Have you ever wondered how different cultures say goodbye to their deceased loved ones? In the West we tend to think of all funerals being similar to what we’re used to. The Japanese culture is unique in the way that they have funerals and many Westerners have begun incorporating Japanese funeral customs into their own after-death arrangements.
Although Japan has become increasingly secular over the years, the vast majority of the public follows two major faiths – Buddhism and Shintoism. Buddhism remains by far the favored religion in the small country and, as a result, many Japanese families – even those who aren’t spiritually inclined – follow traditions established through Buddhist teachings and philosophy.
When someone passes away, the authorities and family are notified and the body is removed and taken away to begin preparations. If the family was present as their loved one passed away, they will moisten the deceased’s lips one last time in a custom called matsugo-no-mizu, or ‘water of the last moment’. Traditionally done immediately before or after death, it can also be preformed at the first opportunity if the family was not able to be there when their loved one passed away.
At home, families cover the Buddhist or Shinto shrine they normally keep in their house. The shrine is closed then covered with white paper in a custom called kamidana-fūji which is meant to ward off spirits of the dead. In the deceased’s bedroom, a small table is decorated with flowers, incense and a candle as a way of honoring their memory.
Most Japanese funerals don’t involve funeral cars or a procession to the cemetery. Instead, the body of the deceased is cremated on the day of the ceremony. In the crematorium, the family and friends typically gather for a small meal. Once the body is cremated and cooled, the people attending the ceremony pick the small bone fragments from the ash and pass them to each other using chopsticks.
Friends of the deceased give monetary gifts, called koden, to the immediate family in cards with the amount printed on the front. The family gives each guest a gift before they leave the wake. Typically, the gift is worth around one-quarter of the condolence money the guest brought. The proper funeral service, called kokubetsu-shiki, takes place the day after the wake and is traditionally preformed by Buddhist monks.
Japan is a small country with a large population. As a result, cremation is the standard. Following the ceremony, the family keeps the urn at their house for 35 days. During that time, they burn incense around the clock. They also have many visitors during this time. The visitors can also burn an incense stick out of respect for the deceased. When the 35 days has passed, the family buries the urn in a Buddhist cemetery.
Beyond that, the dead are honored and remembered during specific times. A memorial service during the Obon festival is held during specific years after a person dies. Usually, the service is preformed in the first, third, fifth, seventh and thirteenth year after a person dies. A picture of the deceased is also places near the altar the family maintains in their home.
While there are many differences between Japanese and American funerals, there are also many similarities which has made the integration of Japanese customers easier. It has also made it easier for the Japanese funeral industry to evolve over the years. Today, Japanese funeral homes engage in fierce competition with a push for a la carte options and transparent pricing. Many of the homes being opened offer traditional Japanese services alongside some Western options in order to appeal to an increasingly diverse customer base.
The West has always had a fascination with the Japanese way of life. As people travel more often and live abroad in record numbers, it’s led to an interest in the Japanese way of death as well. Japanese traditions are largely build upon Buddhist teachings and so have been easy to adapt to other forms of spirituality. While some traditions will probably not be likely to catch on among mainstream Westerners, others prove that when we are in mourning we all need the same things – the comfort, sympathy and support of our closest friends and family.