4 Dec 2011

Japanese Buddhist Funeral

Sometimes I forget this is a Buddhist country, but am once again reminded, and remember it was one of the things that drew me towards Japan in the first place.

The funeral process was beautiful. I'd been a little critical of Japanese funerals before this and I take it all back now.

Thursday I spent a day in a light warm tatami mat room with a corpse. Gentle old lady laying in a white futon in a beautiful blue silk kimono with a white, lace edge handkerchief over her face. Looking peaceful. She died peacefully painlessly at the age of 93. We burnt incense and sat around drinking tea and just being with the body. The body of the decease must not be left alone, so we took it in turns to be there. My husband and his family spent the night there too.

Before being cremated a Priest prayed and performed a ceremony, then we wait again, in a tatami room drinking tea and chatting. Then we are called down. There are the charred bones and ash that once was a lady called Kimiko. The chief mourner and closest relative took the first bone together, the only time people can ever hold the same thing with two pairs of chopsticks, and put it in the small wooden urn. Starting from the feet , using extra large wooden chopsticks, we placed the bones in the urn. It was a strange feeling being so close to the remains of a person, strong reminder of the transient nature of the world. I resolve to work on my own attachments with renewed resolve. We found the melted ten yen coins. Apparently six coins are needed to cross the river to the other side. The deceased will be traveling for 49 days in the netherworlds. The next Journey.

The head was placed last by the crematory staff with bare hands. He then carefully, and so respectfully wiped the table for any misplaced ashes with his hands, then placed the lid. The urn was then painstakingly and touchingly wrapped perfectly in a white wrapping cloth, over which an ornate yet subtle gold and white cover was placed over the urn. This we took away, along with the photo, and wooden Buddhist name tablets.

Everything was respectfully done with incredibly precise and well practiced movements. The Japanese have precision, understatement, respectfulness and politeness as a well practiced art. It really is amazing to watch. Especially at times like these.

We drive over to the temple. It's a Zen temple, by coincidence, one I used to very occasionally visit for early morning zazen. A beautiful old temple. I must go back and take some photos, the detail and decoration is just, well, inspirational. The Priest chanted sutras, and performed his ceremony. Part of which involves the swishing of a tailed wand, I always imagine this is him symbolically helping to cut away attachment to this world. Helping them to move on to the next stage. It was calming and full of imagery. We all said goodbye, made offerings of incense and paid respects to the Priest.

Finished. It was so quiet and simple. So Zen.


  1. Loved this description, thank you for sharing this. Reminded me of that movie we were talking about, the one about the preparation of the body and set in your neck of the woods, forget the name now, you really must see it.

  2. Thanks. I saw the film. Finally, it was beautiful. Very sentimental. So Yamagata. It really was a beautiful ceremony, I've been to a few, this one was special. Maybe because it was so small, and not in a big informal, cold, business like ceremony hall like so many are these days....