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The crematory is booked? Japan offers corpse hotels

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    The funeral for Hajime Iguchi at Sousou, a so-called corpse hotel in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki City, last year.

OSAKA, Japan >> The minimalist rooms at the Hotel Relation here in Japan’s third-largest city are furnished with plain twin beds. Flat-screen televisions adorn the walls. And just across the hall are the rooms where the corpses rest.

Checkout time, for the living and the dead, is usually no later than 3 p.m.

The Hotel Relation is what Japanese call an “itai hoteru,” or corpse hotel. About half the rooms are fitted with small altars and narrow platforms designed to hold coffins. Some also have climate-controlled coffins with transparent lids so mourners can peer inside.

Part mortuary, part inn, these hotels serve a growing market of Japanese seeking an alternative to a big, traditional funeral in a country where the population is aging rapidly, community bonds are fraying and crematories are struggling to keep up with the sheer number of people dying.

The corpse hotels offer a place where a body can be stored at low cost until the crematory is ready, and where small, inexpensive wakes and services can be held outside the home.

The demand for “itai hoteru” is likely to grow. Last year, 1.3 million people died in Japan, up 35 percent from 15 years earlier, and the annual toll is expected to climb until it peaks at 1.7 million in 2040, according to the Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare.

About 37 percent of Japanese women who died last year were over 90, with few surviving friends to mourn them. And close to one-fifth of Japanese men never marry or father children, leaving behind few relatives to plan or attend funerals.

At the Hotel Relation in Osaka, about a third of the customers forgo a formal funeral. Instead, they sit in the rooms with their dearly departed for a day or two, with only close family in attendance, and then send the bodies for cremation.

Corpse hotels are more economical than large funeral homes. According to the Japan Consumer Association, the average funeral in Japan runs 1.95 million yen, or about $17,690. The cheapest package at the Hotel Relation costs 185,000 yen, or about $1,768.

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