New York State Funeral Directors Association

Similar to American culture, a traditional funeral in Japan consists of o-tsuya (the wake), followed by kokubetsu-shiki (the funeral).

Services may be held in the home, at a temple or funeral home, or at a local hall, with the body present.

Friends and relatives will visit and offer prayers and incense to the deceased, following the prayers and chanting of the Buddhist priest(s).

They offer the traditional funeral greeting goshusho sama desu (“with deepest sympathy”) to the family members. Shrine At Sanzen In Temple, Kyoto Japan

Those in attendance will customarily bring a substantial monetary offering to the family known as koden, literally translated to “incense money.”

The amount of the gift varies according to the relationship to the deceased.

This money helps to pay for the funeral services and in exchange, the family will give a gift to the contributor equal to about half of their donation.

Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for 200 people or more to attend services for the deceased but in recent years, funerals are often attended only by the immediate family and close friends.

I found it fascinating to hear that several close family members will stay at the location where the deceased is laid out.

It used to be common for family members to take shifts staying awake to pray for the deceased and ensure that the incense did not burn out.

This tradition has changed in recent years after a fire broke out when family members fell asleep.

Some funeral homes now put the incense out, and it is not unusual for the relatives who stay to sleep until services the following morning.

Once the family members wake up, the Buddhist priest will return and conduct a funeral service lasting approximately one hour.

According to Japanese tradition, the deceased is cremated following the service.

It is, in fact, against the law to bury human remains in many areas of the country without special permission, which is not often granted.

In procession, the “chief mourners” ride in the hearse with the deceased.

The priest is second in line and a microbus of immediate family members will follow behind to the crematory.

Once there, the family witnesses the cremation.

They may assist placing the deceased into the retort while prayers are said, led by the Buddhist priest.

The family will then return to the funeral home, in a procession, for a meal together in a room designed for just such a purpose.

While eating and drinking, they share stories and photos of the deceased.

Once the cremation is complete, the procession will return to the crematory where close family members use “ohashi” (chopsticks) to ceremonially place the bones into an urn.

This is the one time in Japanese culture where it is acceptable to pass anything from one person to another using chopsticks.

It is not appropriate to pass food in this manner as it closely simulates their end-of-life rituals.

HELPING LOVED ONES GET TO HEAVEN

The urn will be kept in the home, most often in the family shrine, for a minimum of 49 days and a maximum of one year before being brought to the cemetery.

Traditionally, every seven days during that time, the family gathers for a prayer ceremony where they apologize for any wrongdoings committed by their loved one in life and help that person to get to heaven.

The reason behind the 49 days comes from Buddhist tradition: It takes 49 days for the spirit to reach its destination with trials every seven days for seven weeks.

If the family is successful in their pleas, on the 49th day, the spirit will ascend to heaven.

You will understand how valuable the previously-mentioned koden can be to a family when I tell you that the average funeral costs 2.31 million yen (about $21,000 USD, at the current exchange rate).

The clergy alone is given approximately $3,000 for their services.

A few noteworthy items included within the funeral budget are the funeral home or hall rental, altar decorations for services, flowers and wreaths, the hearse, fees for the Buddhist priest and kaimyo, a posthumous Buddhist name given to the deceased.

It is said that the more characters included in one’s kaimyo, the higher their rank or status. A little girl uses purification water on a jizo sama statue in Japan. Photo provided by Heather RauchThe reason behind this Buddhist name is in part because it is believed that if the deceased hears their name spoken, they will look back and be hindered from continuing on their spiritual journey.

This kaimyo is not only placed on the alter during services, but it is then placed on the grave of the deceased by the Buddhist priest.

It is painted in beautiful Chinese characters onto wood.

A smaller version known as an ihai is also placed in the family altar in the home.

Family monuments are often already in place and the names of those who are yet to be entombed there are painted in red characters whereas those who have gone before us would have their name painted in white.

A Japanese hearse in the traditional style is built by the same carpenters who build the temples and are a wooden work of art.

There are also hearses similar to ours offered as an option. These are more common these days.

Being that our industry occasionally has issues with debt collection, I asked if they experience similar complications once services are complete.

I was surprised to hear that they do not.

Most families pay in full within two to three days after services have concluded.

If life insurance is their method of payment, the family must show proof that their insurance policy is valid.

Should the family state that they do not have the means to fund services, a loan company is contacted during arrangements and a payment plan is set up.

Again, the koden from family and friends is an important contributing factor in the ability to afford a traditional service.

FAMILY GRAVE SITES

The average grave costs about 2.5 million yen (about $23,000 USD) which includes both the land and a stone grave marker.

As all remains in Japan are cremated, in most cases a grave is not solely for one individual but rather a family grave, containing an urn for each family member.

Most family grave monuments contain a place for flowers, a place for incense and sometimes a lantern.

I had the honor of visiting the future resting place of my family members in a beautiful cemetery on a hill near their home in Nara.

Although they do not yet have their family monument in place, there stands a small placard with their names identifying it as their plot.

I couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be baby Buddha statues on many of the monuments.Heather Rauch and the newlyweds whose nuptuals drew her to visit relatives in Japan

Some were wearing tiny knit caps and others were wearing red bibs. As it turns out, they are called Jizo statues.

This is the patron saint of children, both living and deceased and the protector of travelers.

Many of these statues are there because someone has lost a child.

There was a beautiful stone basin with water flowing near the entrance to the cemetery.

I was informed that this is called a purification fountain.

It is customary for visitors to cleanse and purify themselves by washing their hands prior to offering prayers.

The more we know about the rites and rituals of different cultures, the better we become as people and as funeral directors.

There are so many reasons we should educate ourselves, even after we’ve obtained our degrees and practiced our craft for many years.

Should you have the amazing opportunity to see different parts of the world, please be sure to take the time to better understand the reasons behind the traditions.

It may just open your eyes to something you had never even considered.

I am grateful to my aunt and uncle and to Mr. Ito for helping me to better understand the death care industry in Japan. 


VIEW A SLIDESHOW OF HEATHER RAUCH'S PHOTOS FROM JAPAN:

CLICK HERE to Read Part I: Visit to a Japanese Funeral Home


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