Funeral expenses in Japan are heading downwards even as the number of people who die each year is gradually climbing.
The cost of having a funeral has been shrinking as more people opt for simpler and therefore less expensive ways of saying goodbye to their loved ones.
Funeral expenses dropped by 480,000 yen (S$5,889) over the past 15 years, according to Japan Consumer Association.
Experts also say that with the growing income gap in Japan in the past decade or so, fewer people are now able to afford an old-fashioned funeral, complete with all the bells and whistles.
And as in any other industry, fierce competition among undertakers has also resulted in lower prices.
Even so, funerals in Japan are the most expensive in the world.
Author and religious scholar Hiroki Shimada puts average funeral expenses in Japan at 2.31 million yen (S$28,198) in a recent best-seller in which he advocated that people should die simply.
Americans, he says, pay only an average of 444,000 yen for a funeral, while the British just 123,000 yen.
In Japan, adding the cost of a grave could push the cost of sending off a dead person to over 5 million yen.
Mr Shimada is well-qualified to advise people who want to do away with expensive burial rites and graves.
He happens also to head a grassroots organization that promotes “natural funerals” by scattering a dead person’s ashes into the sea or on remote mountain sides.
In the old-fashioned Japanese funeral, a wake is normally held at a funeral parlour.
Buddhist priests are employed to conduct the farewell rituals and after the ceremony, mourners are invited to partake of food, typically sushi and tempura, in a separate room.
Prices for such services are invariably marked up and no haggling is expected.
The price of a funeral can easily double if one opts to give the departed a posthumous Buddhist name, in a practice known as “kaimyo”.
The price goes up considerably if two additional Chinese characters (which read “koji”) are added after the posthumous name to indicate that the departed – who in this case must be a male – was steeped in Buddhist teachings though he was not a priest.
Another reason for the decline in funeral expenses is said to be due to more and more Japanese dying at an older age than before, many breathing their last in their late 80s and 90s.
The older the age of the deceased person, the fewer the number of surviving old school friends, former business associates and relatives available to send him or her off.
That automatically scales down the size of a funeral.
However, most funerals still remain rather pricey by foreign standards.
Company employee Masakazu Ota recently lost his mother-in-law.
A simple wake was held at home but the bill from the undertakers still came to about 800,000 yen, he said.
The Buddhist priest recruited to conduct the funeral rites was paid another 300,000 yen for which no receipt was issued.
“In Japan, it appears to be not the practice for priests to issue receipts,” Mr Ota said with a wry smile.
There was no way his family could have had a cheaper funeral.
“None of us really knew what would be a reasonable price. It was also not a situation where we could shop around,” said Mr Ota.
“When everyone was feeling sad and we had to make decisions quickly, we inevitably ended up giving the undertakers whatever they asked for,” he added.
Reports suggest that by doing away with a wake and limiting mourners to immediate family members and relatives, the cost of a funeral could go down to as low as 150,000 yen – essentially the cost of a coffin and cremation expenses.
For people determined to get the best possible deal, coffins are available from about 20,000 yen each through online shopping sites where they are listed as originally costing 8-10 times more.
According to a survey by Hibiya Kadan, an established florist in Tokyo, 19 per cent of families now do away with funerals.
Instead, bereaved family members head straight to the crematorium where a simple farewell ceremony is held for the departed.
It is no wonder that the size of the nation’s funeral industry, now worth well over 1 trillion yen a year, has been steadily falling in recent years.
This is despite the rapid aging of Japanese society – one-quarter of the population of 127.3 million is already over-65.
The number of deaths a year has exceeded 1 million since 2000 and is expected to peak at around 1.66 million annually in the 2040s.
But operators in the funeral industry are not holding their breath for an expanding bonanza.