Coronavirus threat sends Japanese mourning into digital mode

TOKYO — Japan’s funeral businesses are adopting digital tools in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing demanded to rein in its spread.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on citizens and residents to limit the size of gatherings to decrease new infections after recent jumps in confirmed cases spurred him to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and some other parts of the country. The call is also affecting attendance at funerals as people increasingly stay away.

Nishida, a Nagoya-based funeral provider, this month began offering ceremonies via the Zoom videoconferencing app, which allows up to 1,000 people to watch a ceremony in real time. Participants receive a link to access a livestream of the event shot by its staff on site. After joining the ceremony, people can even “chat” with each other via keyboard input.

About 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted with Buddhist-style rites no matter what religion the family practices. Buddhist funerals were introduced to Japan during the Heian period, which spanned the 8th to 12th centuries, but were limited to the nobility. Ordinary people only began to participate centuries later.

Nishida describes its videoconferencing funeral with the expression “net yohai.” Net is short for internet and refers to going online, while yohai means to pray remotely in the direction of deities and ancestors without visiting a temple or shrine.

Memolead, another funeral service in Gunma Prefecture north of Tokyo, is launching digital based ceremonies this month. The chief mourner for the funeral, usually the spouse or child of the deceased, will send a notice about the death through a social networking service such as Line or Facebook that will provide instructions for accessing the ceremony live on YouTube. Offerings of condolence in the form of money and flowers can also be given through online cashless payments.

Such digital services are not just for maintaining safe distancing between mourners but also to protect them from approaching the bodies of coronavirus victims.

Traditionally, Buddhist-style services in Japan are conducted with a priest reading sutras before mourners gathered in the presence of the body placed in a coffin. Bodies are rarely embalmed, but are sanitized and makeup is applied. After the funeral the remains are cremated.

But the coronavirus has made that impossible. In a widely publicized case, family members of popular Japanese comedian Ken Shimura — who died of pneumonia caused by the coronavirus at the end of March — were unable to approach his corpse.

Satoshi Hori, professor of infection control science at Juntendo University in Tokyo, told Nikkei that victims who die of COVID-19 “cannot be touched” as “the virus is still on the surface of the body.”

Funeral businesses started digital services after Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in funeral attendees.

“The coronavirus has hit the funeral industry hard, especially for operators organizing large-scale ceremonies” Yuki Nishida, managing director at Nishida, told Nikkei Asian Review.

Smaller ceremonies due to the coronavirus mean less expense for families compared to traditional funerals which generally cost up to 1.5 million yen ($14,000), said Nishida, whose company for the past decade was already shifting its business focus to smaller-sized ceremonies consisting mostly of family members, given demographic trends in Japan, including higher divorce rates and increase in one-person households.

Still, he feels a “sense of crisis” regarding the business amid the coronavirus pandemic as even family members who live far away cannot travel to attend funerals in person.

Accompanying declines in demand for flowers and meals for attendees also affects the industry, he added, while lower occupancy rates for funeral halls further burden companies paying heavy rents. On top of the funeral price, the teleconference charge for ceremonies is free for less than 100 participants. But it costs 10,000 yen for between 100 to 500 and doubles to 20,000 yen for as many as 1,000. Cremations cost around 200,000 yen.

The situation in Japan, however, is not nearly as dire as in Italy and Spain where governments have banned funerals. Japanese authorities are so far unwilling to go that far, with the health ministry emphasizing the need to “respect the intention of bereaved families as much as possible, such as conducting normal funerals” if effective infection prevention measures can be taken.

Still, around 90% of funeral operators say attendance has decreased or expect it to drop due to the coronavirus, according to a survey by Kamakura Shinsho, a funeral industry research company. Also, about 80% of them have suspended or postponed events such as seminars for end of life planning and preliminary consultations, which could negatively affect the industry.

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