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Land of the Rising Sun takes grave look at moon

A SHORTAGE of land and a rapidly ageing population in Japan has led one undertaker to look far afield for new burial places. As far, in fact, as the moon.

The Sunray Company of Kita-Kyushu in southern Japan has come up with the idea of building a cemetery on the moon, where the land, presumably, would be free, and which relatives could gaze at each night when the moon appears in the sky.

'Resting in Peace in the Sea of Tranquillity' (as the marketing campaign might conceivably read) is one of the more far-fetched ideas that Japan's undertakers have thought of to bury the nation's dead. Undertaking is already a pounds 15bn-a-year business and, unlike the stock market, it is guaranteed to grow steadily each year. By 2020, one-quarter of Japan's population will be over 65, and, with per capita income increasing, there will be more and more money to be spent on funerals.

But the undertakers' main problem is the shortage of land, particularly around Tokyo, on which to build new graveyards. In the past, a single grave would serve for generations of family members - each time someone died, the gravestone would be lifted and the small urn containing their ashes put underneath it.

These days, as extended families split up and people move all over the country, the demand for new plots is increasing. In Tokyo, where the living are forced to put up with tiny flats, space for the dead has almost run out. There are some publicly run graveyards, but by now it is standing room only.

'The municipal graveyards offer some plots every August, but they are always oversubscribed 25 or 30 times,' said Susumu Suzuki, a salesperson for Sudo Sekizai, a gravestone dealer. The alternative is private graveyards, but they are mostly far outside the city. 'There are no private graveyards in Tokyo except those run by temples, and they will charge 3-5m yen (pounds 15,000-pounds 25,000) just for the plot.' On top of the price of the small area of land, a gravestone costs about Y700,000, and there is a yearly maintenance charge that relatives are expected to pay to have the grave kept clean.

Undertakers publish prospectuses giving the costs of different plots in the various private graveyards they have established, along with information on train connections to the cemetery. The Edoya Company, for example, offers 9ft by 6ft plots near Narita airport, 40 miles outside Tokyo, for Y1.5m if they are facing west, and Y1.7m if they are facing east - more popular, since it is the direction of the rising sun.

Another solution to the lack of space in Tokyo is the multi-storey graveyard. These are called 'mansion-style graveyards', after the Japanese usage of the word mansion to refer to small flats. One such mansion-style resting place, in Koto-ku in northern Tokyo, is a six- storey building with room for 321 graves. This vertical cemetery is run by an enterprising local temple, Shokakuji, and charges about Y900,000 for a plot. At the time of writing, only 41 graves were still vacant in the building.

'This is extraordinarily cheap for Tokyo,' said Hideko Nagai, sister of the chief priest of the temple. 'Many of our clients are country people who have come to live in Tokyo and want to buy a grave before they die.'

Although Tokyoites are very flexible, even about a final resting place, it is unclear whether the Sunray Company's plans for a cemetery on the moon will get off the ground. The company says the egg-shaped lunar edifice could be built in the next 10 years, using US space technology, and could hold the funeral urns of 10,000 people. Eventually, Sunray would like to arrange for relatives to visit their loved ones on the moon, although some cynics might wonder how the tearful bereaved would blow their noses in a space suit.

(Photograph omitted)