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Regional News

Unclaimed burial urns pile up in Japan amid fraying social ties

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) — Unclaimed urns containing ashes of the dead are piling up by the thousands across Japan, creating storage headaches and reflecting fraying family ties and economic pressures in a rapidly aging nation.

The identities of the dead, cremated at public expense, are usually known. But in most cases, relatives either refuse or don’t respond to requests to collect their remains. Burials can be costly and time-consuming, a burden on family members who may hardly know the deceased relative.

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Kazuyuki Kitami, a city official of Yokosuka, holds a lantern as he visits a facility which keeps the unclaimed burial urns containing ashes of the dead in Yokosuka, Japan on Sept. 11, 2018.  REUTERS

“When I die, though I have only 150,000 yen ($1,340), will you cremate me and put me in a pauper’s grave? I have no one to collect my remains,” said a note left by a man in his 70s in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, who died in 2015 and whose urn was later buried at a local temple.

The abandoned remains highlight social, economic and demographic changes in Japan, where more elderly live on welfare and families are more scattered, weakening traditional family bonds and obligations.

It is a problem that is likely to grow, experts say; deaths in Japan are projected to rise from 1.33 million a year to 1.67 million by 2040, even as the overall population drops.

Yokosuka was so overwhelmed with unclaimed urns that it ran out of space in a 300-year-old charnel house that was about to collapse. It combined ashes of different people into a much smaller number of urns that it now stores in a hillside cave, with about 50 newer urns accumulating at the city office.

“Space to store them is running out,” said Hitomi Nakamura, an official in Saitama city, north of Tokyo, where the number of unclaimed urns has grown sharply the last few years to more than 1,700.

 “Many elderly people are living on welfare,” he added, “and many of them may be estranged from their families.”

With Japanese wages barely growing, and many children of the elderly living on pensions themselves, managing death costs, including arranging for their burial, can be a burden.

A traditional funeral, including food, drinks and gifts for guests, and hiring a Buddhist monk to chant sutras, can cost 2 million yen ($17,800) or more, industry sources say.

New businesses have sprung up offering no-frills funerals for $2,000 to $4,000, but other costs can add up, including the hundreds of dollars it may cost to bury the urn at a temple or cemetery.