How's this for a dilemma?
Someone close to you is dead. (It's OK. They lived a long, happy life.) That person wanted to be cremated. But the crematorium is jam-packed, and you have a waiting period — maybe even of a few weeks — before your loved one can be attended to. So now you have a rapidly decaying dead body that needs a place to (literally) chill. What to do?
In the United States, this probably wouldn't be a huge issue. For one, only about half the country's dead bodies are cremated, so there isn't a huge backlog due to demand. (And although there's a waiting time required in some states between death and cremation, bodies are generally going to be housed in funeral homes or the crematorium during that time.)
Japan is a different story. Nearly every person who dies in Japan is cremated; one 2012 survey reported that 99.9 percent of Japanese bodies were cremated. But here's the thing: Lots of people are dying in Japan these days due to its aging population. Those deaths mean an extremely busy death industry. Crematoriums are so overworked that it might be days or weeks before a cremation can take place, leaving loved ones with no funeral homes to accommodate the dead bodies.
Enter the corpse hotel. For a fee (a Reuters article quoted a price of $82 per day), you can rent a room for your loved one to temporarily stay before his or her cremation destination. The rooms are refrigerated or air-conditioned, and there might even be a place for loved ones to sleep nearby. The larger point is that family members or friends can come and view or visit the deceased while they're waiting for a crematorium spot.
Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author of the book "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory," says she initially approached the idea of corpse hotels with skepticism, but was swayed by a recent research visit to one.
"I was expecting to find the corpse hotels ridiculous and unnecessary, but I came out wanting to open one in LA," she says in an email. "In Japan, it's important for families to have time to spend with the dead body at home, but many of the apartments in Tokyo are simply too small. So a home (including beds, kitchens, living area, etc.) is replicated in the corpse hotel, allowing the family to have that time together with the dead. It fills a need. I think funeral homes in America should encourage families to come in and take part in the preparation of the body, wake the body, take private time to mourn."
It certainly fills a niche in Japan, but it also presents another problem that the nation is confronting. The Japanese industry surrounding death has become extremely expensive; one estimate has Japanese funerals, on average, costing more than $20,000. While some corpse hotels provide cheaper, more simplified funerals as an alternative, a lot of them do present an additional cost to an already exorbitantly expensive process.