The hotels offer a place where a body can be stored at low cost until the crematory is ready, and where small, inexpensive wakes and services can be held outside the home.
OSAKA, Japan — The minimalist rooms at the Hotel Relation in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, are furnished with plain twin beds. Flat-screen televisions adorn the walls. Plastic-wrapped cups and toothbrushes are provided in the bathrooms. And just across the hall are the rooms where the corpses rest.
Checkout time, for the living and the dead, is usually no later than 3 p.m.
The Hotel Relation is what Japanese call an “itai hoteru,” or corpse hotel. About half the rooms are fitted with small altars and narrow platforms designed to hold coffins. Some also have climate-controlled coffins with transparent lids so mourners can peer inside.
Part mortuary, part inn, these hotels serve a growing market of Japanese seeking an alternative to a big, traditional funeral in a country where the population is aging rapidly, community bonds are fraying and crematories are struggling to keep up with the sheer number of people dying.
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By custom, Japanese families take the bodies of their loved ones home from the hospital and sit for an overnight wake followed by a service the next morning in the company of neighbors, colleagues and friends. Then, in the afternoon, the body is sent to a crematory.
But as neighborhood ties have weakened, funerals that once involved entire communities are increasingly the province of small, nuclear families. At the same time, Japanese society is getting old so fast and deaths per year are climbing so quickly that families sometimes have to wait several days before a body can be cremated.
The corpse hotels offer a practical solution: a place where a body can be stored at low cost until the crematory is ready, and where small, inexpensive wakes and services can be held outside the home.
“We can say the supply doesn’t meet the demand,” mainly in urban areas, said Hiroshi Ota, an official at the Japan Society of Environmental Crematories. While Japan has an estimated 5,100 crematories, Tokyo, with a population of more than 13 million, has just 26.
Japan has funeral parlors, too, an industry that developed as people moved from the countryside to the cities and it became difficult — often impossible — to take corpses into high-rises. But they cater to larger groups and more elaborate ceremonies, and these days, that can seem a bit much.
When Hajime Iguchi died at age 83 last autumn, his sister and brother-in-law held his wake and funeral at Sousou, a corpse hotel in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki City. Iguchi, a lifelong bachelor, had died in a nursing home after a protracted illness, and had few friends left.
“Back in the day, we used to have funerals at home, but times have changed,” said his sister, Kunie Abe, 73. “Neighbors all used to know each other and would help one another out. But today, you don’t even know your next-door neighbor.”
The demand for “itai hoteru” is likely to grow. Last year, 1.3 million people died in Japan, up 35 percent from 15 years earlier, and the annual toll is expected to climb until it peaks at 1.7 million in 2040, according to the Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare.
About 37 percent of Japanese women who died last year were older than 90, with few surviving friends to mourn them. And close to one-fifth of Japanese men never marry or father children, leaving behind few relatives to plan or attend funerals.
At the Hotel Relation in Osaka, about one-third of the customers forgo a formal funeral. Instead, they sit in the rooms with their dearly departed for a day or two, with only close family in attendance, and then send the bodies for cremation.
Corpse hotels are more economical than large funeral homes. According to the Japan Consumer Association, the average funeral in Japan runs 1.95 million yen, or about $17,690. The cheapest package at the Hotel Relation costs 185,000 yen, or about $1,768.
The package includes flowers, a room for the family to spend the night in the same room as the corpse, a traditional white gown for the deceased, a simply decorated coffin, transport of the body from the hospital and then to the crematory, and an urn to hold the ashes. Each additional night costs 10,800 yen, just under $100. Families who want separate rooms, wakes or funerals pay extra.
“Itai hoteru” first appeared about five years ago in Japan’s largest cities, and there are only a few across the country. Some have angered residents who do not want to live in such proximity to death and mourning.
Near the Sousou hotel in Kawasaki City, signs on fences protest, “Corpse storage: absolutely opposed!”
At Iguchi’s tiny funeral ceremony last fall, a monk chanted last rites as Iguchi’s body rested in a coffin lined with white satin. Five guests, all relatives, sat in folding chairs nearby. After the chanting, they rose to lay flowers and origami cranes on the body, making a bright garland around his head and on his chest.
His sister, Kunie Abe, leaned close to her brother’s ear. “So long,” she whispered.