Most funerals in Japan are held in the Buddhist style, unless there is a strong belief in another religion, such as Christianity. Many Japanese people have both Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and usually hold funerals in the Buddhist style. However, some people belong only to the Shinto religion and perform funerals with Shinto rituals. In a typical Buddhist funeral, a priest chants a sutra for the deceased. The next day, relatives and close friends hold a wake, and the day after that a farewell ceremony is held.
In order to pray for the repose of the deceased, there is a ceremony called the “farewell ceremony” in which a priest chants a sutra and people burn incense one after another.
After these ceremonies, the deceased is cremated at the local crematorium and the remains are buried in the cemetery. Afterwards, the relatives periodically hold a memorial service for the deceased and the priest chants the sutra. They are held seven days, forty-nine days, one year, two years after their death, and at ever-increasing intervals thereafter.
The cremation rate in Japan is over 99%, which is said to be the highest in the world. There are still many countries that are resistant to cremation, such as those where Catholicism is the main religion, but there are an increasing number of countries where cremation is performed due to hygiene issues and lack of space. In Japan, cremation was practiced as early as the 7th century, as the founder of Buddhism, Buddha, was cremated. The sacred remains of Buddha, called “Busshari,” were said to have been divided into 84,000 pieces by King Ashoka of India in the third century B.C. and dedicated to various countries. They are found in some temples in Japan and are usually enshrined in pagodas.
One of the traditional rules is that the date of the funeral service is set in accordance with the lunar calendar. In addition, there are other days, such as “butsumetsu” and “Tomobiki”, on which you should not hold a funeral service. Also, when enshrining the deceased, the head should be turned to the north. After attending the funeral, it is a good idea to sprinkle a pinch of salt to cleanse the house before entering.
Also, more and more people are specifying the type of funeral they would like to see held when they die, and many are choosing non-traditional ways to commemorate the departure of their loved ones. The funeral industry has responded to this trend by offering a wider range of services. The high cost of traditional funerals and the lack of cemetery space are the two factors behind this phenomenon. Another reason is that life expectancy is increasing.
In terms of diversification, more and more people are choosing the funeral they want while they are alive, and more and more organizations and funeral homes are catering to their wishes. One Tokyo-based civic organization, founded two years ago, allows its members to produce their own funerals. Members should sign a contract indicating the type of funeral they wish to have and also a list of people to invite. Create a notarial will to make the contract binding.
In other new initiatives, a company set up jointly by a subsidiary of a non-life insurance company and a funeral home is also offering contracts for policyholders to choose their own funerals.
Another twist is to actually have a funeral while you’re still alive. A funeral service before death is a way for the “deceased” to prepare mentally for his or her final days by saying goodbye to those present and reminiscing about the past.
Simply adding a personal touch to reflect the wishes and profile of the deceased can make the ceremony more memorable. One family, for example, arranged for a live performance of the deceased’s favorite classical music, or turned the altar into a bookshelf for someone who loved to read.
There are also many people who wish to return to nature by scattering their ashes in the sea. One civic group first conducted a funeral in Sagami Nada in 1991 and has since conducted similar “natural funerals” for nearly 200 people. The organization has more than 3,000 members who wish to return the ashes to nature.