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Rituals of Japanese Funerals

Funeral Rituals in Japan

Here’s all you need to know about rituals of Japanese funerals– the Japanese culture of death and dying and what they do during this time!

Last year my Japanese grandpa passed away and I was extremely close to him. In his honour, we wanted to cremate him and conduct his last rites in the Japanese way as he has always been too attached to the culture. 

What are the rituals of Japanese funerals?

The Japanese funeral called kokubetsu-shiki is usually conducted on the day of the wake. This process is similar to the wake, incense is offered to the deceased with the priest chanting the sutras. The ceremony is slightly different as the deceased receives a new Buddhist name (kamiyo).

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I was unaware of the rituals of Japanese funerals so when I attended his funeral, I had an entirely new experience of the Japanese death traditions and how it works although it’s really sad but extremely detailed. 

While I was attending my Japanese grandpa’s funeral, I realised that Japanese funerals vary greatly from the extremely traditional to the simpler, more modern approach. However, people prefer it simple and modern as the times are changing.

japanese grave offerings
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However, let’s get to the topic- rituals of Japanese funerals and Japan’s culture on death in detail, read further!

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Rituals of Japanese Funerals

Japanese Funerals: Grieving

It might shock you if you attend Japanese funerals without knowing much about it so it’s better if you read about the rituals of Japanese funerals beforehand. This will help you understand, console and support the family and close ones in a better way.

Attending a Japanese funeral will give you an insight into the culture, Japanese funeral customs and personal identity that would be a little hard to know otherwise. 

One thing you’ll commonly hear about Japanese funerals is that it’s a mixture of Shinto and Japanese culture, some of the elements are picked from both cultures.

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A new religion, Shinto which is now quite common in Japan, is a collection of rituals including funeral rituals that grew out of the complex history of the group of islands.

 Buddhist funeral rites were adopted from outside and were solely meant for the deceased to go through the idea of reincarnation that shouldn’t leave the cycle of rebirth also called transmigration or metempsychosis.

japanese death traditions
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The strongest pressure to mix both the Sinto and the Buddhist culture into rituals of Japanese funerals was only in 1638 when the Japanese households were asked to register with a temple of the Buddhist faith.

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Now, all Japanese families hire a Buddhist priest during the Japanese grave rituals and practice the rituals of the same sect.

How the friends and family approach the priest shows the Shinto tradition and the priest is compensated at the end to conduct the rituals of Japanese funerals. The compensation can be in any form which is decided by the family.

This was actually done only to get away with Christianity. While there were Butsudan at Japanese homes in accordance with the law, people also had a Shinto temple in another room. Batsudans are basically Buddhist shrines.

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Japanese Funeral Rites

Whenever a Japanese person passes away, the body of the person is brought home in order to spend a night on his or her own bed or futon. The rituals of Japanese funerals begin here. 

The body is packed around with ice and then it is covered with a sheet. A white cloth is used to cover the face of the person. Close relatives and friends come by to give their deep condolences to the family members who are grieving. 

The next morning, the dead body is taken to the place of service in a slow and peaceful procession. It is quite common in the Japanese culture to sit with, touch and talk to the dead body of the person almost as if it’s still alive.

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It all depends upon the family where they want to conduct Japanese custom after death, it might be in the temple or a more secular facility. In some cities, the host combines the funeral area, overnight lodging and overnight cremation.

When the destination is reached after the slow procession, the body is dressed by the family, laid in the coffin packed with dry ice so that the body is safe from decay.

The coffin may be really decorated, simple or just a wooden box, it’s the wish of the family and their status. 

There is a window right above the covered face of the dead person outside the coffin. It is then placed in front of the lights, flowers and sculptures suggestive of the paradise that they’ll receive after death.

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The rituals of Japanese funerals are quite similar in all Asian countries as opposed to the West. A portrait of the passed person is placed with some incense sticks that must be kept burning all the time near the coffin of the person.

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Japanese Wakes

Japanese wakes are probably the most important part of the Japanese funeral and are called tsuya.

After the rituals of Japanese funerals where the coffin is offered flowers, the wake begins. Japanese funeral etiquette includes the guest arriving with a Japanese condolence gift of money sealed in a special envelope tied with black and white string.

The amount of gift depends upon the closeness of the relationship with the person who has passed away. The priest kneels in front of the coffin and immediately, the family comes in front, near the coffin to pay respect one by one, to the deceased.

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Most typically, the rituals of Japanese funerals in the wake are something like this- each family member takes a little bit of incense from a bowl, holds it to their forehead and then drops it onto a burner. 

As you move forward reading this article, you’ll realise the importance of incense sticks in Japanese funerals. In Buddhism, the significance of incense is to purify the space.

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Then they are expected to pray and bow to the portrait in order to pay homage. Either following the family members or at a different altar, the guests perform this simultaneously. Then the guests turn and bow to the family.

If you’re not sure how to proceed, try going after the members in the house or other guests have proceeded, maybe 5th in the house so you could see what others are doing and repeat the same. 

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The guests take leave and the night’s rituals start before which some sutras are chated by the Buddhist priest. This usually is a small meal, with close ones over sake or beer with long conversations about the deceased and some guests stay over if required.

I understand the rituals of Japanese funerals can be a little complicated if you’re just reading about it. But once you attend one, you’ll have a much better idea.

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Japan’s Funeral Service

The actual funeral starts off the next morning and the dress and atmosphere are quite formal. Everyone wears black in order to show respect. The entire funeral rituals are repeated again.

When the funeral is done, the coffin is opened and flowers from the coffin are given to friends and family for blessings from the passed away person.

In some rituals of Japanese funerals, the coffin is nailed while in others they’re sent to crematoriums accompanied by mourners, it all depends on how the priests and the family want the funeral to be. 

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The task of operating the furnace is often upon the immediate close person or sometimes the staff at the funeral. A funeral feast takes place while the furnace burns.

The immediate family might repeat the incense burning ritual there as it should keep burning. There is a great role of incense in rituals of Japanese funerals has

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Cremation of the Deceased

When the feast is done, the relatives and family are taken into the room where the slab of remaining bones and bares are brought to show to the family.

The crematory staff then takes the family around pointing out the diseased and effect of medicines on the bones.

japanese funeral etiquette
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An exceptional chopstick is used to pick out a particular piece of hyoid bone in the neck that appears like a seated Buddha figure which comes from the customs of Buddhist beliefs.

Everyone then transfers the neck bone to a small pot called an urn because it is one of the rituals of Japanese funerals. 

Mothers may encourage their children to take the head bone to inculcate intelligence but others usually take up certain bones to fight illnesses as that’s a significant belief amongst the Japanese.

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Butsudan and Memorial Services

The bones collected are set on an altar near the butsudan and remain there until they’re interred in the family grave. The portrait is hung near the butsudan in remembrance of the ancestors.

Buddhism has a lot of rituals of Japanese funerals but because everything is turning modern, the rituals are also being simplified and lessened year after year.

Conventional Buddhist families conduct rituals of Japanese funerals every seventh day (shonanoka 初七日) until the 49th-day shijūkunichi (四十九日) till the families can’t find it hard to commute so often.

The annual ceremony for fifteen years is often conducted by the families to honour the deceased. My family follows a similar tradition and we are continuing to do it for my grandfather.

Japanese home shrine of the dead is built in the house corner and often Japanese funeral songs are sung in praise of the deceased so that the soul rests in peace.

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Obon

In Japan, Obon is an annual memorial ceremony to honour the deceased ancestors of the family. It’s a three day holiday in august where it is believed that the spirits return to their homes.

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Obon is being celebrated for than 500 years now and is believed to have originated from the story of Maha Mudgalyayana, a disciple of Buddha.

The traditions of Obon takes various forms like lighting lamps in butsudan or small fires in front of homes to guide the spirits home. Some families visit their ancestral grave, clean it and “carry” them home. 

There’s also a custom of floating small boats with food and candles on the seawater in Japan. This is one of the main rituals of Japanese funerals that is celebrated every year. Obon is the celebration of the dead by their family members.

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Japanese Rituals for the Deceased

Rituals of the Japanese Funerals may seem complicated but it’s actually not. I love how the Japanese pay homage to their ancestors and do not forget them once they’re no more. 

I hope this article helped you understand what the rituals of Japanese funerals are!

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