Editorial Notes

Cemetery management also must reflect the tide of changing times: The Yomiuri Shimbun

As dusk falls on Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, street lamps illuminate a graveyard outside a temple that is packed with toppled headstones which are mostly damaged and strewn haphazardly against one another.
As dusk falls on Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, street lamps illuminate a graveyard outside a temple that is packed with toppled headstones which are mostly damaged and strewn haphazardly against one another.PHOTO: ST FILE

In its editorial on Sept 23, 2015, the paper calls for a rethink in planning for cemeteries, given that more people are dying and there aren't enough descendants to take care of graveyards.

Wednesday (Sept 23) was Autumnal Equinox Day, when many families will visit their family graves.

The practice of making an offering at a family grave during the higan equinoctial week can be described as part of Japanese traditional culture.

A visit to the family grave, where people express a feeling of gratitude to their ancestors, may deepen their family ties.

Since olden days, graveyards have been in harmony with the surrounding landscape in Japan. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in graves that no one maintains. One factor behind this is the low birthrate.

Many people worry about whether their family graves can be tended after their deaths. According to one survey, a significant 41 per cent of people said that they had no one to look after the graves after their deaths.

Some measures aimed at addressing problems arising from the existence of untended graves are stipulated in the regulations related to the enforcement of the cemetery burial law.

Under the regulations, a sign is to be erected at a graveyard, stating anyone who has the right to use a grave that remains untended must contact relevant organisations.

Such a notice is also to be published in a government gazette.

If such a person does not report within one year, pertinent organisations are authorized to transfer the ashes from an untended grave to sites such as tombs for those with no surviving relatives.

There have been about 5,000 cases of such reburial carried out under the regulations each year.

The Kumamoto prefectural government put together a study report on the administration of graveyards.

The report states that local governments should grasp the realities of local graveyards while also making renewed efforts to improve the situation surrounding unattended graves.

It is necessary to consider how the administration of graveyards should be conducted in a manner suited to the tide of the times.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of cemeteries, even including public ones, where a tomb is used to store the ashes of many people, with Buddhist services performed in perpetuity for the repose of departed souls.

The advantage of this method is that the families of the deceased will not have to tend to their family graves individually.

One such graveyard is Kodaira Cemetery, a facility run by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

Three years ago, some plots of land in the Kodaira facility were developed as a site for joint graves, with that section dotted with trees.

The facility has been favoured by many people. This year, communal spaces for 1,600 departed souls were offered, but applications to use them came to 11 times that number.

In Aira, Kagoshima prefecture, a local social welfare council offers such paid services as cleaning graves and placing flowers at graves on behalf of people who cannot travel from their distant homes to the city to visit their family graves.

The Takamatsu city government has added similar services to the list of items covered by the so-called furusato nozei (hometown tax payment) scheme.

It is safe to say that this is the age when local governments need to come up with good ideas for better management of graveyards.

There has been an upward trend in the number of deaths each year. The figure stood at 1.27 million last year. It is believed that one-third to one-fourth of the people who died last year wanted to establish new graves. Greater demand for graves can be anticipated in the foreseeable future, mainly in urban areas.

In many cases, however, it is difficult to make smooth progress in carrying out projects to build new large-scale cemeteries, largely due to objections from local residents.

The Memorial Green cemetery, a facility run by the Yokohama city government, was built at a site that had been occupied by an amusement park, along with projects to create a ballpark and other facilities on adjacent plots of lands.

The whole area is a place of recreation for local residents now. This serves as an illuminating case for other local governments.

There was a time when granting permission for the operation of graveyards was within the jurisdiction of prefectural governors.

Starting in 2012, the power to give such permission in cities and areas designated as special wards was transferred to city mayors and special ward chiefs, a measure carried out as part of the government's decentralization reform.

However, it is also necessary to promote broad-based cooperation in this respect and administer the operation of cemeteries from a long-term perspective, not just crafting necessary policies separately at each city and special ward.

The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.