Automated graves: the new business of death in Japan

By Anna Vainio, PhD student, School of East Asian Studies

Each year our department runs a seminar series, inviting a number of interesting speakers to discuss their latest research and share it with staff, students and visitors alike. Last week saw this year’s keynote lecture, delivered by Prof. Anne Allison from Duke University, one of the leading voices in the field of Anthropology on Japan. Her fascinating lecture on Automated graves, the new business of death in Japan, gathered a sizeable audience from across the region. And, against expectations her talk was perhaps more about the subject of living than about dying itself.

As Japan has for a long time suffered from lowered birthrate combined with a rapidly aging population, increasingly many people today are departing from the physical world without leaving a family behind. Traditionally, death has been the business of family, with most people dying at home amongst their extended family, buried into the family grave in the countryside, with annual rituals being carried out by the family. With the decline of the family, death has become a lonely business, a haunting prospect on how “not to day”, says Allison, prompting people to manage their own death and life beyond the grave in advance.

This, according to Allison, has led to the development of a booming and ever growing “ending market”, referring to the popularisation and marketisation of death and dying. She presents us with a number of examples ranging from ‘grave buddies’ (haka-tomo) to sutra chanting robots, but mostly focusing on the concept of automated graves that promote a “designer style death”. To alleviate anxiety around death and dying alone, the number of automated gravesides is rising sharply, with over a hundred of them today in Tokyo alone.

But what is an automated grave site? The ashes of the deceased are stored in the facility and delivered to a one-size-fits-all viewing booth via an automated system for visitors who come and pay their respects and carry out necessary annual rituals. If no family is around, the rites can be carried out by the staff as well for an additional fee. Allison’s description gave a colourful and detailed account of a facility that combines grace and refinement, with maximum efficiency and convenience for the modern user (both the dead and the living).

During the Q&A Allison was asked whether these changes in how people are ending their days in Japan today can be seen as the death of Japanese culture itself, she provided a poignant response. While precariousness of the society is increasing and creeping into many aspects of life, literally from cradle to the grave, in contrast, these shifts in tradition can also be seen as signs of the vitality of Japanese culture itself. They represent a sense of hope and persistence to keep cultural forms, traditions and heritage alive.

In Japan drastic demographic changes and decline of the family is coupled with a highly developed and responsive consumer society. Whether it is cat cafes, “virtual wives”, or automated graves, they speak of a society that is developing services and products to alleviate a range of life’s discomforts and uncertainties, and helping people self-manage their lives in a number of ways in the absence of public or private safety nets. While many such services may on the surface seem depressing, they are still providing a sense of comfort, hope, and continuity for those trying to lead their lives, and to die, in an ever more precarious society.