Hi-Tech Japanese Funerals

Voice Card  -  Volume 22  -  Paul Card Number 9  -  Thu, Oct 31, 1991 9:49 PM

High Tech Funerals by Karen Lowry Miller

A tearful widow places a final chrysanthemum in her husband's casket, then climbs onto a platform behind the coffin while a Buddhist monk recites prayers up front. Suddenly, the funeral hall lights dim, synthesized music blares, and pink and green laser lights pierce billowing dry ice smoke to form the outline of a tunnel tilting heavenward. Trailed by family members, the platform is wheeled 50 yards before disappearing in clouds and a blinding flash. of orange light. "This is very strange," mutters one mourner. "Wonderful" breathes another.

Such spectacular sayonaras are the new rage in Japan. Gyokusenin funeral hall in Osaka, which unveiled the ethereal tunnel last March, choreographs five high tech obsequies a day. And nearly everyone opts for the three minute procession that adds $370 to Gyokusenin's customary $7,000 fee. "We capture old rituals with modern techniques," says Nobuyoshi Tomikawa, a Gyokusenin manager. "The era of dark, somber funerals is past." And Japan's rapidly graying population ensures that the $7 billion funeral business will remain a growth industry.

Other entrepreneurs are discovering the same thing. One funeral parlor in Yokohama is building an audiovisual wonderland that includes a planetarium projector. Several others are starting to show videos of dearly departured or play tapes of his karaoke singing.

Still, not everyone is crazy about modern tinkering and high tech displays. "It's a show," grumbles Yasuko Kiyoda, who came to Gyokusenin for her neighbor's funeral. "There's no time to cry."