Ruriden House, Japan's Model For The Future Of Cemeteries

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

One of the goals of this blog, I think, is to showcase unique death-care related stories - often ones that cross over into the mainstream media - with an attention to the nuances of actually working in this industry. I’m sure each one of you has dealt with some mix of surprise and intrigue when meeting new people and revealing your profession. The business aspect of the death care industry is pretty close-knit, and fairly routine, but the general interest of what we do saturates the media landscape significantly. And now, for a variety of reasons, stories at the intersection of death and technology are becoming a fixture in publications, particularly ones that cater to a younger audience.

One of those stories takes us to, for lack of a better word, a “futuristic” cemetery in downtown Tokyo. Japan, with over 25% of its people over the age of 65, has the oldest population in the world, and it is rapidly aging - by 2060, that number is expected to rise to 40%. Compounding the problem is a birth rate in the bottom 15 of the world, and deaths outpacing births by a significant margin. They are not entirely alone - the United States will see its Baby Boomer population decrease 75% by 2050. For the Japanese, where can those without families feel welcome in the afterlife? How can cemeteries respond to the restriction of space? How do we approach the memorialization of cremains? How can one continue to meaningfully and substantially, with the aide of technology, personalize our funerary and memorial offerings?

Traditionally in Japan, entire families would own plots or tombs, and the grave site (along with its yearly maintenance fee) would become the responsibility of subsequent generations. With spatial, demographic, and cultural shifts, one cemetery in Tokyo has responded to those issues by updating some of the material signifiers of the traditional memorialization experience.

The Ruriden house, connected to the Koukoko-ji Temple, is an unassuming structure with two large wooden doors. Visitors swipe in via an identification card and proceed into the main chamber, where a larger Buddha monument sits between two walls of niche spaces, each one of the 2046 spaces filled with identical glass Buddha statues. Behind each statue are the cremains of a particular loved one. After swiping your card and upon entering, the statue of the love one(s) you are there to see lights up.

While it’s not a big jump from a columbarium or basic niche space to what is being done at the Ruriden house, I think at Ruriden they are illustrating the potential of even minor technological changes on our industry, using technology as a way to address actual consumer needs thru genuine innovation , rather than simply offering an extra, often stagnant or, (worst case) backward-looking technologically oriented service. The kind of thinking Ruriden is oriented towards is one of growth and change on both a personal and societal level. Responding to a specific set of local challenges while also pushing towards new and different ways of memorialization. Something like Ruriden is certainly specific to the time, place, and circumstances of a country like Japan, but I think it can resonate inside the death care industry as a way to reflect on what you are, can, and might offer your families, now and in the future.