In a small wood-paneled room on the outskirts of Osaka, a band of mourners have gathered to raise prayers and burn incense for the departed. There is music, and flowers, and an empty casket. The departed — an elderly husband and wife — are standing with the congregation, still very much alive.
This is a seizensō, or living funeral. A relatively new trend for a country steeped in tradition, the concept was popularised in the 1990s by actress Junko Yamada, who televised her own living funeral. Instead of cremation, a paper effigy of Yamada was set alight. Purposefully upbeat in tone (one of the “hymns” chosen was Santa Claus is Coming To Town, even though it was February), Yamada shifted the focus from one of bereavement to a celebration of her life. It was an iconic TV moment, even if it was as much a funeral as a parody of over-wrought celebrity memorials and an indulgence on the part of Yamada.
Since then, the seizensō has been gathering pace across Japan, but with an altogether less genial motive. In a rapidly ageing society,Japanese parents are choosing to undergo seizensō as a way of formally cutting ties with offspring who can no longer cope with the burden of both ageing parents and a young family.
In some cases, this is a toll of physical care, especially in the case of parents whose own health is in decline. The seizensō acts as a way to alleviate the guilt in abandoning elders to nursing homes and hospices, and grants the opportunity for the “departee” to maintain control of their own exit from an engaged family life.
But a larger factor at play may be the redistribution of wealth from one generation to the next, which has been suspended by soaring life expectancies. Many feel that by living well into their children’s middle age and even retirement, the social contract that dictates the trickle of wealth downwards through inheritance has been broken. The post-war generation in Japan hold around 80% of the material wealth, mostly bound up savings and property. The remainder is split between their parents and their children, the latter of whom find themselves struggling against a generation that can outprice them on almost every expenditure, driving living costs up to breaking point. These young people are called waika, a term for rice plants stunted by poor weather, implying they have failed to reach their full potential. The guilt associated with this epidemic of waika is one of the driving forces behind the spread of seizensō, as parents and grandparents opt to “die” in order to pass their accumulated wealth to their children. By holding a living funeral, parents downsize to smaller homes and lifestyles a fraction of what they previously enjoyed, in the hope the sacrifice gives their adult children and grandchildren a boost in life.Wills are rarely drawn up in Japan, so a living funeral also offers the ability to organise financial matters and pre-empt arguments over inheritance.
Some however point to a growing outcry against the seizensō as stories emerge of familial abuses played out on the stage of the living funeral. Frail and elderly parents may be bullied into the seizensō by demanding children, whose interests are based more in greed than desperation. Isolated elders may be duped by conmen posing as long-lost relatives, or pressured by gangs into holding seizensō so their property and possessions can be appropriated.
One thing is for certain: with living funerals popping up in the United States and Europe, seizensō could be Japan’s next major cultural export.