Cremation, a long honored tradition of death disposal, can be fun and profitable as proven by Japanese cities. According to Asahi Newspaper an estimated 1,850 tons of ash and bone are created annually in the island nation and after relatives of the deceased scoop out their share for an urn or other personal celebration the city-run crematories sift out precious metals left behind from capped teeth, artificial bones as well as pocketing coins left in the coffins before they turned on the gas.

Not all of this is handled by city employees. Some of the work is subcontracted out to firms who sort the remains and process the gold, silver and other salvageable goods kicking back money to the city coffers; better not to ask what they do with the ashes. Records from 2007 show that in Tokyo alone 700 grams of gold, 500 grams of palladium and 1.9 kilograms of silver were saved at a profit of 3.2 million yen; in addition the city claims to have rifled the pockets of corpses for 90,000 yen worth of coins.

How can this be legal? It appears that a 1939 decision by the Japanese Supreme Court promulgated that any ashes left behind by grieving mourners were property of the city where the cremation took place. Proving to be a prescient governing body the declaration goes so far as to make legal any profits derived from the sale of remains.

This does not appear to have been common knowledge among most citizens of Japan. Those who personally collect the ashes and bone fragments invest enough time and effort to take part in the final resting place of their beloved but many families seem to just abandon the ashes to whatever disposal methods are employed. A crematorium official in Tokyo said that occasionally mourners will ask what happens to the ashes but that “officials do not go out of their way to provide an explanation”.

Obviously there is an ethical collision between law and right. Should the municipalities profit from running crematoriums and collecting the precious metals which remain? If truly abandoned than I suppose it only makes sense, but shouldn’t an honest effort be made to fully explain the process so that families can decide how much ash they really wanna scoop from the fire-pit? Conversely, if these are city crematoriums perhaps the collected revenue from gold teeth and silver fillings could offset the costs making cheaper or even free cremation services available.

To be fair not every city in Japan is raking it in on burnt remains. Kita-Kyushu officials explained that after 1991 they stopped smelting metals after numerous complaints and Kobe officials said they don’t sell the remains on ethical grounds. What happens to all of their precious metals pooling in the bottom of their ovens, I don’t know, but I do have to agree with the Nagoya official who said not recovering the resources would be a waste. The question is who can dictate what happens with that and where should the money go.

It also reminds me of old news stories you would see here in the states. Family run mortuaries would be stacking barns full of rotting bodies instead of taking the time or making the effort to actually dig the graves. That kind of cheap slacking, in the face of Japan’s streamlined efficiency, is just another indication why the US is a declining world power.

Image of a worker sifting through remains if from Low Cost Cremation, a directory of sorts for you, the consumer. The picture of Japanese urns in a temple was stolen from Marie Matsuki Mockett, New York writer, and is from her personal experiences losing her grandmother.