Created for expats living in Japan

Embalming and Repatriation During the Pandemic in Japan

This article is contributed by Robert Hoey - Funeral Support Services Co. Ltd.

Embalming is the specialized procedure of disinfecting, preserving and restoring the dead human body to a more natural and lifelike appearance. Embalming in Japan has been increasing every year as a funeral practice and has become a very popular option for families.

Traditionally, dry ice had been used to delay the natural process of the body breaking down to its natural components. Embalming utilizes specially formulated chemicals which are injected into the body to disinfect, preserve and restore the natural appearance, just as if the person is sleeping.

Many foreign residents living in Japan may be familiar with this procedure as it could be a common option for funeral ceremonies in their home countries.

In this article, I write an example of how embalming allowed the bereaved family to meet for the last time with a person who died from Covid-19, and  how the body of a person who passed away due to Covid-19 was transported abroad after embalming.

Covid-19 Embalming in Japan

Imagine dropping off your loved one at the hospital when they come down with a fever caused by Covid 19 and that is the last time you get to see them. This is what has been happening throughout the pandemic.  People are fine one day living a normal life and the next day they come down with a fever and end up getting admitted into the hospital to get treated for Covid 19.  It starts off slowly and then in some situations it all goes downhill. 

Families are not able to visit their loved ones in the hospital and occasionally the kind nurse is able to provide a video chat between the patient and the family. This can be the last time they get to see their loved one because if they succumb to the disease they are transported directly to the crematorium without a funeral ceremony.

This is how we treated people who died from AIDS back in the 1980`s.  I became a funeral director/embalmer in Canada during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980`s.  As we began to learn more about AIDS at that time we started to feel safe enough to provide embalming. Covid 19 brings back memories of those days back when I was starting my career.  The process of embalming disinfects, preserves and restores the body so it is safe for the family to view and even touch their loved one. Covid 19 embalming has been able to bring some relief to these families.

Saying Goodbye During the Pandemic

In March of 2022, Funeral Support Services Co. Ltd. did the first Covid 19 embalming and funeral service when a Canadian man who arrived at Yokohama Port on the Diamond Princess cruise ship died at a hospital in Tokyo.  The family contacted me and hid the fact that their father died from Covid 19 because of the stigma associated with the disease at the time. They told me that they only needed a direct cremation and they would take his cremated remains with them to Canada.

After I got the full story I told the distraught family that they could say goodbye to their dad by having embalming. They were never expecting to see him again. We went to the hospital, put on our full protective equipment and transported him back to our care center. As I am the owner of my company I decided that I would do the embalming so as not to put my staff at risk. I had been in contact with my colleagues in Canada and the United States and I had seen how they have been able to provide for their families at the start of the pandemic.

I was confident that I could provide the same amount of care here in Japan. My staff were all eager to provide this service however they were concerned because they had elderly parents. They did not want to put them at risk if they also came down with Covid. We developed a safe embalming protocol where our facility was disinfected by a special company after every Covid embalming. We provided a small funeral service for the Canadian man from the Diamond Princess. 

His family as well as the doctor’s and nurses from the hospital who cared for him in his final days were able to gather safely. The hospital staff were so committed to helping these patients. I was very moved when we went to pick up the deceased at the hospital.  The head director of the hospital came down to the morgue and as we departed the hospital he and the rest of his staff gave a deep bow.

During the visitation at our funeral home I will never forget the doctor who weeped and stroked the head of the deceased man saying that he promised him that he would get better only to fail in the end. Covid 19 was so new at that time and the treatments were not as good as they are now. 

Although we feel like we are at the tail end of the pandemic we are still embalming people almost every day who die of this terrible disease.  As a society we have learned to live with Covid in our midst as life must go on. Within life there is death and we have become to accept this. The foreign community is also impacted as well.

Repatriation of the Deceased by Covid-19

I remember talking with the Japanese wife of an African man who owned his own restaurant here. She was telling me that her husband was terrified of Covid but had to work as much as possible so his business would not fail. He needed to provide for his family. His restaurant was closed for months so when it reopened he had to work every day in order for his business to recover. He followed all of the precautions however he too fell to the disease. 

This was our first repatriation for someone who had died of the Corona disease. Usually repatriations cannot be done if the person died from a contagious disease.  The embassy was able to bend the rules in this case and provide the documents for repatriation.  We did the required embalming and used a special container to send him back to his home country.

We have been able to provide Covid 19 embalming for over 200 families. Although the majority of people have been elderly or compromised with pre-existing conditions we have been surprised by the deaths of younger people and even children with no obvious signs that Covid could have taken their lives.  It comes in waves.  We see the daily Covid numbers peak and we know that within a few weeks our caseload will increase. 

Many people may think that my job is a sad or even gruesome occupation. There is a great satisfaction being able to guide and assist these families through this traumatic time. It makes us appreciate our own lives as well and those of our loved ones.

English-Speaking Funeral Supports in Japan

Funeral Support Services provides assistance to Funeral Professionals. They are a fully independent company licensed by IFSA to provide embalming, cosmetics, dressing, restoration, and repatriation of human remains. They are a bilingual company that provides services in both English and Japanese, so there is no need to worry about misunderstandings due to a lack of communication.

If you have any questions or would like to ask them for consultation, please feel free to contact them.