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Monks delivered via Amazon as role of Japanese temples fade

2 March 2016

From the Associated Press:

In Japan, where communal ties to local Buddhist temples are fading, families have in recent years been able to go online to find a Buddhist monk to perform funerals and other rituals.

But when Amazon Japan allowed a provider to offer “Obo-san bin,” or “Mr. Monk Delivery,” on its website, it shone a spotlight on the emerging trend and prompted a major Buddhist organization to criticize the Internet marketer of commercializing religion.

A basic plan for monk, transportation and a donation offered by the Tokyo-based provider, Minrevi Co., one of dozens of emerging budget companies, costs 35,000 yen ($300). Three other options are available for more money. The monks would typically go to a home, funeral hall or a grave to perform the requested ceremony.

“Such a thing is allowed in no other country in the world. In this regard, we must say we are disappointed by an attitude toward religion by Amazon,” Akisato Saito, director of the Japan Buddhist Association, said in a statement.

Many Japanese, however, welcome the service as a consumer-friendly approach to Buddhist rituals, whose cost is often perceived as murky and overpriced. Buddhist-style memorial services offered by temples comparable to the “monk delivery” could cost as 100,000 yen ($830). Funerals are even more expensive and can cost well over 1 million yen ($8,500).

. . . .

When Yutaka Uematsu’s 17-year-old son Kakeru died just over a month ago after battling cancer, he searched on the Internet for a funeral service provider.

Uematsu didn’t consider asking his father’s family temple as he had heard the prices charged for a family member’s funeral were “outrageous.”

So he and his wife went to the Minrevi website and picked for their son a package at a price less than half or even cheaper than an average, conventional service.

“Honestly, the cost was my biggest concern,” Uematsu said. “I liked its price system that was simple and clear.”

At first, he was worried about the quality of the service he might get, but that wasn’t a problem. A 24-hour customer service line was also helpful for the couple emotionally devastated by the loss of their son. While it didn’t offer counseling services, representatives could be reached regarding funeral details at any time, helping them feel more at ease during a painful time. Uematsu also arranged the traditional 49th-day posthumous ritual for his son using the same service.

Amazon declined to comment, saying it’s only renting the space to Minrevi to promote the service, which offers only for monk delivery and a separate 20,000-yen ($170) charge for a posthumous Buddhist title, not funeral packages.

Link to the rest at Associated Press and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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7 Comments to “Monks delivered via Amazon as role of Japanese temples fade”

  1. This is pretty interesting, particularly because I just finished reading “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford, which was first written in the 60s and was revised/re-released in the mid-90s. The book exhaustively lays out all the ways in which the American funeral industry has done everything it can think of to monetize someone’s death (and slap huge markups on everything). You’ll find similar statements to that of the director of the Japan Buddhist Association from American funeral industry trade publications, decrying any legislation or negatively slanted news article that might impact sales.

    Mitford’s book also talks about the tensions between clergy and funeral directors, the latter of which was (is still?) trying to supplant the former’s role in comforting mourners with its own “grief counselors.” I’d rather give the benefit of the doubt and say this more than the centralizing of services is what the Japan Buddhist Association is criticizing, but if Amazon tries to take over the American funeral industry, you can definitely expect a whole of screaming about it from the major trade associations.

    • Oh wow. I’d heard about some monks in Louisiana suing to be able to sell caskets. It turned out there was a “casket cartel,” who tried to stop them from selling caskets, and their tentacles extended to the government: they lobbied to keep a bill from passing that would allow other people besides funeral directors from selling caskets.

      I had thought the casket cartel was just a Louisiana quirk, because in New Orleans they have to “bury” people above ground. Thanks for the insight.

  2. I’ve heard horror stories about how poorly regulated and terrible the funeral industry is here. Remember the guy who instead of creating bodies stashed them in his woodshed, and gave grieving families caskets of wood ashes? Shudder. At least Amazon allows people to review services!

    • Yeah, you’ll read all sorts of horror stories in Mitford’s book, such as funeral directors flat-out lying to families about state law regarding embalming/cremation, price-fixing, and requiring (hugely marked-up) coffins for cremation—sometimes even the more expensive metal caskets, which end up baking the remains. The list goes on and on, and that doesn’t include the really disturbing scandals, such as the one you mentioned where cremations weren’t done.

    • There was a number of similar scandals here in Ontario. A few people from my city got caught up in one about 9 years ago.

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