Japanese Buddhist Funeral Customs

The majority of Japanese families follow Shinto and Buddhist practices with regards to burial and funeral customs.  Shinto is still the most popular sect to follow in wedding customs, and Buddhism is the most popular path to follow for funeral rites.

While mourners were formerly dressed in all white, today the custom is to dress in black. Funeral customs in Japan vary by region, by religion and economic situation of the family. Over ninety-nine percent of funerals are cremations, and even with cremations, space for keeping ashes is difficult to come by in cemeteries, and plots are extremely expensive.

Buddhist Cemetery at the Etsuji Temple

Buddhist Cemetery at the Etsuji Temple, Iwakura in Kyoto

Family gravestones in Japan are fairly small and hollow, allowing for the placement of urns of the deceased’s ashes. Some of the ashes of loved ones are kept at home. Embalming does not take place in Japan.

Early burials of the common people were often taken care of by the families, or the bodies were placed in mass graves or by the river. The Kyoto temple of Adashino Nembutsuji is an example of a mass grave where bodies were abandoned in the Heian era around the 9th century C.E. From the Edo Period (1603-1867) onward, the common people also began to follow the Buddhist traditions of funerals.

To begin, the body is first washed and gauze placed in the orifices. Either the family does this, or the hospital will take care of the washing. The body will be dressed in a suit or formal kimono if a man, and in a kimono if a woman. The hair and makeup are prepared by someone from the mortuary and the body is taken to the place where a wake will occur.

The body will be placed on dry ice until the funeral arrangements are decided upon and the body is placed in the casket. The mortician will ask the representative of the family about the arrangements such as:

  • The day of the service
  • Height of the altar that the body is placed upon
  • Food for the guests at the wake
  • Gifts for those who attend the wake or funeral
  • Type of casket

These items are assembled at the funeral site and usually flowers and fruits are set up. The mortuary staff will place a white kimono, headband, sandals, socks and paper money into the casket. Other burnable items that the deceased was fond of such as cigarettes or candy can be added. The money is to pay the toll to cross the River of the Three Hells. More dry ice is then packed into the casket.

At the wake, two or three people greet the mourners and the people each sign the registry book. The mourners give an envelope with condolence money to the greeters and the amount is written on the outside of the envelope. This money is later given to the family.

Incense is lit at the altar by the casket and a bell is rung. The mourners visit with the relatives and then exit to another space where food and drinks are served to them.

When the Buddhist priest arrives he is served green tea and he talks with the family. Then he offers incense and reads a sutra. He then motions for the family to offer incense in order of their importance in the family. Following this ceremony, people may leave, and will be given a small gift as they go. The family will stay in the room that night with the deceased.

The funeral usually takes place on the day after the wake at the temple. A posthumous name is created by the priest and written on a wooden tablet which is placed before the altar. This posthumous name, or kaimyo, differs from the name the person held in life. It is supposed to help keep the deceased from returning every time the earthly name is repeated.

Again the priest recites and sutra and then motions for the family to begin lighting incense. The family member will place his/her hands together with a rosary wrapped around them, then bow. There is a final viewing and then the casket is sealed. Pallbearers carry the casket to the funeral hearse which is decorated like a temple.

The family and the casket arrive at the crematorium where the body is placed in the oven. They are told at what time they will be able to pick up the remains. Family members then pick up the remaining bones with chopsticks and place them in the urn. The urn may be taken home for the 49th day memorial service, or it may be taken directly to the cemetery. Customs vary with locality, sect and the wishes of the family. The first year Obon festival is also celebrated for the deceased, and many other anniversaries.

This Suite 101 synopsis credits Japanese Buddhist Funeral Customs by Billy Hammond as a source.

Here is a link to a video/slide show explanation of Traditional Japanese Burial Customs.

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