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New, High-Tech Burials Signs of Changing Japan

October 31, 1991

OSAKA, Japan (AP) _ Sentimental synthesizer music from loudspeakers drowns out the sniffles of the bereaved as a motorized coffin glides slowly across a long hall under a laser spotlight.

Seated before the coffin is a Buddhist priest in ceremonial dark robes, his hands clasped in prayer. A procession of family members follows as mist from dry ice billows all around. Green and orange lights shine eerily from the ceiling.

Finally, the marching mourners disappear into the darkness behind a cascade of foaming white smoke.

Theatrical rites such as those at the Gyokusenin, a bowling alley turned funeral parlor, are replacing centuries-old Japanese funerals, steeped in ancestor worship and organized by the community.

The traditional funerals are disappearing as the cohesiveness of neighborhoods and the extended family unravel in the face of Japan’s rapid industrialization, according to Hajime Himonya, chief editor of Sogi, a funeral trade magazine.

In the rush to fill the void, modern funerals are becoming big business. Manager Nobuyoshi Tomikawa said the Gyokusenin had performed 700 of the laser- lit processions in six months.

The five-minute service, culminating in a cremation, tacks an extra $300 onto the basic funeral, which includes flowers, meals for the guests and temple fees.

″We began this service because people traditionally used to walk and accompany the coffin to the graveyard. Our service just takes less time,″ Tomikawa said.

Among the new breed of funerals was one for a Mitsui Co. executive carried on live satellite television for viewing at all branches of the trading company. The employees participated by offering prayers and burning incense beside video monitors.

Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Co. who died in August, ruled out a company funeral in his will. Instead, the firm held a special reception at six sites. An auto engine he designed and New Year’s cards he drew were on display.

His portrait welcomed the guests, inscribed with the words: ″Thanks to all of you, it was a wonderful life. Thank you,″ in both English and Japanese.

The new breed of funeral emphasizes the personality of the deceased. Showing home videos or playing favorite music is popular. Sometimes the departed is shown enjoying ″karaoke,″ the singing of popular tunes to the accompaniment of canned music.

One recent funeral for a golfing fan even included a model of a miniature golf course.

Japan’s changing values and increasing individualism are also reflected in the rise of ″natural″ burials. In a departure from traditional burial services centered around the family tomb, some people are opting to have their ashes scattered in lakes and mountains. Until recently, such services were regarded as illegal and socially taboo.

The modern rites also reflect the rapid urbanization of Japan, where business acquaintances are as likely to be invited as family, friends and neighbors.

Perhaps that’s why many of the new ceremonies are designed to be entertaining as well as solemn.

A waiting guest at Gyokusenin expressed excited anticipation about witnessing the mobile coffin, which had been advertised on television.

″The effect was fantastic. I learned a lot from it,″ said businessman Junichi Kitayama, who acknowledged he did not feel particularly emotional about the funeral itself.

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