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Japanese Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs

Japanese funerals are a special and important part of Japanese culture. Funerals are observed as a way to properly honor the life of the deceased, while providing comfort and closure for those left behind.

Japanese funeral customs and traditions

Japanese death rituals, traditions, and burial practices stem most often stem from Buddhism; it's estimated that 90% of Japanese funerals are Buddhist in nature. Though Shinto is a Japanese religion, it's not one that dominates traditional Japanese funerals.

After death

After the body has been washed, it's dressed in either a suit or a traditional burial kimono and placed in the casket. In accordance with traditional Japanese burial practices, the body is placed on dry ice alongside items that the deceased found important during their life. Items that are placed in the casket can also include sandals, kimonos (white kimonos, specifically), and coins for crossing the Sanzu-no-Kawa, or the River of Three Crossings. The River of Three Crossings is considered to be a river that deceased individuals cross over after death (typically on the seventh day after their passing).

The wake

The wake (tsuya) is held as soon as possible and is open to all funeral guests. Those attending will typically offer money as a condolence to the family in special envelopes (kōdenbukuro) and will find their seats for the wake -- the closest family members typically sit near the front. Though there isn't a specific Japanese prayer for the dead, the wake will begin with a Buddhist priest chanting parts of a sutra (an ancient text central to Buddhism). Each family member will then be invited to offer incense to the deceased while the other guests are invited to offer their incense in a separate location, further away from the body of the deceased. At the end of the wake, every guest is given a small monetary gift that's proportional to the amount of money they gave to the family (the guest will typically receive 1/4 - 1/2 of the funds they donated as a gift).

The funeral

A funeral is traditionally held on the day following the wake. At the beginning of the funeral, incense is offered to the deceased by being placed in incense holders near the casket, and the deceased is given a new name, known as a "precept name". The purpose of this name is to prevent the deceased from returning to the land of the living should their original name be called. Near the end of the ceremony, guests are invited to lay flowers in and around the casket before the casket is sealed.

The cremation

Cremation is the most common method of disposition in Japan. Once the funeral service is finished, it is time for the casket to be sealed and taken to the crematorium. A Buddhist priest will typically lead a prayer ceremony at the crematorium before the casket is placed on a platform and set alight. A Japanese cremation differs from other cremations in that the family of the deceased is involved in the removal of the bones after the body has been cremated. After the cremation, the family is invited to carefully remove the bones from the ashes using chopsticks, with two individuals holding the same bone with each of their chopsticks. This practice (kotsuage) is the only time that it's considered proper for two individuals to hold on to the same item at the same time using chopsticks. The bones are then placed in the urn along with the ashes.

The burial

Even though cremation is the method of disposition that's traditionally chosen, burying the cremains in a grave is still an important part of the funeral process. Japanese graves typically include a place for offerings to be made, including a place for flowers, water, and incense. Japanese tombstones are unique in that the name of the deceased may not always appear on the front of the stone; it may instead be engraved on the side of the stone. In addition to this, Japanese gravestones will traditionally include the name of the person’s spouse, which is most often painted in red.

Spaces in Japanese graveyards are enormously expensive and have spawned the invention of "grave apartments", which are smaller and more affordable graves for those unable to afford a full space. These graves are typically located on the peripheries of Japanese cemeteries and often consist of a single shelf or a space for one urn in an enclosed structure.

Japanese funeral etiquette

Japanese funerals are steeped in ritual and tradition, and as such, there's an expectation that guests adhere to certain rules of etiquette. Some of these rules include not wearing bright colors (black is traditional), arriving on time to the wake or funeral service, offering whatever money you can afford (kōden) when attending the wake, and refraining from taking pictures or videos of the service. Guests are also expected to bow when they enter and leave the wake, as well as when offering incense. Sending flowers is generally not a suggested method of expressing sympathy at the funeral and monetary or other types of sympathy gifts should be given instead.

Overall, Japanese funerals are unique in their rituals and etiquette, and it's important for those attending services to be aware of what is expected of them in order to show respect to the deceased and their family. By understanding these customs and following them, you can pay your respects in the most appropriate way.

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Last updated December 15, 2022
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