A Forest of Graves: Japanese Funeral Traditions

May 3, 2017

As an inevitable aspect of human life, death triggers the formation of unique traditions and formalities, which vary from society to society around the world. From cultural, religious, and even economic perspectives, the role of death in society can differ greatly depending on the country, region, or culture. Does the death of a family member require a moment of grieving, a celebratory occasion, or is it a cumbersome responsibility, requiring effort and money? Despite the fact that Japanese society progressively presents itself as more and more secular, Japanese culture characterizes death in a more religious context. While the duality of Shinto-Buddhism often overlaps in Japanese traditions, when it comes to death, Buddhist elements are largely more present in its ceremonies and traditions. On the other hand, Shinto plays a more active role in ceremonies pertaining to the beginning of life, such as childhood and marriage.

Because of its rich history and the influences from the vast dynasties of China and Korea, Japan’s culture maintains funeral traditions that contain a variety of rules, which are set in stone (pun not intended). From the items placed in the casket during the wake period, such as coins symbolizing the crossing of a river in the afterlife, to the direction the body faces, various traditions make Japanese funerals richly detailed, yet cumbersome experiences. Expectation dictates that both the family of the deceased and guests must use certain polite phrases (keigo) at funerals, despite the fact individuals do not usually use these pleasantries in contexts outside of funerals. Additionally, the Japanese tradition dictates that funeral guests, such as friends or coworkers of the deceased, should visit the wake and bring a monetary gift, enclosed in a special funeral envelope (which can even be purchased at convenience stores). Considering the high costs revolving around funerals in Japan, this practice is understood to alleviate the family’s funeral expenses. Similar to Western tradition, guests are also expected to wear black as a reflection of mourning. 

Following the viewing period and the funeral, when the deceased receives a Buddhist name ("better" names are given to those whose families give more sizeable donations to the Buddhist temple), the temples then prepare the dead for cremation. Although cremation used to be a luxury only for the wealthy in Japan, in current-day Japan 99.9 percent of bodies are cremated. Cremation alleviates one of the issues created by minimal space in Japan, which already experiences overcrowding. After the deceased has been cremated, family members of the deceased pick out the remaining bones from the ashes and place them in a special urn. The family uses long chopsticks to carry out this process, with two people usually holding one bone together (this illustrates the reason why it is extremely taboo in Japan to pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks). While the family may decide distribute the ashes to various locations, the primary urn is typically placed in a stone monument-like grave.

Additionally, post-funeral culture is largely significant in Japan. Showing one's respects to the deceased by visiting the grave with small offerings, such as the deceased's favorite drink or cigarettes, is commonplace. There are even often small boxes next to graves where the deceased's friends, coworkers, and other associates place business cards to make their visit of respect known. Additionally, the festival of Obon, which honors the dead, takes place every summer, and at the beginning of every New Year families also wash the graves of their deceased relatives and place fresh incense and flowers. 

In a country where respect is an expectation and a traditional part of the culture, some of these details may come as no surprise. In fact, the similarity between some of these practices and Western ones may even be a considerable point for further investigation. Despite cultural differences and variations, interpretations of death throughout the world generally promote an awareness and respect for the deceased. Looking at the specific traditions related to death in specific countries reveals deeper insights about a society's priorities and values.

Opens in a new window