Dial-a-monk firm eases funeral cost worries

by Haruka Takahashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, Jul 1, 2008

Tokyo, Japan -- With full Buddhist funeral services at temples typically costing a small fortune, families of the recently deceased now have a cheaper option--pick up the phone and dial a monk to give their beloved the spiritual send-off they deserve.

A company specializing in dispatching Buddhist monks to funeral services was established in Inagi on the outskirts of Tokyo in 2004.

Obohsan.com Co. operates from a small office inside a building near Minami-Tama Station on the JR Nambu Line. (Obo-san means Buddhist monk in Japanese.)

Forty-five monks from seven schools of Buddhism are registered with the company and customers can select the type of sutra they would like to be chanted at the ceremony.

The firm's shaven-headed president, Kazuma Hayashi, shuns the business suit favored by most company bosses, opting instead to sport a navy blue samue--casual or work wear for Buddhist monks.

The 41-year-old monk answers his busy telephone and taps away at his computer keyboard on his desk, which has files and documents strew all over.

On answering a call from a person who lost a relative that morning, Hayashi passes on his deepest condolences and bows deeply, before running through the various price packages.

The type of funeral ceremony performed depends on the particular sect and regional customs.

When a sect is not specified, the company charges 42,000 yen for sutra-chanting at wakes and 84,000 yen at funeral services. Obohsan.com also has four price plans for posthumous Buddhist naming--ranging from 31,500 yen to 157,500 yen

An investigation last year by the Japan Consumers Association into fees bereaved families pay to temples for funeral ceremonies revealed that the national average total paid for sutra-chanting, posthumous Buddhist naming and financial offerings was 549,000 yen.

The joint-stock company offers a special plan for 130,000 yen that in addition to the services mentioned above, has its monks attend memorial services traditionally meant to take place seven days, 49 days, one year and two years after death.

Hayashi was born in a temple in Gunma Prefecture, but it will not be possible for him to succeed as head priest of that temple.

After serving as deputy head priest at a temple of the Tendaishu sect in Tokyo, he established the company "with the objective of providing a comprehensive Buddhist service."

In addition to funeral services, the company dispatches monks to burn wood and lead prayers for the safe delivery of children and on other important occasions; to perform Buddhist wedding ceremonies; and to act as a proxy to people who cannot make it to visit ancestors' graves at designated times of year.

The firm reportedly makes little profit, but still continually aims to slash prices.

"Religion is not about money," Hayashi says. "We hope to perform heartfelt funeral ceremonies and help educate people no matter whether they are rich or poor."

Most of the monks working at the company were not born into a temple, and despite having qualifications and experience will never become head priests. Some are even registered with the company as part-timers while serving at large temples.

A 58-year-old Buddhist nun who joined the company this spring used to be a clerical worker before entering the priesthood at the age of 43.

"I'm a newcomer without a personnel connection [to a head priest] and so I rarely get work within the sect," the nun said.

Enter the kanji for "soryo haken" (monk dispatch) into an Internet search engine, and the name of about seven or eight groups will be displayed. Some of these groups even claim they dispatch monks anywhere in the country.

Increased Internet access, combined with the fact that many people nowadays do not have a family grave at a Buddhist temple, is ensuring there is a market for the monk dispatch business.

And as ceremonies are paid for by friends and relatives who are praying for the departed's soul to rest in peace, clients are finding that the service offers some welcome relief from the added worries of how to pay for a ceremony at such a stressful time.