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Japanese turning to robotic crypts, virtual grave visits

Some are finding their final resting place in mechanized crypts, while one Buddhist temple has virtual memorials for sale.

A typical old-school family plot in Tokyo. The slot at the front is for visitors' business or calling cards.
Tim Hornyak/CNET

Japan is a crowded, cramped country dominated by mountains. There isn't much space for its 127 million living people -- or the dead.

Though the government is pulling out all the stops to battle deflationary prices, land remains very expensive. That goes for cemeteries too. Even though the vast majority of deceased are cremated and buried in urns, plots in Tokyo can still cost a small fortune.

At the same time, visiting the grave sites of loved ones remains an important tradition. Some Japanese have turned to multistory buildings for cheaper final resting places. These high-rise graveyards in urban centers house the ashes of the dead, and often feature memorial cubbyholes where relatives can offer prayers.

The latest news on that front: a six-story crypt near Tokyo's busy Shinjuku Station is slated to open next year with space for 7,000 remains, according to The Japan Times.

The high-capacity usage will be profitable for owners of the land, while users who work or live in the metropolis will find it conveniently close.

It won't be the first of its kind. In similar facilities, people swipe electronic cards, prompting robot arms in the vault to retrieve urns and place them in mourning rooms for prayers. Photos of the deceased are displayed on screens.

Meanwhile, if you're too busy to actually visit the family grave or a robot-proffered urn to pay your respects, you can do it online.

Shunkei-ji, a Buddhist temple in eastern Tokyo, is offering virtual memorial services.

Logging on to the Shunkei-ji site at home or elsewhere, users can view footage of frosted glass doors parting to reveal their loved one's Buddhist mortuary tablet and his or her posthumous Buddhist name.

The temple also offers video production services. Users can have a memorial video made for playback during services.

By clicking on the "sutra" button, they can view prerecorded video of the temple priest chanting Buddhist sutras for the departed.

"This is not simply a bunch of collected information, it's just like actually visiting a grave to pay your respects," the temple says on its site.

There aren't any robot priests performing memorial services. But how far off can that be?