Elderly residents of Japan’s national leprosy sanatoriums are living reminders of a past policy that isolated people with the disease for life. As the numbers of the living decline, so the remains of the dead increase. Each year, urns are being added to the neat rows that fill the charnel houses of 13 national sanatoriums.
It was sometimes said that the only way to leave a sanatorium was as smoke from its crematorium chimney; yet even in death, some have never left. The charnel house at National Sanatorium Suruga is surrounded by 100 weeping cherry blossom trees. As of the end of January, it contained 310 urns, including those holding the ashes of 10 aborted fetuses that had been stored in the sanatorium’s laboratory. Although residents lived under pseudonyms to protect their families’ reputations, in death they have been reunited with their true identities and each urn bears a real name.
When a resident dies, the sanatorium contacts the next of kin to ask what they wish to do with the remains. Many families refuse to accept them, although in recent years there have been more takers. In some cases, they never even knew of their relative’s existence.
Families are less reluctant to accept any savings the deceased might have accumulated from pensions and compensation payments for the state’s violation of their constitutional rights. As a staff member put it: “Sometimes they’ll take the money, but leave the bones.”