Going out in Style

As Asian societies mature, citizens grow more affluent, and status symbols become increasingly complex. Mobile phones and Mercedes are no longer the means to show you have made it in Asia, where you aren't judged as much by how you live as how you die

By Ron Gluckman / the Afterlife

THE HALL IS DARK AND QUIET WHEN THE CROWD begins filtering into the auditorium. Suddenly, lights ignite and colored lasers slice through the haze of exploding smoke bombs. Music pumps from speakers, stage sections separate, and a hydraulic lift brings the star into view.

There's a surge towards the stage, with the mob fighting for a view of a figure who is not only larger than life, but is, in fact, dead.

So it goes at the high end of the Asian graveyard circuit, where the ultimate in funeral finales is staged as often as five times a day. Despite the recession, superstar sayonaras have become the rage in Japan, where deceased tycoons often are dispatched in a style more reminiscent of rock tours. Concerthalls and choreography are becoming de rigueur for those seeking the latest in interment extravaganzas, which may be filmed and beamed back to factories, headquarters, even regional offices around the world.

Prices for these post-mortem performances can run into the six figures, a wide contrast to the traditional upacara kematian (funeral) among the Toraja on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where the dead are put to rest in caves. Or the burial bonfires of Bali and India that completely consume the soul's former body.

Across Asia, a matrix of customs and rituals dealing with this rite of passage reveals a region unrivaled in wrangling with issues of the hereafter, right now. But the bottom line, almost always, is big bucks for the burial barons.

It's difficult to quantify the exact amount of money spent each year on interments, but the burial business in Japan alone brings in an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion. Even on the poorest islands of Indonesia, villagers slaughter valuable herds of water buffaloes to honor their dead. Families in Korea, in fits of one-upmanship, drive each other into bankruptcy -- they did, that is, until a recent government ban on extravagant ceremonies. Nowadays, burial plot size is regulated, but Korean families readily pay hefty fines to construct mansion-like mausoleums, all in the Asian tradition of showering tribute upon the dead.

Though last rites vary widely from country to country, the closest approximation to a constant comes from the Chinese, who maintain strict views about funeral ceremonies wherever they settle. As a result, both Singapore Kong are experiencing severe shortages of burial land. Many ethnic Chinese eschew government incentives for cremations and skyrocketing cemetery costs in order to appease the spirits of the dead.

So strong is the need among Chinese to have a peaceful resting place that the belief system of feng shui (in which one seeks harmony by balancing various supernatural forces, often with the help of well-paid practitioners) has helped overseas Chinese make peace with their mainland communist brethren. Flashy joint-venture cemeteries are spreading across China, including the Macau-financed Phoenix Hill in Huangzhou and a huge Hong Kong-backed cemetery in Xiamen. Investors are plunking down $ 1.2 million for the Xiamen cemetery, which caters to the rich and famous from nearby Taiwan. Sales of plots with prime feng shui location have been brisk and open to intense speculation, according to Hong Tianfu, deputy director of the Burial Management Bureau of Xiamen. "It's like real estate," he says.

Competition for cemetery space also has pushed up prices of plots in cities like Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila and Kuala Lumpur, all of which have sizable ethnic Chinese populations. However, the situation is most acute in cramped communities like Hong Kong and Singapore, where, with the living packed in like sardines, little room is left for the dead.

Hong Kong long ago embarked upon a campaign to sway citizens to choose cremation. When public-service appeals failed to ease the cemetery-space crunch, economic incentives commenced. Cremation fees are set by the government at $ 106. A basic burial plot (2.2 square meters) costs 12 times that amount and only pays for a six-year lease, after which exhumation and the cremation of the bones are mandatory.

"Hong Kong has no more land left, even for the living," says T.K. Choy, executive secretary for Hong Kong's City and New Territories Administration. "Cremations are the only sensible option."

Still, deep-rooted Chinese beliefs in the benefits of burial continue to put pressure on valuable Asian land reserves. And the overcrowding is by no means confined to congested urban areas.

The dead also are crowding out the living in South Korea. Guided by their own feng shui-style beliefs of myong-dang, Koreans eschew cremation in favor of burials, generally lavish ones, in spite of increasing government incentives to the contrary.

Grave sites now occupy over 1 percent of Korea's crowded land mass, taking up three times more space than industrial sites, according to official estimates. Less than 18 percent of bodies are cremated, while 200,000 new tombs are added annually. Considering the average grave measures 30 square meters at private cemeteries, the dead enjoy spacious surroundings: Their descendants are confined to an average of 43 square meters of living space.

Similar problems around the region have provided plenty of elbow room for Asia's entrepreneurs, who have responded with an astounding number of innovative alternatives. Leading the way is Japan, where acute population densities and escalating interment costs have encouraged outlandish new funeral options. Though Japan's 97 percent cremation ratio is the highest in the region -- and among the highest in the world -- even storage space for urns has been squeezed by intense urbanization.

Osaka undertaker Gyokusen-in created the rock concert-style funeral farewells, which are eerily ethereal. Coffins seem to float across the stage upon an unseen electric cart. Shrouded in smoke, the deceased move slowly toward the end of the former bowling alley, where they disappear in a tunnel of light, like a passage into the Other World. Since opening in March 1991, Gyokusen-in has staged five send-offs daily, at costs averaging nearly $ 10,000 each. This actually may be a bargain, considering that regular funeral services in Tokyo average $18,000, with many costing five times as much.

Even the normally conservative Taiwanese are staging more flashy, even seductive-style funerals. Instead of a hearse, coffins are driven around the neighborhood inside a van playing pop music from loud speakers. Groups of women sing and dance on top, until the van reaches the final resting place, where the performers strip off their clothes. These erotic interment ceremonies can be arranged by several companies for fees as low as $ 400. That such business is booming shouldn't be surprising since Taiwanese lottery winners commonly express their gratitude to the spirits by sending strippers to disrobe in local temples.

While the practice has raised the ire of numerous critics in Taiwan, it only illuminates the changing attitude of many Asians towards funeral services. And, as more of the region's nations acquire increasingly cosmopolitan outlooks, funerals of the future are bound to attain a corresponding air of opulence.

In Japan, where a modest gravestone and funeral service can run up to $ 20,000, rising costs have prompted morticians to consider the ultimate answer: a cemetery on the moon. At the end of 1992, the Sunray Co. proposed building a lunar tower with room for 10,000 remains.

The cost would be sky-high; however, Sunray has the bold vision to take the burial business where it has never gone before. "Now that many Japanese live faraway from their family graves," explains a company statement, "it is better that graves be built on the moon, because we can see the moon almost every night."


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asia, Inc., which ran this story in its January 1994 issue. Mr Gluckman spent much of his career commenting about pop culture, so he is always on the alert for any opportunity to observe its emergence, like in Rock 'n' Rangoon in Burma, or marvel at the clashes of culture, such as contemporary changes in McChina. Death culture, though, is something that he realizes may have to grow on you. For examples of modern pop culture in Japan, turn to Indoor Beach or theme parks

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