Japanese Funerals: Sunset in the Rising Sun
by Alan Wiren
Japanese funeral customs can be shocking for the uninitiated, so the more you know beforehand, the better able you will be to comfort and support mutual friends and their families.
Attending a Japanese funeral affords a deep insight into Japanese culture and personal identity. The most common thing you will hear about Japanese funerals is that they are a mixture of Shinto and Buddhist traditions.
Shinto, the native religion in Japan is a collection of rituals, including funeral rites, that grew out of the complex cultural history of the archipelago.
Buddhist funeral rites were introduced from outside, and are meant to help the deceased make a transition from life to afterlife, and to reincarnation should it not escape from the cycle of rebirth.
The strongest pressure for merging the two traditions came in 1638 when all Japanese households were required to register with a temple as members of the Buddhist faith.
Ironically, the aim was not to prohibit Shinto practice, but to stamp out Christianity. While Buddhist shrines (butsdan) were set up in Japanese homes in conformance with the law, many families maintained a Shinto shrine in another room.
Currently, nearly all Japanese families employ a Buddhist priest after a death and participate in the rituals of his sect. The spirit in which the friends and family approach these rituals, however, reflects Shinto tradition.
Wherever a Japanese person should pass away, the body, if at all possible, will be brought back home to spend one final night on his or her own futon. Ice is packed around the body and it is covered with a sheet. A white cloth covers the face. Members of the immediate family, including children of all ages, and friends from the neighborhood will drop by and give their condolences. It is not uncommon for people to sit with, touch, and talk to the body almost as if it were still alive.
The next morning the body is taken, in a slow procession, to the place where services will be held. Depending on the means and preferences of the family, this might be a temple or a more secular facility. Some cities host a combined funeral parlor, overnight lodging, and crematorium.
When the destination is reached, the body is dressed, placed in a coffin and packed with dry ice. The coffin may be a simple, wooden box, or tastefully decorated. There is a window in the cover above the body's face. It is then placed in front of an arrangement of lights, sculpture, and flowers, suggestive of paradise. A portrait of the deceased is placed within the arrangement and incense, which must be kept burning at all times, is placed near the coffin.
Then the wake begins. Guests arrive bearing gifts of money sealed in special envelopes tied up with black and white string, which can be found in most stationary stores. The amount of the gift varies with the closeness of relationship to the deceased.
The priest kneels in front of the coffin to chant a sutra, and the immediate family will come forward, one by one, and offer respect to the deceased. The exact form this ritual takes will vary according to sect, and locale.
Typically, each mourner will take up granular incense from a bowl, hold it to their forehead then drop it onto a burner. They will then pray and bow to the portrait. Either following them, or simultaneously at a different altar, the guests will do the same. and finally turn and bow to the immediate family. If you are not sure how to proceed, there is no shame in making sure you are at least fifth in line.
After everyone has finished this ritual, and the chanting of the sutra has ended, the guests depart, the immediate family and close relatives retire nearby and the night's vigil begins. This usually consists of an informal, light meal accompanied with beer and sake, lengthy conversations, and a night's rest.
The next morning, they arise, return to where the deceased waits, and the entire procedure is repeated. This is the actual funeral, and the atmosphere and dress are more formal. Black is the color to wear: a suit with white shirt and black, four-in-hand tie for men, a dress or kimono for women.
When the funeral ends, the coffin is opened, and flowers from the arrangement are given to the family and guests to place in the coffin. In some traditions the coffin lid is nailed in place at this time. The coffin is then transferred to the crematorium accompanied by the mourners. The immediate family may repeat the incense burning there. The task of operating the furnace may fall to the closest family member or it may be handled by the crematorium staff. While the fire burns, the close relatives turn to the funeral feast.
When both have consumed their lot, the relatives assemble in another room where the slab, still radiating heat and bearing the remaining bones, is brought. The crematory staff will usually give a kind of guided tour of the bones, pointing out indicators of disease and the effect of medicines.
Using a special pair of chopsticks (one bamboo, one willow: a bridge between two worlds), they will pick out one particular neck bone that, appears to contain a seated Buddha figure. Then everyone, from the grey haired to toddlers, takes up chopsticks and transfers bones to a small pot. Mothers may encourage their children to take bones from the head to foster their intelligence. Others may take up certain bones to combat illness or injury.
This is not the end. It is the beginning. The collected bones are returned home and set on an alter in front of the butsudan, and remain there until they are interred at the family grave. The portrait is hung nearby.
Buddhism prescribes a series of memorial ceremonies after death. The form or these ceremonies, a priest chanting sutra, prayer and incense burning, are the same as in the funeral although much less formal. They are usually held in the immediate family's home.
Strict Buddhist tradition calls for ceremonies every seven days after the death, then every seventh day until the forty-ninth day. Often, when relatives cannot afford to travel or take time from their work, only one or two ceremonies are held before the forty-ninth day. This is how the veneration of a Japanese ancestor begins. After the forty-ninth day ceremony, Buddhism calls for another on the one hundredth day and then an annual ceremony until the fiftieth year.
In Japan the annual memorial ceremony is replaced by the celebration of Obon, a three-day holiday in August, when the spirits of ancestors are said to return to their families' homes.
The traditions of Obon take various forms throughout Japan. Lamps may be lit at the butsudan, and small fires may be burned in front of the door to guide the spirits home. Some families visit their grave site, clean the grave, and "carry" their ancestors home with them. The custom of floating small "boats", on the final day, filled with offerings of food and a candle on a river or the sea has been outlawed in most parts of Japan. The law, however, seems to have had little effect on this custom.
Words + images Alan Wiren
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