Family is Forever: The Care and Feeding of Japanese Ancestors

Funeral Incense

Family is Forever: The Care and Feeding of Japanese Ancestors

Jenna West | Community Writer
Much can be revealed about societies and cultures by learning something of their customs regarding treatment of the deceased, and Japan is certainly no exception. This topic almost invariably has some religious connection, so the research for this article was a fascinating exploration of the beliefs held by the Japanese people when it comes to life’s end. Here, as in so many other areas, the concept of “ the same difference” across cultures proves to be abundant.
To preface, the Japanese are of mixed religious persuasion, part Shinto but mainly Buddhist, the latter in particular regarding death and the hereafter. They believe that their ancestors, who remain together in the same celestial family that they were in here on earth, can influence the course of events and control circumstances, for good or evil, surrounding their living relatives. From their place in the “other world”, these spirits take an active interest in the affairs of their survivors, watching over and protecting (or harming!) them, and periodically return to visit our world here. Thus, the soul of a deceased person is carefully tended to; neglecting one’s ancestor would most likely invite misfortune in one form or another.

If you have ventured to downtown Iwakuni, you will have passed the cemetery a few hundred meters beyond Four Corners on Route 188. The hill on which I used to live, not far from the Monzen Gate, holds two cemeteries tucked into its side. These are municipal cemeteries, maintained by the local government, but the families of those interred there are most diligent about caring for their own plots, or haka. Many Buddhist temples also have cemeteries surrounding or adjacent to them, which are maintained by monks and for which service the family pays an annual fee (but they still make their own periodic visits).

Nearly all Japanese are cremated and their ashes put to rest in compact, waterproof containers – for two practical reasons. First, Japan is small – a population roughly half that of the US is confined to an area about the size of California. To boot, it is steeply rugged, and seismically active. Only about 30 percent of the land is usable for anything, including space for the living. There is simply no room for large cemeteries or memorial parks such as Americans are used to. Secondly, the shallow soil depth and steep slopes do not allow for the traditional burial method we know. Several dozen ash containers can be fit into a space about half the size of a normal full-body grave. Finally (not to get macabre about it), cremation creates a sterile by-product.
A very brief description of a Japanese funeral may be order, offered only as a rudimentary understanding of how the departed get to their final resting place (although in fact, this resting place is some ways far from “final”). This can become quite a complicated affair – I found a website containing no less than 61 carefully planned separate steps!

After expiration, the lips of the deceased are moistened with water as a symbolic plea for return to this world. The body is washed and dressed in old-style pilgrims’ clothes, including a pouch of six coins to pay for passage across the river to the other world (sound familiar?). The body is laid on the floor, head pointed to the north, which is supposedly how the Buddha entered Nirvana. A small altar is set up to the left of the head, on which is set a flower, incense, a lighted candle, and a bowl of rice with chopsticks inserted vertically. Thus, it is very poor etiquette while dining for you to leave chopsticks stuck straight up in your food.

Many older Japanese homes contain a butsudan, a lacquered wood shrine holding portraits of deceased family members, various religious artifacts, and other commemorative articles. Prayers are made at the altar to pay respect and to seek guidance. Most important is the ihai, a wooden tablet inscribed with two items: the date of death, and the special name given to the deceased by a priest. The doors of the butsudan are opened wide so that the Buddhist gods can comfort the bereaved and guide the dead to their heavenly home. If there is a Shinto shrine in the home, however, its doors are closed and it is covered with white paper to protect the household from “the impurity of death”.

The next evening, the Buddhist priest comes to the home to chant sutras for the departing soul. Afterward, the family serves a meal, often quite sumptuous, to mourners and guests. The wake is held all that second night; relatives and other mourners pay a call, burn sticks of incense, and pray for the departing soul. Japanese wakes are much like Irish ones, with food and drink supplied in abundance. The soul of the newly deceased is in a state of some confusion. The mourners, with considerable merriment, comfort and protect it from evil spirits which seek to possess it before it journeys away.

The next day, the body is placed in a coffin and taken by hearse to the ceremonial hall. After the funeral service is held, the body is cremated and another feast is held. The ashes are placed in a small urn, taken home, and set upon the altar of the butsudan. Burial of ashes in the haka usually takes place around 35 days after the funeral, but this varies according to the Buddhist calendar. A third large feast is served after the burial. Although this is a severely abridged description of the ritual, it should serve to give some basis of comparison between East and West.

The haka contains several elements, all reflecting Japanese beliefs about the afterlife. The most prominent feature is the monument stone, carved with the family name. An underground vault contains the urns of ashes. All family members’ remains are interred in this same vault (wives are buried in their husband’s family grave). Stone lanterns, to either side and slightly forward of the monument, contain candles to light the way between the other world and this one. Directly before the monument is an altar, flanked by flower vases, for making offerings, burning incense, and praying. Mourners visit the gravesite every seventh day for the first 49 days. Afterward, the soul, freed from this world, goes to take its place among the ancestors.

On altars, you often see cans of soft drinks, juice, or coffee, small bottles of alcoholic beverages, packages of snack foods, fruits, packs of cigarettes or small trinkets – the deceased’s favorites in this life. It is a measure of a family’s devotion to periodically provide these items of comfort.

Five dates in the year are important for cleaning and “restocking” the haka. They are o-higan, the spring and fall equinoxes, o-bon (The Festival of the Dead – 2 visits), and at the end of December, when everything is cleaned and readied for the New Year.
Want to learn more about Japanese funeral customs? Check out the library in Building 411; they have a great selection of books and videos aboutJapanese culture and customs like Yôjirô Takita’s award winning film “Departures”.