December 27

The Virtual Cemetery

The Eternal Use Virtual Grave fits a peculiar need in Japan. With fewer people marrying and having children, the number of people who are the last in their family lines is increasing. In Japan, this is especially sad, because not only does this leave you without anyone to organize your periodic death anniversary parties, nobody shows up every year at O-Bon to visit you, spruce up the family tomb, leave a pack of your favorite smokes, and burn incense.

One solution to this vexing problem is to pay a one time fee (in this case, around $125,000) to have your ashes interred in the temple’s vault instead of inside a traditional family plinth. When well-wishers come to pay their respects to your earthly remains, they enter the special temple hall with these beautifully appointed semi-private booths. They call up your Buddhist name – the one that’s given to you after your death and inscribed on the traditional black marble tablets that are kept at the temple – and it appears on a big video screen behind the incense urn, along with your family crest. The visitors pay their respects just like they’d do at a regular grave, but your tomb doesn’t become tatty and neglected-looking because your descendants aren’t giving it a good hoovering once a year.

Here’s a traditional family grave at the same temple offering the virtual tombs:

You can tell a thoughtful friend or family member recently visited, because they filled the dear departed’s favorite teacup with o-cha and left behind bouquets of chrysanthemums (which are so associated with funerals that it’s considered bad luck to give them on any other occasion, especially when visiting someone in the hospital). And see the red characters carved in the stone below? Those are the names of family members who are planning to have their ashes interred in this family crypt when the time comes for them to depart this earthly vale. It’s less expensive to have everybody’s name carved at once when the first person is interred, but bad luck to have your name already on a gravestone while you’re alive. The solution is to fill the names of the living with red paint, and remove it when their ashes join those gone before.

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo

When Detective Kenji Nakamura’s phone rings with the news that his mother’s death wasn’t an accident, his life begins to unravel…read more