Many people expect to be buried after their passing, but what happens when cities begin to run out of burial space? Cemetery space is an increasingly hot commodity in many places around the world, but rather than limiting plot leases to 15 years like Singapore and other regions (after which the body is cremated and moved), Japan is meeting this challenge by promoting the benefits of tree burials.
Faced with limited burial space in the 1990s, the Shōunji temple in northern Japan came up with an innovative idea: to place a loved one’s cremated remains in the ground and plant a tree above them to commemorate their life. The concept turned out to be so successful that the temple opened the second site in Chishōin. Each year, Buddhist priests perform rituals for the deceased, and families are invited to come to visit the parks.
According to religious studies scholar Natasha Mikles, traditional Confucian and Buddhist rituals require a specific burial site to use for rituals, so simply scattering ashes in a natural space is not as popular. Tree planting provides families with a space to meet and honor their relatives, while also benefiting the environment for generations to come. As environmental preservation is a key concern for many Japanese Buddhists, the practice perfectly combines this set of values.
Although some Buddhist temples have expressed concern over the loss of connection between communities and their temples, the practice of tree burials continues to gain popularity in Japan. Many more parks and cemeteries are offering it as an option and as the practice is less expensive than a traditional burial, it is accessible to more families, especially those with few children and grandchildren.
The practice of tree burials is on the rise in Japan, but it’s also increasing in the US. High funeral costs combined with a growing interest in alternative burial practices have led many to rethink their afterlife. Similarly, Colorado and the state of Washington have both approved human composting as an eco-friendly way to become one with the Earth after passing.