden," he said.
"All these glass Buddha statues are like your compatriots, and you'll be there with them once you die. If you can think that you're going to be with your friends once you're dead, you won't be sad."
Currently the Buddha statues represent everyone from a nine-month-old baby to a 99-year-old woman. A one-person-sized box costs around 750,000 yen ($6,600). If you store the remains of two in there, the prices goes up to 950,000 yen ($8,300). A yearly maintenance fee of 9,000 yen ($80) is required and your remains are guaranteed a place inside Ruriden for 33 years. After that, maintenance fees will no longer be requested, and people's remains will be moved from the locker and placed in a communal resting place underneath the edifice. Buddhist statues and locker spaces are not re-used once emptied; instead they are kept vacant.
While Yajima might attempt to emphasize the idea of guaranteed companionship in the afterlife, the philosophies upheld by high-tech burial spaces differ across Tokyo.
Other forms of upgraded cemeteries feature traditional temples rebuilt as multi-storey buildings, which rely on car park-style conveyer belt tech to transport burial urns from storage facilities within the building to a few communal tombstones as and when they are are requested.
Over at the Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo—which looks like a white, square spaceship anchored amidst a sea of high rise buildings—the aesthetics and outlook on the aftercare of those who have passed away is slightly different to Ruriden's.
At Rurikoin, which was created by architect Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama, death, in some senses, has become a refined industry. Special efforts are made to ensure that the technology used at the complex remains a secret. While the multi-storey building hosts everything from prayer to concert rooms, the floor dedicated to the high-tech cemetery concept is closely monitored by the modern-day temple's staff when people who don't yet own lockers visit.
Naoko Kinoshita, a member of the Rurikoin's public relations team, led me through to a floor with three different communal tombstones, reminding me that photography was strictly forbidden.
"This technology tends to get copied, and each complex will have their own particular tech and graveyard aesthetics," Kinoshita told me. "We've welcomed potential customers before, but they've turned out to be technologists-in-disguise, who are just coming here to study the technology and layouts that we use."
According to Kinoshita, neighbouring Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and China are looking into setting up similar ventures to deal with shrinking space issues, and the decision not to show the technology to outsiders is because Rurikoin does not want its specific afterlife aesthetics to be replicated elsewhere. This would create competition for the complex, and lead it to lose its uniqueness.
While Kinoshita wouldn't divulge details on the graveyard technology used by the complex, she said that the system was designed by automobile manufacturer Toyota.
At Rurikoin as at Ruriden, each family possesses a swipe card that stores information regarding their locker number and details of their cremated relatives. On the floor, there are three communal tombstones, behind which are as many as 3,500 lockers. Once a locker owner swipes a card detector, it issues a command to a centralised computer system, which activates Toyota's hidden conveyor belt and fork lift tech.
The setup, explained Kinoshita, is much like how library books in a basement get delivered to a reading room, or how cars parked in multi-tiered garages are recalled from underground storage spaces to street level. As your relative's remains are delivered to a hollow in the communal tombstone, a digital photograph displays a slideshow of commemorative images of your deceased relative. While candles cannot be lit, fragments of incense can be lightly singed over little heated stones in front of the tomb. Here, there are no qualms around recycling burial lockers.
"These days parents don't want to burden their kids with having to clean the family tomb, or pay high yearly maintenance fees. This place is very close to the train station, and when people come to hang out in Shinjuku they can just swing by here if they have extra time," said Kinoshita. "I just don't think that children these days relate to traditional burial practices. This way of dealing with the afterlife is more practical."
Though Kinoshita explained that these alternative graveyards have begun to be adopted more widely, she said that there were still some who opposed them, and found it strange to rely on an automated system to retrieve and restore their dead relatives ashes.
She nonetheless predicted further advances in burial tech and mourning traditions in the future.
"In the future, we could even have holographic representations of our dead relatives overlaid with pre-recorded dialogue so that if feels like we're still speaking with them," said Kinoshita. "That would be very Harry Potter-like."
Japan's technology-supported burial and commemoration methods might seem hyper-futuristic. Both Kinoshita and Yajima, however, said they were just signs of a society leveraging the tech that was already out there to adapt to changing norms and lifestyles.
"I had to remind them that we weren't trying to imitate Las Vegas, and that this was a serious place of worship and commemoration"
Over at Ruriden, Yajima took a moment from consulting with Nakajima to tell me that that month's themed light up show at the burial complex was based on the four seasons, and that's why the Buddha statues were changing between autumnal reddish hues, wintry blues, and summery greens.
"If you keep a close eye out, you might spot a shooting star," he said, grinning, just as a diagonal row of glass Buddhas lit up in blue. "See, there it is!"
While Yajima aims to preserve the sense of fun and promote a certain aesthetic with Ruriden, he said he once got angry when his light technicians got too experimental. "I had to remind them that we weren't trying to imitate Las Vegas, and that this was a serious place of worship and commemoration," he said.
As I left the complex, I asked Nakajima for her thoughts on Japan's changing burial practices.
"The change we're seeing in cemeteries has become quite a popular debate these days. I have no qualms about these newer types of grave," she told me, before leaning in closer.
"To be honest with you, I shouldn't say this, but I don't really feel the need to be buried under a piece of stone or have a grave of any sort. I don't believe in the world of the dead, so my ashes might as well be scattered into the sea."
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.