Preparing for death while still healthy

PHOTO: Preparing for death while still healthy

Activities to prepare for the final stage of life, including having photos taken to leave behind, writing down final thoughts and wishes in a special notebook, and attending workshops on how to write a will, are enjoying a quiet boom.

Experts say that behind the recent rise in popularity of these activities that take a candid approach to death is the emotional impact of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, in addition to uncertainty over the future, including life after retirement.

"Please smile. That's good," a female photographer said while taking photos of participants of a session held at a hotel in the city of Tachikawa, western Tokyo, in late November. The photos will be used for portraits after their death.

A total of 38 people in their 40s to 80s attended the session, including a couple who celebrated their golden anniversary and a woman in a hula dancing outfit. Before having their photos taken, they were done up by a makeup artist according to their request.

A 50-year-old self-employed women from the city of Hachioji, western Tokyo, who took part in the session, said her mother-in-law, in her 80s, fractured her leg after falling from a bicycle, and was hospitalized for three months. After that, the mother continued rehabilitation, but became more and more housebound despite the enjoyment she used to take in getting out of the house.

In March 2011, the woman's mother, in her 70s, began to show symptoms associated with dementia. After medical examinations, she was diagnosed with a hematoma that formed after a blood vessel ruptured between the brain and its outer lining. An operation was successful, but there were concerns about the lingering effects of her condition.

The Hachioji woman has seen one close relation after another suffer from a serious injury or disease. The March 11 quake and tsunami took the lives of many people in one blow.

As to why she participated in the photo session, she said: "So far, death has not been part of my daily life. But now I've decided to face it head on. I'm not sure for what occasion a portrait of me would be needed after I die, but I wanted to leave one that depicted an expression that I like."

In addition to having her portrait made, the Hachioji resident bought a "last notebook" in summer 2011 and began thinking about what messages she would like to leave her family with. "As I gradually sort out my feelings, I'll fill in the notebook little by little," she said.

A last notebook is a book in which one writes down final wishes, such as whether to disclose the nature of an ailment, feelings about life-sustaining treatment, and desires for a funeral ceremony.

The contents of the notebook are not legally binding, but a workshop on how to use them has been gaining popularity nationwide, as it is a convenient way for people to record such messages.

According to the publisher of a free paper in Tokyo that organized the photo session--its first session was held in May 2011--there were many requests to hold an additional session.

One of the staff members said: "There are plenty of people who said they had difficulty finding a photo of close relatives after they died to use as portraits. I assume the recent boom is a result of the fact that an increasing number of people don't want to cause their families unnecessary trouble after their deaths."

Tour that does spas and wills

In another move to help people prepare for the last stage of life, an overnight tour at a spa resort includes a workshop on how to make a proper will.

Press Sari-Sari Corp., a publishing company in the city of Osaka, has organized four such tours since 2009, charging 63,000 yen and 126,000 yen for one or two nights, respectively. Despite the high prices, 20 people have taken the tours, in which experts, such as administrative scriveners, advised them on how to make a legally valid will.

About half of the tour participants were in their 50s to 60s. One woman in her 30s said: "My child is still small, but this is a time when there is no telling what will happen. I want to do what I can do now," she said.

Press Sari-Sari President Shuku Fukukawa explained the purpose of the tour: "The tour is not an extension of our daily lives, like a seminar in a city building. It is an opportunity to take a deep look at oneself in an unconventional atmosphere."

The company plans to organize an overnight tour in spring 2012 for under 30,000 yen to make it easier for people to participate.

Mayumi Nakazawa, a nonfiction writer who wrote "Ohitorisama no Shukatsu" (Preparation for the last stage of life for single women), believes the earthquake had a significant impact on people's concerns for the future, in addition to life after retirement, which has lead to a boom in such activities nationwide.

"These activities are only an entrance to the last stage of life," she said. "They give people an opportunity to figure out what they would like to do and still need to do in order to achieve a positive outlook on life."