Canadian embalmers raking in cash -- and odd tales -- in Japan

Published: Saturday, April 3 1999 12:00 a.m. MST

TOKYO -- They came to Japan for all the reasons that young people usually come -- a lack of jobs back home in Canada, the chance to make good money and adventure. There was also the allure of being a pioneer.

"I was only the second guy to ever embalm a person in my town here in Japan," said Ross Mitchell, an Ontario native. "We're the forefathers, and how many people can say that?"He and a growing number of others, mostly from southern Ontario province, are in Japan as embalmers, one of only a few jobs with good growth prospects amid the gloom of the worst Japanese economy in decades.

Their business is death, and death is rising as Japanese society ages and economic turmoil leads to a rise in suicides.

In Japan, often reluctant to embrace foreign things, the idea that Canadian embalmers would be sought after at such a personal time seems highly unlikely at best. But the reason for their success is simple: embalming remains a new art in Japan, and the Canadians' skills are among the best.

"Not to blow our own horns, but the changes you can make on a body are just amazing," Pat Hogan said.

Hogan, Mitchell and 18 other mostly Canadian colleagues are employees of International Mortuary Systems Inc., a firm that started business in 1988 after a Japanese funeral company introduced embalming to Japan.

Hired overseas, they bring skills gained in two years of study at a trade school where courses ranged from anatomy, ethics and embalming -- both theoretical and "hands-on" lab work -- to English: "How to write good death notices and all."

They take home around 300,000 yen ($2,500) a month and have all their expenses, including rent, paid.

Cremation is the norm in Japan, but funeral rituals may include bringing the deceased home for condolence visits, sometimes straight from the hospital and for as long as several days, before taking them to embalmers.

"The sooner a body comes to us the better we can embalm it. So in Japan it's kind of a challenge," Hogan said. "But if you see someone who's peaceful, it really puts the family at ease."

Word is spreading, with business rising steadily from only 191 jobs in 1988 to some 8,000 last year. But problems remain, not least a general incomprehension of what embalming is, even among funeral directors, who refer to it as "death medicine."

"We have to put a bandage on after we're done to make it look like a medical procedure. It seems dumb, but they buy it," said embalmer Norman Johnson.

Inevitably, there are bizarre tales. Blaine Little of Kincardine, Ontario, tells of a corpse he saw with a home-made toupee -- cellophane tape, glue and cut-off hair. "It looked really, really bad," he said.

Tracey Stantz recalls being handed a heavy bag by the family of a young woman killed in a car accident. Expecting clothes, she opened it to find a stiff, frozen dead cat, which she was told to place in the coffin.

And there is the probably apocryphal story of two bodies embalmed at the same time and dressed in the wrong clothes by mistake. To correct this the heads were cut off and switched -- "a lot easier than changing their clothes," an embalmer said.

There are also cultural differences, including the prevalence of suicide, which everyone agreed was rising.

"We see it here a lot more than we do at home. And a lot of methods we wouldn't see there either -- jumping in front of trains, injecting or drinking pesticides," Stantz said.

Also notable is the high number of women committing suicide, with hanging generally their method of choice.

A major frustration is Japan's medical system, which the embalmers said often seemed shockingly backward and greatly at variance with the country's advanced-nation status.

"Our cases come in in a lot worse shape than they do back home. I had a woman with a tumor in her belly the size of a large football. That's something you'd never see (in other advanced countries)," Hogan said.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS