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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Competition to buy crematory ash heats up

Tokuji Seki

Nov. 13, 2017

At Japanese funerals, bodies are usually cremated. Relatives take the remains back home, but bits of bones and ash are left behind at the cremation site. Local governments often have contracts with waste disposal companies that handle crematory ash. Now, a growing number of companies want to buy this ash.

Hanshin Material Corporation has been treating and disposing of crematory ash for more than 80 years. It has contracts with many local governments around the country. The company crushes bones and ashes into smaller pieces and separates them from other materials.

Local governments ask that disposal companies handle the remains with care and respect. The company places the remains in a special burial place. After the bones have been extracted, metals contained in the bodies and coffins are left over. Processing the remains with chemicals sometimes reveals precious metals. Metals such as gold and silver are sold to smelting works.

"The metals usually come from the teeth. When bodies are cremated, gold and silver in the teeth melt into the ashes,” explains Fumikazu Nakamichi, the company's president.

The price of gold has shot up in recent years. It sold for about US$9 per gram in 2000. Today, it sells for more than US$35 a gram. As the price rises, the competition to acquire crematory ash has heated up. Bid prices are getting smaller and smaller. Sometimes they're only about 1 cent.

"A growing number of companies are specializing in extracting precious metals. The competition has become so fierce that some of them charge just 1 cent to dispose of crematory ash," says Nakamichi.

The government doesn’t have laws regarding precious metals in crematory ash. But local authorities have their own regulations. In Yokohama, about 30,000 bodies are cremated every year at 4 crematoriums. The city changed its regulations this year and began selling crematory ash to disposal companies.

Until now, Yokohama had been paying companies to dispose of the ash. The city didn’t take into account the existence of precious metals in the ash. But this year, Yokohama began selling the ashes to disposal companies as long as they treat the bones with respect. The idea is to reinvest the resulting profit in the community.

"In reality, we can’t track how all crematory ash is disposed of, but we can introduce some transparency by agreeing on a contract that allows companies to extract precious metals. In return, this allows us to profit," says Hiroyoshi Sakai of Yokohama's Environmental Planning Bureau.

Five months’ worth of crematory ash collected in the city was recently bid for. It sold for US$325,000. The city is planning to use this profit to improve local crematories. But some locals feel that the practice is unethical. They say it wasn’t well explained to families of the deceased.

Other local governments don't allow precious metals in crematory ash to be extracted. Local authorities in Kyoto have for many years been disposing of the ashes on their own and storing them securely. A storage facility was built especially for that purpose. The ashes still contain precious metals, so the building’s location is undisclosed.

"The facility is securely locked, in a secret location," says Futoshi Noda of the Kyoto Central Funeral Hall. Kyoto will continue to store the crematory ash permanently, without extracting any precious metals. "To tell the truth, several companies have contacted us. We don't allow people to treat the remains disrespectfully because we believe they’re more than objects or valuables. They’re held dearly by the individuals’ surviving family members," says Noda.

Funeral and cremation professionals say people need to be more aware of these issues. "Every day, many people die and are cremated. I think we need to have more discussion about the crematory ash that’s being produced. We should reconsider the laws and make amendments that reflect people's wishes," says Seitoku University Professor Yoko Nagae.

Should precious metals be harvested from the ashes of the deceased? It's a difficult question, but with the number of deaths increasing every year in Japan's super-aging society, it's one that can't be ignored.