Buddhist temples in Japan that have run out of graveyard space for tombs are turning to high-tech storage solutions for ashes of the deceased.
In Japan, cremation is the norm and remains of the dead are kept in urns stored in a stone tomb on a family plot in a graveyard. The outdoor tombs have limited space for expansion. Rather than using the traditional method where each urn is displayed in a permanent spot, the new columbariums store the ashes out of site on multilevel racks, and then use a mechanical system to bring the urns out when loved ones come to visit. These storage racks have been installed in existing buildings on temple grounds, or specially designed facilities located on the grounds, or in temple-run buildings located off-site.
Unryuin temple in Kyoto is one location that offers computer-controlled movable storage of ash urns. Similar to an ATM, a contactless ID card and touchscreen control the functions of the indoor altar. Glass partitions create booth-like private spaces for privacy. The price of the perpetual memorial starts at JPY 893,000 which includes management fees, temple fees, biannual prayer service and a steady supply of flowers and incense.
Some of these high tech vaults add to the ambiance by displaying a photo of the loved one accompanied by music when transporting the urn out of storage.
The Computer Controlled Automatic Cremation Urn Transfer System was developed and manufactured by Toyota Industries Corporation. Storage of 7000 urns is possible in a structure on a 50 square meter site.
But even those lucky enough to have gravesites still battle with problems. Japan is one of the fastest aging societies in the world, and some of the older population is finding it difficult to get to their ancestor’s gravesites because many of them have left their hometowns for larger cities. Even the younger generation finds it difficult to visit like they want to because of travel and work.
If seeing the gravesite itself is important, some Buddhist Temples have installed cameras, and allow mourners to remotely view their loved one’s graves. Honkokuji , a Buddhist temple outside Sendai, allows family members to remotely access a live stream of its graveyard. The virtual viewers can zoom in on their loved one’s plot, and do it for free from 5am to 6pm.
Some Japanese cemeteries and mausoleums are offering tombstones that display information using a QR code. Visitors point their phone QR scanner at a small QR code plaque attached to the tombstone to activate an embedded video display. On the screen, guests can see images of the deceased when alive, browse through the guest book, and watch a greeting from the chief mourner from the funeral. Smartphones can display the same information on the phone screen.
A temple at Sugamo Heiwa cemetery in Tokyo maintains a mausoleum outfitted with a computer monitor and ID card system to access information about the deceased. Family members can use a personalized magnetic card to display the data, such as the deceased’s posthumous Buddhist name, date of birth, date of death, and photos. Messages for the deceased can be entered into the file.
Sugamo Heiwa also offers internet access to family members via its Cyberstone service. Subscribers can enter their ID and password on the Cyberstone web page, access their account, and call up a summary of the life of their loved ones, which includes movies, audio, and images. Subscribers can even write messages to the dearly departed. A thirty-year membership runs JPY 150,000.
Finally, for those who can’t bear the thought of being apart from their deceased loved ones, there is the Memorial Diamond. Using carbon that is extracted from the remains, the manufacturer creates a synthetic diamond that can be inserted into a piece of jewelry. No artificial colors or materials are added, so each diamond will turn out differently. The diamonds can be placed in a ring or on a pendant.
And don’t worry pet lovers—you can have a memorial diamond created too. The only difference is that it’s created out of your pet’s hair, rather than carbon.