Priests on funerals: What’s business got to do with it

Funeral arrangement, with flower arrangements, a portrait of the deceased, and an ihai, a spirit tablet.

TOKYO (majirox news) — The $21 billion funeral industry is changing as more Japanese households are cutting down on the expensive business of dying during the global economic downturn.

Many Japanese are choosing cheaper funerals as the aging population is growing. In fact, Japan has the highest proportion of elderly citizens over the age of 65 (23.1%), according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Last year, 1.2 million people passed away.

With the average funeral (including the ceremony, cremation, flowers, urns and donations for the Buddhist monks) costing an average of about 2.8 million yen ($37,000), more people are seeking out less expensive alternatives

According to some, it is a good time to work in the funeral industry. In 2009, Aeon Corp, one of Japan’s biggest retail chains, went into the funeral business, normally the domain of the Buddhist temples. Aeon has partnered with 400 funeral companies and provides services through them. The company goal was to reduce funeral costs by making bulk purchases of funeral-related items. Aeon are forecasted to have 100,000 funeral customers the next three years.

“The reason we became involved in this business was to help solve all the complaints concerning the excessive expense of funerals,” said Fumitaka Hirotaka, a manager of Aeon’s Life Support department. He added that his father’s highlighted the reality of how expensive and unclear the funeral process was in Japan. He then discussed these issues with his coworkers, and the company decided to get into the business.

Aeon charges about 198,000 yen ($2,640) for a minimum plan. However, an Aeon representative on the phone said, “If you want to include the cremation, the transportation fee and the funeral room fee it will cost about 800,000 yen ($10,666), but without the donation for the Buddhist priest.”

Aeon offers 24-hour customer service, including cost estimates, funeral quality and services afterwards. Customers can also pay with an Aeon credit card.

“Employees have to pass our own 140 funeral conditional rules so we can provide quality services,” Hirotaka says. Some of these requirements include dealing with people skillfully on the phone and being able to do various tasks with empathy and kindness.

Buddhist Priests Feeling Strange
Many Buddhist priests feel like Shido Tanaka, 25, who is himself a priest. He feels strange about Aeon’s involvement with funerals because Aeon thinks of them as a business.

“Many people might think that the Buddhist temple charges everything for the funeral since we depend on the funeral income for our survival, but it’s not true,” Tanaka said in Tokyo. He added that priests only receive the donations that families give them for conducting the funeral service. “We don’t make money off headstones or any other items,” he said.

He says the average donation to a Buddhist monk at the funeral ranges from 250,000 yen ($3,200) to 1 million yen ($13,000). Moreover, it is the business companies that are charging for extras, which is making funerals more expensive.

Although Buddhist priests need to reconsider the meaning of the funeral, Tanaka believes we should never think of the funeral as a business.

“It’s a significant opportunity for the surviving family to trace their loved one’s life and receive the messages that he or she left behind. Through these ceremonies they believe they are communicating with them,” he says.

However, Aeon believes they embody the voice of the people. Hirotaka says, “People don’t need to pay a large amount of money for a funeral. We help out the customer.”

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