If it rains on the hills, sooner or later the rivers will
rise on the plain, even if the weather there is bright and sunny. There might even
be a flood on the plain, sweeping people and houses, earth and trees out to
sea. It’s cause and effect: when you see the river rise on a cloudless day, you
know there must have been a lot of rain a long way off.
Rises and falls in demographic patterns work like that. If
there’s a rise in births, then seventy or eighty years later there will be a
corresponding rise in deaths. Japan is a good example: it had a boom in births
after the Second World War, when it became a rich, stable nation with a good
health system. Now it has the highest life expectancy in the world. But even
the Japanese can’t live for ever. In the 1990s, there was no real change in the
number of deaths per head of population, but the absolute number of deaths
began rising steadily, fast approaching a million deaths per year.
That trend continued into the twenty-first century but now
the nation is going through what some commentators have called “peak death”.
The number of people dying is at its height and will begin to fall in future.
That rise in births all those years ago didn’t last, which is why the rise in
deaths won’t last. But the funeral industry in Japan has done very well from
"peak death". At one time it was the job of the daughters and
daughters-in-law in a family to make the arrangements for a funeral, but they
increasingly had commitments at work and lives of their own to lead. Funeral
homes stepped into the gap, offering a complete service to families who had
lost a loved one. Because almost all Japanese are cremated when they pass away,
some funeral homes have their own crematoriums and don’t have to make
arrangements with local councils.
Funeral homes can also deal with the religious side of a
funeral. Like the rest of the advanced world, the Japanese live increasingly
secular lives, but when a loved one passes away the family often chooses to
have a funeral according to traditional Buddhist or Shinto rites. These can be
complicated and difficult to get right, so families are grateful for the help
provided by funeral directors with many years of experience. Behaving well in
public and maintaining family honour are very important in Japan, so the skill
and professionalism of the funeral industry have been rewarded with healthy
profits year after year.
Those profits may begin to decline now, as peak death passes,
even as the proportion of old people Japan’s population continues to rise.
Funeral directors will have to offer new and improved services to their
customers, but it’s a challenge that they will welcome. Indeed, Japan may well
offer lessons to the funeral industry in the rest of the advanced world,
similar demographic changes are taking place. The United Kingdom, the United
States and other Western nations also experienced a baby boom after the Second
World War, so they too are now passing through “peak death”. Japan is renowned
around the world for its technological prowess and for the subtlety and
tastefulness of its culture. Its funeral directors will continue to innovate,
helping to lead progress in an industry that all of us will sooner or later
have to use.