Cash-strapped city governments in Japan are searching through the ashes of cremated residents to extract precious metals, pocketing the proceeds from the recycled gold and silver, it has emerged.
The city of Nagoya alone has reportedly collected 12 kg of gold, silver, platinum and palladium in 2007 from teeth and bones, worth more than Y10 million (£77,000).
The practice has been uncovered by the Asahi newspaper, which claims relatives of the dead are unaware of their loved ones' remains are being "mined" for reuseable materials.
"What happens to the bodies after cremation varies from place to place, but in general it is left up to the individual crematorium," said Fumio Nakajima, a spokesman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
"The ashes and most of the bones are placed in the urn and given to the family, although some bones are too big and it is then up to the crematorium to dispose of them," he said. "It's the same with teeth.
"The metal is no longer considered to be a part of the person and we are just reusing and recycling the material," he said.
Tokyo collected some 700 grams of gold, 500 grams of palladium and 1.9 kg of silver from cremated bodies in 2007, adding Y3.2 million (£24,600) to the city's bank account. The city also banked around Y90,000 (£690) in coins left as offering inside the coffins.
The practice has apparently been common for the last 20 years, although some cities have stopped after relatives of the dead found out and complained that it was disrespectful to profit from the deceased.
"Very few of the families know what happens and what happens in the crematoriums is kept very quiet," said a Buddhist priest from Kanagawa Prefecture who often oversees traditional funerals.
"The crematorium will usually return the ashes of the whole body but as they assume the families can't use the gold then they're not doing anything wrong," he said. "And anyway, the families are usually too upset to ask about the details of their loved ones."
Nearly 2,000 tons of bones and ashes are collected acros Japan at crematoria every year, with many municipalities considering ashes and bone fragments not placed in urns and taken away by the family to have been abandoned.
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