Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Memories of Japan: Cemeteries and Funeral Customs

Today is Wednesday, January 8, 2014.

In earlier posts, I've made reference to funeral customs, but I'll go into this subject a bit more today, since there are some interesting differences. 

Long ago in Japan, people were buried, and if you were part of the Imperial Family, you were buried in a large, keyhole-shaped burial mound called a kofun.  Common people were buried in large clay urns or stone coffins.  In the 20th century, cremation started to become popular, with the practice gaining sharply in popularity after World War II.  As of 2007, 99.81% of Japanese are cremated, although it is till not mandatory to do so, nationally.  The only people who are buried these days are Emperor and members of the Imperial Family or Muslims, for whom cremation is taboo, and a few Christians.  The current monarch, Emperor Akihito, has just announced plans for himself and his wife to be cremated, breaking a burial tradition of several hundred years.  Their mausoleums will be smaller than usual, and eco-friendly, as well. 

Just after a person dies, the Japanese moisten their lips with water.  This is called "water of the last moment" or matsugo-no-mizu.  Most Japanese have a household Shintō shrine, which is closed and covered with a piece of white paper to keep out the spirits of death.  Japanese call this kamidana-fuji. (Remember that Shintō is all about purifying and protecting from evil.  Shintō rites generally have nothing to do with death.

Funerary lanternPhoto by Greg Ferguson
As in the United States, the coroner and mortuary are called, if the person dies at home. The family informs extended family members and close friends.  They may put a white paper lantern in front of the house to show that there has been a death.  A death certificate is issued by the coroner and the local temple or mortuary is contacted.

On a small table is next to the bed, some flowers, incense and a candle are placed. Some people put a knife on the chest of the deceased, to be used by the spirit to defend himself or herself against evil spirits in the afterlife.  

Embalming is not done in Japan.  If a person dies in the hospital, the staff there will wash the body and orifices are stuffed with cotton or gauze.  Otherwise the family will take care of this, or they can ask the mortuary to help.  These days most men are dressed in a Western suit for burial, and the women are dressed in kimono, but the kimono is wrapped so that the loose flap goes to the left, rather than to the right.  Someone from the mortuary will come and put cosmetics on the body, as necessary, just as we do here in the United States.

The body is put on dry ice in the mortuary or at home, and the family stays with the body until it is time to put it in a casket, which is usually made of particleboard covered with cloth these days.   The family will also put in the casket a traditional white kimono, leggings, sandals, some paper money or coins for the deceased to pay a toll to cross the "river of three crossings" (Sanzu no Kawa), plus a few (burnable) things the deceased used to love, such as candy or cigarettes.  (Bodies used to be dressed in white kimono for burial, and this is why ghosts are often depicted as wearing a white kimono.)

In Japan, as in the United States, there are special vehicles to transport dead bodies. Some of these look a lot like our hearses, but some vehicles have a Buddhist-style altar fitted onto the back.  I remember seeing one of those and asking what it was.  I didn't see too many of them, though, so I am assuming that they are perhaps less common in the cities than in rural areas. 

If a funeral (お葬式 o-sōshiki) is held, it happens the day after the wake (お通夜 o-tsūya) .  These days, everybody wears black to a wake or funeral.  Formal kimono are black, anyway, but the ones they wear to a funeral have no extra design printed on them.

Above the knot, the word
kōden is written.  Below
the knot is the giver's
name, family name first.
It looks like someone named
Tai-ichiro Yamashita is
the bearer of this envelope.
Guests bring condolence money called kōden (香典) in special envelopes with a black and white ribbon. The amount of money in the envelope depends on how well you knew the deceased and how much money you wish to give, but amounts usually range from 3,000 to 30,000 yen. Most people put in between 5,000 and 10,000 yen.  It is much preferred that you give the money in person, rather than send it by mail, unless you are too far away to attend the wake or funeral, although it is acceptable to ask someone else to take your gift to the wake or funeral if you can't attend.  Just as at American funerals, someone from the mortuary will take your envelope.  This is a double envelope, actually.  On the inner envelope you write your name, address, and the amount of money you are offering. On the outer envelope, most envelopes already have the word kōden written about the black and white mizuhiki rope, so you just write your name below the rope.  (Write vertically.)  Technically, if you give condolence money within 49 days of the death (while the spirit is said to wander around earth saying goodbye to survivors) the money is called go-reizen. (Given in honor of the Soul, rei.) If it is given after 49 days, it's called go-butsuzen, so you're technically making an offering to Buddha, rather than to the departed Soul.  (They have a special memorial ceremony at the 49th day after death, when the Soul supposedly leaves the earth realm for good and goes into the Inner Worlds.) 

Here's another envelope with
a real mizuhiki knot around
the envelope.
This will seem kind of crass, but at Japanese weddings and funerals, guests are always given a gift when they depart.  These can be kind of spendy at weddings, but the tradition for funerals is to give a gift that is about one-half (or slightly less than one-half the value of what you gave them for condolence money.  The funeral organizers typically take care of these things, and just charge the family later for the guest gifts, as part of the funeral expenses.  They have gifts ready in all price ranges, so if you give a lot of money, you will likely get a pricy gift in return.  It seems odd, given the astronomical cost of Japanese funerals, that people can't just keep the amount that you give them, because they could probably use the money to pay for the funeral, but if you refuse to accept this guest gift, you will only seem rude. Basically, though, just remember that whatever you give them, you are getting about half that amount back as a gift.

Burning incense at a wake or funeral.  Incense is burned
to purify the area around the deceased.
At the wake, the guests are seated, with immediate relatives seated closest to the front, just as they are here. The Buddhist priest chants a section from a sutra, or Buddhist scripture. The family members will each offer incense three times to the incense urn in front of the deceased, and some may make a speech.  It is not unusual to hear someone say, as if speaking to the deceased, "Gokurō-sama deshita."  This phrase usually means "thanks for your hard work" but in the case of a life that is finished, it is an appropriate way to pay your respects to the dead for their contribution to life.

While the family is performing their incense offerings, the rest of the guests will perform the same ritual at another location behind the family members' area. Each departing guest speaks briefly to the survivors, often using the phrase, "Kono tabi wa, makoto ni goshūshō-sama desu"  (or ending with "de gozaimasu" instead of "desu" if you are outside the family).  Basically this is a set phrase offering heartfelt condolences.  You can also say, "Okuyami mōshiagemasu."  (My sympathies.) An American friend of mine got her phrases mixed up at one funeral she attended.  Instead of "goshūshō-sama desu," she said, "gochisō-sama deshita," which is said at mealtimes in thanks for the food.  I'm sure it was comic relief for the family.

The funeral takes place before cremation, and people are careful not to schedule a funeral for days that are known as tombiki (friend pulling), which are good for a wedding, but not suitable for funerals. As the Japanese say, "Nobody wants to join the dead in the grave."  A funeral has much the same procedure as a wake - a priest recites Buddhist scripture while incense is offered.  But there is one other thing that happens at a funeral.  The priest gives the deceased a Buddhist after-death name.  The idea behind this is that the spirit will have a new name in the afterlife, so whenever his or her earthly name is spoken, the spirit will not feel the need to come back.

The Buddhist posthumous name (戒名, kaimyō) is written in Chinese characters, some of which are so old and obsolete that nobody can read them!  The length of the name is supposed to have to do with the virtue of the deceased, but it really generally depends on how much money the family donates to the temple.  A really fancy name can be had for 1 million yen (nearly $1,000) or more.  This has become a sensitive issue in Japan, particularly with the economy in such a slump.  Some people complain that temples are putting pressure on families to buy more expensive posthumous names.  

The high school or junior high student and her mom
are most likely doing kotsuage for a grandparent.
Notice that the mom is wearing a black kimono
and the girl is wearing her private school uniform.
In japan, a school uniform is considered formal wear
for students.
Once the funeral is over, the body is taken to the crematorium, where members of the family may watch the casket being put onto a tray, which is slid into the cremation oven.  Then the family is asked to wait while the body is being cremated.  There is usually an area with tables, set up like a cafeteria, where family can chat over tea.  The process one to two hours, and less for a child.  This time reminds me of the luncheon that is sometimes provided after a funeral in the United States, where family members have a chance to relax and console each other in a less formal way.

These young girls are doing kotsuage, probably starting
with the feet.  The older members of the family
probably do the more important bones.  I respect
the way Asians don't try to shelter young people
from the realities of death.

Here's the part that seems a little creepy.  When the body has been reduced to ashes, some larger bones are left intact, unlike in the West.  Once the bones have cooled, relatives of the deceased work two at a time to pick the bones out of the ashes, then deposit the bones in the urn. Some of the heavier bones, such as the thigh bone, must be lifted by two people. This ritual is called kotsuage. The mourners are provided with long white chopsticks for this task, and this is the only time it is OK to pass anything from person to person using chopsticks.  This is why, when you are dining out, if you want to serve food to someone from a plate in front of you, you have pass the plate to them and let them take the food with their chopsticks.  If you pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks, you will remind your Japanese friends of this kotsuage funeral custom.  

Big no-no!
While we're on the subject of death and chopsticks, I might as well also tell you that crossing your chopsticks reminds the Japanese of death, although I'm not quite sure why.  Another thing that reminds them of death is sticking your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice.  That's because rice is ritually offered to the deceased in this way on a Buddhist altar.  

OK, back to passing bones: the bones of the feet are picked up and deposited in the urn first, so that the deceased is not left upside-down for the rest of whatever. The bones of the skull are picked up last. The horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone from the back of the neck is the most important bone, but I have no idea why this is so, and most Japanese can't tell you, either.  Sometimes the ashes are separated into two different urns, so that some of the ashes can go to two different places.

Internment of ashes.  Notice that everybody is in black.
The distribution of ashes is called bunkotsu.  In Japan, ashes are kept in the home for a few days.  Then they may be sprinkled on the ground or at sea (These options are becoming slightly more common now.), sent to a temple, or placed in a family grave.  Very recently, a couple of alternatives have made the news.  One is saving some of the the ashes to be scattered in space, and another is converting the cremated remains into a diamond that can be set into jewelry. 

A public cemetery in Tokyo
There are two main kinds of cemeteries, Buddhist or public.  During the time of Emperor Meiji, there was a rise in ultra-nationalism and a corresponding backlash against Buddhism.  (Ultranationalists always seem to be pro-Shintō.)  At that time, the government created public cemeteries, because virtually no Shintō shrines have cemeteries.  Nowadays, there are also private cemeteries owned by some of the bigger companies, where employees and their families can keep the ashes of their deceased.  

Most families do have a grave site where everyone's ashes can be stored.  Family grave sites are so common because land for graves is prohibitively expensive in Japan. 

A traditional grave marker like this
represents the natural elements: the cube
is for earth, the sphere is for water, the
pyramid is for fire, the cup atop the
pyramid is for wind, and the small
ball with a peak on top is for
space/the etheer/the void.

 A family plot to store ashes averages about 2 million yen, or just over $19 thousand. A new service called Grave Apartments (お墓のマンション ohaka no manshon) is offered in some places, where a locker-sized storage unit can be purchased for 400,000 yen.  Some of these have a touch-screen that shows a picture of the deceased, messages, family tree information.  Some even have a QR code that can be read by smart phones.  

One graveyard has reportedly been opened in Tokyo in a nine-story building by a Buddhist temple.  The lower floors are used for funeral ceremonies, and the upper floors are used for storage of ashes.  I haven't seen this one personally, but there is a superstition about the number four, because the Chinese reading of the character for four is a homophone for death.  I wonder if there is a fourth floor in this graveyard building.  (Just as buildings sometimes skip the 13th floor here, they sometimes skip the fourth floor in Japan.) Or maybe every floor is called "fourth floor."  (Actually, they use the Japanese word for four when counting stories of a building, but still...)

The name on the left is that of a
person who is still alive.  the
family name on this grave is
A typical Japanese family grave (
--> haka) is a stone monument with a space for flowers and incense, a little stone bowl for water, and a chamber or crypt underneath for the actual ashes.  The names of the deceased may be engraved on the front or side of the monument or on a separate stone or wooden board on a stand behind or next to the grave.  If you see a name written in red, that is a person whose ashes will be buried there later, but who is now still alive.  (Couples who purchase memorial stones together in the United States sometimes do this, with the date of birth of the living partner engraved and a space left for the date of death.)
With the aging of the Japanese population, there has been a decrease in weddings and an increase in funerals.  The price of funeral services has come down slightly in deference to the sagging economy, and some services are offered ala carte.  

Red is a color associated with babies.
One thing you see at a lot of temples is a little bald-headed statue called Jizo.  These statues can be carved out of volcanic rock, clay, or wood, or cast in bronze.  Jizo is the protector of women, children, the unborn, and travelers.

Travelers in Japan see Jizo everywhere: peaking out of the grass at the side of a road, standing at intersections, or sitting in a small wooden shelter built just for him.

You can find Jizo at temples too, sometimes holding a baby in his arms. At the temples, he guards the boundaries between physical and spiritual places, between life and death. 

This one has elongated ears, like
statues of the Buddha.
Women pray to Jizo for fertility and for a safe and easy childbirth.  Temples sell little Jizo amulets for this purpose.

As protector of children, people pray to him in hopes that their children will grow healthy and strong.  Jizo also takes care of the Souls of unborn children or those who die in infancy.  Children who die go to a place in the worlds of spirit called Sai no Kawara, where they have to create piles of stones into small towers.  Every night the stone towers are destroyed by demons, so they have to start again the next day.  This is why you see little stone towers alongside some Jizo statues.  The adults make them for the Souls of these children in order to help them achieve their goal.  People sometimes leave toys, candy or fruit as offerings at the base of Jizo statues, and they dress Jizo statues up in a bib and cap, or sometimes a scarf.  The clothing for Jizo is often red, but it can be any color.  People do this to accrue merit in the afterlife.  Back in the 1970s, a new funeral tradition became quietly popular, that of mizuko kuyo, or a funeral ceremony for aborted fetuses. I heard this spoken of in hushed tones when women had abortions.  Some married women did so because their husband was not yet ready to support a child.  There are even temples that specialize in funeral ceremonies for aborted babies.

This is my favorite one.  So cute.
In some graveyards you will see a whole bunch of Jizo statues.  This is called Sentai Jizo (one thousand Jizos)As you might expect in a culture that is so very old, there are many graves of people long forgotten.  As well, earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis destroy graves.  When you see a lot of Jizo statues together, these statues represent Souls for whom no one is left to pray.  In that sense, they are like the tombs of the unknown.  When I asked about all the Jizo statues, the lady I was with commented, "Well, we Japanese are very different from Americans.  We like to be together when we bathe and when we die."  :-)
Sentai Jizo

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