New York State Funeral Directors Association

There are countless benefits to having family all around the globe, from being exposed to various cuisines at an early age to knowing that there is so much more out there than we can possibly fathom in our little communities.

The opportunity to venture out into the world and pay a visit is definitely one of the highlights.

Our most recent family trip came when my cousin announced he was going to be married in Tokyo, Japan.

Of course, a funeral director can never really shut it off, not even on the other side of the world.Japanese Funeral Director Mr. Ito and New York Funeral Director Heather Rauch in Japan

So I asked my aunt and uncle who live in Nara, Japan, if they would arrange for me to speak with a Japanese funeral director during our visit.

My uncle was born and raised there and my aunt has called Japan home for decades.

I had heard that Japan had one of the highest cremation rates in the world and I couldn’t wait to learn more.

It was a beautiful, sunny Wednesday morning when we pulled up outside of the Koekisha Funeral Home in Nara, one of 85-plus locations they have across their country.

It is the largest privately-owned funeral corporation in all of Japan.

We were greeted with a traditional smile and a respectful bow by Mr. Ito, funeral director.

I had been briefed by my family as to the most polite way to address someone professional when meeting them for the first time.

I nervously gave him a bow, careful to bend far enough but not too far.

I handed him my business card as I was told was appropriate and he had his waiting right there in his hand to reciprocate the gesture. “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.”

Loosely translated, this means both “thank you” and “nice to meet you;” more literally, “I ask you to treat me favorably,” one of those Japanese phrases that is used politely, dozens of times a day.

I practiced quite a bit and still wasn’t sure I had it right, but Mr. Ito obviously got the gist and smiled.

On the way in, I couldn’t help but notice an open door to a parlor where a casket sat amongst a sprawling display of beautiful flowers, wreaths and various food items.

Koekisha Funeral HomeCentered above the casket was a large framed black-and-white photo of the deceased, a distinguished-looking older woman with her hair neatly pinned back.

My translators (my aunt and uncle) and I were led down a hallway to a bright white arrangement office.

We were promptly served coffee and individually-packaged Japanese cookies on real dishes with a tightly rolled, hot hand towel in a bamboo towel holder. Very impressive.

Mr. Ito presented himself professionally and I immediately felt that I would be comfortable entrusting my loved one to him.

His dark, pinstriped suit was perfectly tailored and he wore a lapel pin bearing their funeral home logo.

After our introductions, I asked Mr. Ito to tell me a little bit about the history of their traditional services.


He explained that Japanese funeral rituals are derived from both the Buddhist and Shinto faiths and that over the course of hundreds of years, the two have melded into what is now their traditional Japanese funeral.

This type of service is common amongst approximately 90 percent of their population.

I later read that in 1638, it became required that all Japanese households belong to a Buddhist temple.

It was at that point that the funeral rituals of each faith began to come together.Japanese Hearse

Shinto households would have a Buddhist shrine in their home in order to abide by regulations but practiced their Shinto beliefs behind closed doors.

Over time, different aspects of both religions began to present themselves in their end-of-life ceremonies.

When we receive a first call here in the U.S., we traditionally bring the deceased into our care and return with them to the funeral home.

When a person passes away in Japan, they are most often taken to their home or the home of a close family member and placed onto a traditional Japanese futon in a common room within the house.

Since embalming has never been customary in Japan, I asked a question that made my relatives cringe a bit: “Do you take measures to prevent any sort of leakage while they are in the home?”

As I had suspected, he explained that they pack the facial orifices to prevent purge. Dry ice is also placed around the body.

Once the deceased has been positioned on the futon, family and close friends may visit to pay their respects and offer prayers for the next day or possibly even two while the body is laid out.

The priest also visits the home during this time to pray for the deceased.

Once service arrangements have been made and the family has had some time to spend with their loved one, the deceased is transported to the funeral home.

They may be bathed and dressed in their funeral attire while at home or at the funeral home before being placed into a wooden casket (hitsugi).

Funeral attire for the deceased has traditionally consisted of a kimono but as of late, a favorite outfit may be chosen instead.

Caskets are closed but have a window to view only the face of the deceased.

They are laid out amongst large displays of food and flowers which represent the bounty that they will enjoy in the afterlife.

This particular funeral home is unlike most in Japan in that they offer embalming services and in fact, have a central embalming facility located in Osaka.

Approximately 40 to 50 percent of their clientele choose to be embalmed.

They began to offer this option about 15 years ago, among the first in the country to do so.

This was, in part, due to time concerns.


When large-scale tragedies occur such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 in which over 6,000 people lost their lives and more recently, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 which claimed the lives of about 18,000 people, it is impossible to attend to the staggering number of deceased in a timely manner.

Even so, there has traditionally been a strong belief among the Japanese that you go out as you come in and thus, people resisted embalming as well as organ and tissue donation.A Jizo Sama statue in Japan.

In 2005, deaths began to surpass births and the Japanese funeral industry recognized a need for change.

There have also been many advances in medicine and in substances being introduced into the body.

This sometimes results in swelling and faster decomposition as opposed to emaciation, previously the main concern with the deceased during their time at home after death.

It is becoming more of a trend for services to be scheduled for approximately four days following the passing in order for family and friends to travel longer distances, so embalming is often recommended to families in those instances.

At Koekisha, there are three options offered for preparation.

The most common option is Yukan.

This is the ceremonial washing, cleansing and dressing of the deceased, as depicted in the award-winning movie “Departures” (which I highly recommend).

The casket is then packed with dry ice for the services.

Secondly, there is the option of embalming for prolonged preservation.

Lastly, there is the option to simply dress the deceased and hold services immediately.

The funeral industry in Japan has become competitive in recent years and as a result, some funeral homes are more reputable than others.

Koekisha takes pride in training their staff to the highest standards, but the law does not prohibit anyone from opening their own funeral home and calling themselves funeral directors.

Some establishments offer low prices but are not fully knowledgeable and may deliver inadequate services.

I asked about education requirements.

Funeral directors are typically trained on the job and may complete a mentorship under a seasoned funeral director.

Individuals who are interested in learning to embalm attend the International Funeral Science Association (IFSA), an embalming school for the trade, staffed with embalmers from all over the world.

Once a funeral director has worked in the industry for five years, he or she is eligible to take a test to become licensed with the Department of Health and Welfare.

At Koekisha, approximately 230 of the staff members have achieved this status.

I was fascinated to learn that there are more female embalmers in Japan than male and that approximately 30 percent of Japan’s funeral directors are female.


CLICK HERE to Read Visit to a Japanese Funeral Home Part II

Heather RauchHeather Rauch
Heather Rauch is a licensed New York State Funeral Director at V.J. Iocovozzi Funeral Home in Frankfort, NY.

Tweet: Loved ones are honored with Shinto and Buddhist faith traditions in Japan, where friends help pay for services. Read what a NY funeral director learned during a visit to Japan: