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Ash-Scattering Is Spreading in Japan

Funerals: High cost and scarce land prompt some to veer from traditional burials and interments, much to the dismay of Buddhist officials.


TOKYO — With four powdery tosses, Meiko Mori sprinkles the crushed bone and ashen remains of her father over the leafy undergrowth of a silent cedar grove that he loved.

"He was always telling us not to spend money on fancy ceremonies," Mori says while sitting on a log after the informal ceremony in the foothills rimming Tokyo. "This is the perfect way to honor him."

About a million Japanese die every year, and cremation is virtually universal. But only about 100 are ushered to the afterlife with their ashes scattered, not stored.

Still, with the remains of nearly 1 million Tokyoites stored at relatives' homes because of a lack of cemetery space and burial plot prices that soar to $20,000 a square yard, ash-scattering could be the look of the future.

Scattering ashes defies ancient Buddhist tradition and, by the native Shinto way of thinking, is shunned for spreading bad omens.

But in reaction to economic hard times, concern for the environment and increasing alienation from religious dogma, more people are challenging the Japanese idea of what it means to pay proper final respects.

The land pinch has inspired some clever innovations such as tiny grave-boxes that look like coin-operated lockers, or computer-operated machines that bring memorials up from space-saving underground storage. Tossing ashes at sea or in rivers is also gaining popularity.

Mori's mountainside is still the only place to sprinkle remains on land in the Tokyo area, where about a fifth of all Japanese live, and it's a two-hour trip from the city center.

Legally there is no problem. But the Buddhist establishment has long opposed the practice, in large part because it's not centered on a grave site, the anchor of the religion's death rites.

Part of the opposition is financial--selling burial plots in temple courtyards is a major source of income for Buddhist groups. Another money maker is the sale of afterlife names that adorn a tombstone. Bereaved families are obliged to pay up to 1 million yen ($8,000) to have an auspicious name inscribed. Ash spreaders often forgo these formalities.

Ancient practices are an important part of the Japanese psyche, however.

Every summer, millions of people flock to ancestral grave sites to pay homage, dance and join in outdoor fairs. The "Ritual of the Dead" is a part of summer most people can't imagine giving up.

"Visiting grave sites is an important Japanese custom," said Mutsumi Yokota at Japan's Cemetery Assns. He called the increasing popularity of spreading ashes "a very bad trend."

But the founder of the Grave-Free society, Mutsuhiko Yasuda, said the movement is merely intended to give people more choice.

"In Japan, we have to become a country where you can choose the manner of your own funeral," he said. "We have the right to choose how we respect the dead."

His nonprofit group charges a bargain $800-$1,600, and people can venerate their loved ones as they see fit.

Yasuda's group began buying its own land and accepting donated properties after requests to sprinkle ashes elsewhere were repeatedly rejected. A general aversion to death as unclean leads many landowners to worry about being tainted by scattered remains.

Ghostly white patches of ash dot the forest floor on the mountain where Mori has deposited her father's remains. Groundskeepers at the 1,800-foot peak try to keep its exact location secret so as not to turn off day-trippers from popular mountain trails nearby.

The society has conducted ash-scatterings for 1,030 people in the 10 years since its founding. It held just one ceremony in 1991, but Yasuda expects the number to top 100 this year.

Those are small numbers, but Yasuda says they are sure to grow.

For some of the bereaved, ash-scattering has sentimental appeal.

Mori's 90-year-old father, Tsutomu Shimada, was an avid mountain climber and held such irreverence for ceremony that he didn't even attend his daughter's wedding.

At his funeral there were no Buddhist monk, no incense, no last rites. After tossing the ashes, Mori, along with her mother, brother and uncle, left a bundle of flowers by a tree trunk and planted a twiggy sapling.

But that doesn't mean the family has completely broken with tradition. Aside from the ashes they scatter, some will be interred at the family plot.

"That was for other family members who felt it was still important," Mori says.

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