Japanese Graveyards

Danny Choo is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. Danny resides in Tokyo, and blogs about life in Japan and Japanese subculture - he also works part time for the empire.
dannychoo_bochi.jpg This is a picture of a typical Japanese graveyard. The norm is that a family buys some land and then builds a tomb to fit the rest of the family. G'ma, G'pa, mom, pop and yourself get to spend the rest of eternity together - at a cost. The most expensive tombs I've been able to find costs 109,908 USD at the Aoyama cemetery. That 109,908 USD gets you about 3.4 square meters. The funeral will cost a bomb too and the most expensive I've been able to find is 23,408 USD at kakaku.com - but you get great drinks and enough food for up to 30 family members and 70 guests who come to pay their respects. I guess there are ways to make (lots of) money even from dead folks. In general, families have the choice of burning or burying their members. When you die, how would you like to go? My wife and I have decided to donate our organs and folks in Japan can register here if you want to do so too. Photo plucked from my weekly A Week in Tokyo series.


  1. Donating organs is great; but know that none of them will be used for medical research. There is a serious lack of healthy brains donated for neurological research; by bequeathing your brain to research after death, you can benefit many others.

  2. so .. how much would be the cheapest?

    We just had that discussion coz my wife is out off the family lot, since she married a gaijin.

    While I admire the idea of organ donation in general … i kinda don’t want my organs to go anywhere … on the other hand I know that stuff is in demand .. so I might reconsider ..

    Totally different note, I think Lisa and Danny should create ‘Boing Boing Japan’ … i’d be reading that much more that BB offworld :)

    I love your stuff Danny, but I like the BB format … your website confuses me at times …

  3. of course the people coming to the funeral, just give money to the bereaved family. Make sure your guest list is extensive enough and you won’t be out of pocket.

  4. “In general, families have the choice of burning or burying their members.”

    Are you sure about that, Danny? I’m pretty sure I’ve read that burying is not an option anywhere anymore. Even in places that have had a tradition of burying, such as the island of Yoron between Kyushuu and Okinawa, have had the government build crematoriums and have switched over.

    By pure chance, I got to see some of the last dirt graves awaiting the digging-upping-and-repacking there, about one year after the crematorium opened. Wished I’d been less concerned about my localguides sensitivities and had taken lots of photos. Bodies were buried dirt and then a wooden structure – a sort of model shrine, was placed on top. When the structure collapsed after a couple-three years, it signified that the bones were “ready”. Then the family dug up the clean bones and packed them more compactly in some kind of a large cask or jar. IFRC, those were then re-buried. (I didn’t see any.)

  5. “I guess there are ways to make (lots of) money even from dead folks.”

    It’s not like they can take it with them…

  6. Well since I’m not in Japan I think I’m going with burial. It’s just something about fire that bothers me….

    But I’d rather be buried in a pine box, not embalmed. I don’t need to stay preserved for 50+ years. In 10 years or so a pile of bones is fine by me. Toss in a handful of stump rot for good measure and I’ll be a happy man.


    If I won the lottery (not that I play..?), I’d go frozen. Not that the science is even right, but I just think it’s cool.

  7. Coming from a long line of UP Michigan folks, we have our own traditions.

    Our family owns a significant amount of land in the middle of a national forest area in northern Michigan, miles from the nearest town. (this is the property on which great grandfather fell into the outhouse and froze to death).

    The family tradition is based roughly on some of the old native american traditions regarding death and entry into the next world. We’ve been doing this for nearly 200 years now.

    When a member of the family dies he/she is taken by caravan to the property. There, with the help of many family members, an elevated platform (about 5 feet off the ground) is built. The body, wrapped in red cloth then covered with feathers and furs, is left on the platform for a week.

    Typically when we return, there is little left, nature does it’s job quickly in the north. The body has returned to the elements with the help of wolves, wolverines, insects (in the summer), crows, turkey vultures and kindred wildlife. Any remains that remain (no pun intended) are lifted back onto the platform and a fire is lite, the spirit wafts into the sky.

    Then we drink a lot.

  8. Danny-san,

    I second Caipirina. I love your stuff but I find it much easier to read in this format. Sometimes I get lost on your site but I do love the images. You certainly have an eye for the eye catching!

    As to burial, I think I’d rather be burnt – just as long as you’re sure I’m dead first! I like the idea of being thrown off a mountain and then going with the breeze – a fab way to say goodbye to the world I reckon…. or maybe I’m just nuts : )

  9. “lots of money from dead folks”
    It has been thus for a long time.
    When young, I was once advised that three professions will always be needed, so long as there are people:
    a. Undertakers,
    b. Moneychangers, and
    c. Matchmakers.
    These do each require some talent, but if there are suitably talented younger people reading, you might want to explore the career possibilities afforded by these professions.

  10. Uktkyoite: the Tibetan “sky burial” has always appealed to my aesthetic sense, I don’t know why. I guess it is a little different than simply throwing the corpse from a great height, though.
    But I have no preference at all as to my own remains, now that I come to think on it.

  11. @2: Organs aren’t just “in demand” … they’re desperately needed by dying people. Thousands and thousands are on lists for organs every year.

    I’d go the “donate, cremate” route too (or any other option that doesn’t demand eternal preservation).

  12. I had never thought of cremation until about two weeks ago…my father died suddenly and he had always said he wanted to be cremated but we never listened (too morbid to talk about what will happen to someone when they are dead with someone you hope never dies). Luckily, his will stipulated this.

    No burial, no funeral, no wasting money on someone that can’t appreciate it and definitely, no looking at a broken piece of meat in a box.

    The funeral director that arranged all of this tried as much as he could for the ‘extras’, but no. It *STILL* cost $2k for the cremation…even on something that is as simple as lighting a fire seems to be a costly expense.

    The funny thing is that it was far less traumatic than funerals I’ve had with friends and family that weren’t nearly as close. I swear these organizations make the process so horrifying that one feels there needs to be some reverence to someone that no longer exists on this plane so that they can encourage the next one to be bigger and grander in the hopes that the family will feel ‘more at peace’ (fuck that…they just want the money).


  13. Can you post a picture of one of the hearses?

    I was in Tokyo in 2002; I saw one of those jobs come around a corner and couldn’t get my camera up fast enough. I had fantasies for *years* about driving one around Stateside…

  14. Here’s a money saving tip:

    Instead of donating organs, why not make sashimi? That will cut catering costs at the funeral.

    You’ve got to think these things through…

  15. In a cardboard coffin with a cherry blossom tree planted on top.
    Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this recently.

  16. When I go I want to be blown up, but my wife refuses. I had to settle for being cremated, and shot into the sky in a home made rocket, which then blows up.

  17. Something biodegradable. Pine box at the foot of a tree, or the like. I think the desire to take up space after you die is vain.

  18. Anything to avoid being turned into toxic waste wrapped in concrete, I guess. I like the idea of “organic” burial (i.e. the fancy California name for what most of the world does – wrap the body in a winding sheet and bury it fast). That may be complicated around here, so I guess cremation would do fine too.

    If I end up leaving useful organs, I hope someone can use them. I have a donor card in my wallet.

  19. “Luckily, his will stipulated this.”

    It’s actually not a good idea to put burial instructions in a will which is usually only read after the burial.

  20. Well Nanuq such expressions of how one wishes to be disposed of are not usually legally binding in any case.
    PS I take this opportunity to wish a warm welcome to President Obama upon the occasion of his regrettably all-too-brief visit to our fair Canada.

  21. Nanuq @22: Doesn’t the executor read the will before the formal reading? In any case, the lawyer who helped draft it (if it’s not the same person as the executor) and the witnesses will know about the stipulation.

    Clif @14: You’ve reminded me of an episode of a programme called Around the World in Eighty Faiths shown on the BBC recently which featured a funeral in some Pacific nation where the preparations for a funeral can take years, sometimes decades to complete. They include the building of a funereal dwelling for the decedent, and a massive, multi-day feast for all the family, friends and hangers-on. While all the preparations are going on, the corpse is housed in the family home, often in the room where they died….

    I think I’d like to go the organ donation and air-burial way, myself, but a lack of vultures in the UK, the clement weather and the lack of many true wilderness areas probably rules out exposure of the corpse. Maybe there’s a body farm I can donate to.

    PS I was trying to remember the fancy term for air burial, but I don’t have the relevent copy of Sandman to hand, and googling didn’t reveal it for me, but I did find the Japanese term for anyone who’s interested: 風葬 (fÅ«sō)

  22. There is a serious lack of organ donation in Japan – While kidney transplants for end stage renal failure are the norm in the UK and US, in Japan people will spend 30-40 years on dialysis 3 times a week and die of heart attacks where they could easily be saved by an organ transplant.

    Since gaijin aren’t limited by the same age-old spiritual beliefs about wholeness etc. it is a great gift that you can give to donate your organs and help the country turn its head towards organ transplantation

  23. Hopefully by the time I die, burials in space will be an option. I want my frozen body to explore the stars, or maybe come into contact with an alien civilization so I can come back to Earth in my little spaceship and my head preserved in a jar.

  24. @nanuq

    “It’s actually not a good idea to put burial instructions in a will which is usually only read after the burial.”

    It is when there is a HUGE file folder in his bedroom stating what should be done in any event, from the mundane to the tragic…sadly, we had to deal with the later.

  25. My wife and I had an amazing time exploring the cemetery at Ekoin Temple in Ryogoku, Tokyo a few years back. Ryogoku is best known as the heartland of professional sumo; we stumbled on the temple searching for a beya (sumo stable) to tour. Flickr set: http://snipr.com/c7y8l

  26. My organs are for sale at my death.

    If UNOS, the surgeon doing the harvesting, the hospital, the insurance company, the funeral home, and cemetary are going to profit from my demise, then so should my survivors.

  27. Hi Danny:

    I wasn’t aware that conventional burial was an option in Japan. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, I read an article that seemed to suggest cremation was the mandatory route. A few Americans died in this disaster, and some of them belonged to a Christian sect that prohibited cremation. The families of these people sued the Japanese government for return of the intact bodies, but were denied.

    Of course, there were nearly 6,500 bodies to deal with in the aftermath, and so cremation may have been the only practical way to handle things. Then too, there might be special rules governing non-natural deaths, foreigners’ deaths, etc.

    As an employee of a cryonics organization at that time (Alcor Foundation, 1995 – 1999), I had to advise our membership to take great caution with visiting Japan. Perhaps I was a little hasty in doing so, though transporting bodies internationally always presents a less-than-optimal scenario for cryonics.

    (And incidentally, to BCSIZEMO, who mentioned the cryonics option if he “won the lottery,” it should probably be pointed out that arrangements don’t require such a huge sum of money. I can afford it, and I probably have about an average income for the BoingBoing crowd. As for the “science not being right,” that’s a matter best debated by the few individuals qualified, among whom I cannot count myself. However, currently it seems that technology is the sticking point, not science.)

  28. When I die, I want my body to be frozen solid and dropped from a great height onto my boss. Maybe they could cut me up into sizable chunks in case they need to take more than one shot at him.

  29. When you die, how would you like to go?

    I’d like to go quietly in my sleep, like my grandpa – not screaming in terror, like his passengers.

    But seriously, folks: Whatever is most economical and ecologically friendly. Burial at sea, cremation, dump me in a ditch, whatever. No stainless steel coffin and marble mausoleum for me, thanks.

  30. bondjamesbond: that’s beautiful.


    I hope to be cremated after science and medicine have picked me clean, and my ashes should be used to start a bonfire at my favorite camping spot.

  31. Rip my organs out and dump me in the desert, or the ocean. The latter is semi-legal, if i’m weighted, in a canvas bag and not in a trawling or fishing zone.

  32. Hmmm…did not know about the Eastern thing about bodily “wholeness” blocking broader organ donation participation – which is a shame, all ought to be donors, but of course it ought to remain an individual’s choice. But maybe it ought to be opt-out, not opt-in.
    I did know that Western religions which emphasize the “resurrection of the body” (some Christians do, some don’t – and I’m ignorant about other religions’ practices in this regard) do not cremate. So hang-ups and old customs in this area are hardly an eastern thing.
    Oh, and the fire-worshiping Zoroastrians (the religion of ancient Persia, and still practiced in parts of Iran IIRC ) had special-built towers upon which they exposed their dead for the birds of carrion. So the “sky burial” does have parallels outside of Tibet.

  33. Eco, donor concerns aside, I found Japanese funerals to be far….truer to the cyclical nature of all life than a standard Western burial. At first challenging, yes, but on reflection beautiful, intimate and strongly connected to freedom. No doubt there are some small variations but immediate famly members see the human-sized steel tray come out of the incinerator (apols if this is an insensitive choice of language) with an outline of bone fragments and dust still intact, incredibly white and friable. These fragments are then gathered into a smaller steel tray at which point wider family members enter and standing next to each other in pairs, a pair of giant chopsticks is held by each pair member and together they pick up a single fragment and place it into the urn. The next pair then take up the chopsticks and do the same, and so on until everyone has placed a fragment. This ritual is the reason why you NEVER pass food from chopstick to chopstick in Japan, even casually. Bad, bad ju-ju.
    Once that part of the ceremony is complete the family and relatives gather round as the attendant then places the remaining parts into the urn, in order from ground up, with a short explanation of what each part is. Here the assembled ooh and ahh appropriately. Skull fragments of course go in last and the urn is closed.
    The urn is then interred in the family plot at another ceremony. And of course being Japan, a fair bit of drinking takes place before, during and after.
    There’s a lot more to it all than I know or can write here, death in Japan is a fascinating subject. As I mentioned above though, I was struck by the quiet, honest, in-your-face-ness of it, this-is-what-we-come-from/go-to aspect and the understanding that our physical body is simply a vehicle and that we are set free of this when we die. The idea of being boxed now feels like the last thing I’d ever want.

  34. I’d like my body, not just ashes thrown into space. maybe I’ll be infested by some kind of galactic microbe and be reanimated, or be found by some aliens and be revered as a god. more interesting than being buried in the ground at least.

    if i had to choose a way to die, I’d have to say being struck by lightning while being attacked by a shark.

    that seems to be the most awesome way to go.

  35. I want people to take my organs then bury me in nothing more than a cotton sheet.

    This page has some good ideas. I personally like the ‘Natural Burial’ section about 2/3rds down the page.

    This way the funeral part can still have a coffin that allows for whomever attend to have the ‘traditional’ part of the funeral. Whilst afterwards I have a tree planted with a simple plaque or something rather than the large stone. I certainly don’t want to be embalmed either.

  36. For some strange reason I’ve been fascinated by various funeral customs for many years now, all “morbid curiosity” puns aside.

    First of all, you can’t serve human flesh to humans – at least in the US; it’s not technically legal. (We’re apparently not considered fit for human consumption.)

    Organ donations seem to be appreciated by people all over the world, and more than just things like your heart or kidneys are valued; my father’s cornea transplants were made possible due to organ donation.

    Donating your body to science is an option; anything from a teaching hospital to certain forensics establishments who need to know how the body decomposes in certain situations so they can better understand various crime scenes.

    I think the Capsula Mundi is a very interesting way to be buried; your body is placed in the fetal position inside a biodegradable capsule, and a tree is planted above the capsule. Take a look: http://www.inhabitat.com/2005/11/06/capsula-mundi/ (The Capsula Mundi’s actual site is an annoying mess-o-flash, hence the article link instead; http://www.capsulamundi.it/ if you don’t believe me.)

    You can also be composted via a process called Promession. The body is frozen using liquid nitrogen, and then shattered into dust; the dust is then buried, and in 6 to 12 months the deceased becomes very tasty plant food.

    I wouldn’t worry about being buried alive in this day in age, at least as long as you go through a mortuary. While embalming is certainly one way to make sure someone is in fact deceased, it’s my understanding that funeral homes actually cut the stomach muscles of those to be buried so that the corpse doesn’t sit up and scare the crap out of people when those muscles eventually tighten. If they do that to you in a funeral home, you’re probably not going to survive the procedure.


    *Also, did you know that it’s illegal to be buried in San Francisco, and has been for more than 100 years? All burials are done in the town of Colma, which is exists almost solely for that purpose. They have a total of about 17 cemeteries, and they take up approximately 73% of the town’s land.

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