fireworks festivals(Japanese version only):

summer festivals: (Japanese version only)

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Japanese Buddhist funeral (2)

 Shijukunichi(四十九日) memorial service is a ceremony commemorating the 49th day after someone's death. It is said that Yama(the King of Hell) decides where a dead man is going on the 49th day after his death. 

He might (1)go to the celestial world(not eternal paradise), 
              (2)go to hell,
              (3)reincarnate as a human, 
              (4)reincarnate as a creature other than humans, 
              (5)be a Gaki (hungry ghost), 
              (6)be an asura in the everlasting battlefield
The dead reincarnate into the above six worlds many times.
Only those who attained moksha(enlightenment) can get out of this infinite loop.

We need to prepare a japanned spirit tablet with kaimyo by the day of Shijukunichi memorial service.

japanned and blank spirit tablet

On the day of Shijukunichi memorial service, we went to the family temple with the photo, the natural and japanned tablets, the urn. The priest read a sutra, we made an offering of incense at the temple's hall. Buddhist priests hold a ritual to transfer deceased person's soul from natural tablet to japanned tablet and the natural tablet is burnt thereafter.

SotSotoba(tall wooden tablet set up for the repose of the deceased) was put up by our family grave. Sotoba comes from the Sanskrit word "stupa." Bonji, a passage from sutras, kaimyo, date of death, chief mourner's name, placed date are written on the tablet. Bonji(梵字, the Siddham script) is a descendent of the Brahmi script and is used to write Sanskrit.
sotoba by grave

Bonji on sotoba

passage from sutra on sotoba

Her urn was placed in charnel room under the tombstone. The priest read a sutra in front of the grave. We offered some flowers, burned incense and joined our hands in prayer

Usually deceased person's relatives go to their family temple, and they have a meal after Shijukunichi memorial service.

Shotly after Shijukunichi memorial service, a chief mourner sends a gift called koden-gaeshi in return for a funeral offering. Generally, the monetary value of the koden-gaeshi often ranges from 30% to 50% of that of the koden. A greeting card enclosed in the koden-gaeshi represents thanks for attending the funeral and announces the end of the mourning period.


My family temple belongs to Shingon Buddhism, but people of all creeds can own their grave on the burial ground of the temple. The burial ground includes Shinto-style graves called "Okutsuki(奥津城)", graves of Korean nationals living in Japan. Shintoism adherents are mostly not allowed to build their graves on the grounds of  Shinto shrines because Shinto regards death and blood as Kegare(foulness). The population of Korean nationals living in Japan  is about 479,000. Perhaps surprisingly, many people build their graves before their death in Japan.

Japanese-style grave

foreign-type grave

foreign-type grave
A short epitaph is written on a tombstone.
There are no specific rules for epitaphs. 

A surname, "senzo-daidai-no-haka(先祖代々の墓, ancestral tomb)" or a passage from sutras are inscribed on a Japanese-style tombstone. A family crest is also etched.


A passage from sutras is inscribed on a tombstone

We clean our family graves before prayer in the Bon Festival, visiting graves during the equinoctial week

As of December 31,2019, Shintoism adherents account for 48.6%, Buddhists account for about 46.3%, Christians account for 1.0%, and other religions make up 4.0% of Japan's population, according to a statistical study on religion conducted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

At the first bon festival following Shijukunichi memorial service, bereaved families suspend a white paper lantern at their entrance. They prepare the Bon festival, invite relatives and familiar persons, have a Buddhist priest read a sutra at their home. They make a monetary offering(Fuse) to the priest and serve a meal to the visitors. The white paper lantern is used only onetime. 

white paper lantern

My family temple's priest doesn't visit the houses of the temple's supporters. The temple performs Segaki(施餓鬼), which is a ritual to stop the suffering of the such restless ghosts/monsters as Gaki on August 1st. The deceased's families after more than 49 days after the deceased's death are asked to attend Segaki. The temple's supporters need to pay grave maintenance fee and the donation for segaki every year. At the first bon festival following Shijukunichi memorial service, they need to pay the higher donation for segaki than usual. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Segaki was performed behind closed doors for the second straight year. The priest posted video footage of him reading a sutra on YouTube. 

The period of mourning after the death of a parent lasts one year. So our family members won't observe the New Year's festival and won't send New Year's cards.

On the first anniversary of one's death, The deceased's family will invite relatives and familiar persons. A Buddhist priest will read a sutra, they will an offering of incense at the temple's hall. Then they will visit the family grave, offer some flowers, and burn incense at the grave and serve a meal to the visitors.

On the first anniversary of my mother's death, only my family members will visit my family grave.

On the second, 6th, 12th, 16th, 22nd, 26th, 32nd, 36th, 49th anniversary of death, a memorial service is performed. However people tend to skip the events of the subsequent anniversaries. Our family performed a memorial service on the 6th anniversary of my father's death and skipped it on the subsequent anniversaries.

On the first and second anniversary of death, mourners wear a mourning cloth.  Woman mourners are allowed to wear pearl accessories. Very few people wear a mourning kimono. On the subsequent anniversaries, they wear sober clothing.

We join our hands in front of a Buddhist altar,
having juzu(Buddhist rosary) in our left hand 

a woman in a mourning kimono who has a pail for grave visit
and a man holding a cinerary urn
mourning attire for men

I mention a Shinto funeral briefly here. I have never been to a Shinto funeral, but a relative of mine has been to it before. Shintoism doesn't see death as sad. Humans return their lives to deities after they died. Shinto funeral called Shinsosai(神葬祭) is a ritual for the dead to become a guardian deity of the dead's home.

Shinto altar

Shinto altar

The Three Imperial Regalia consist of the sword Kusanagi (草薙劍), the mirror Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡), and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉). Magatama are curved, comma-shaped beads. Their replicas are decorated.
The mirror's replica is placed on the top tier of the altar, and the deceased's photo is on its middle tier. Rice, salt, sake(酒), water, kagami-mochi(round rice-cake), sea fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, confections, dry food are placed on its bottom tier. A pair of Cleyera japonica (sakaki) with five color banners stand on either side of the altar. The sword's replica in cloth case is hung up on the left sakaki. The jewel's replica is on the right sakaki.

the process of Shinto funeral

The bereaved close the double door of their household altar and put a piece of white paper on the door.

Before a ceremony, all attendants need to purify themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouth. A Shinto priest talks about the deceased's background, offers tributes to him/her, wishes him/her to become a guardian deity of his/her home, and recites religious speeches. Sometimes gagaku musicians play music. Attendants offer tamagushi(a branch of a sacred tree) and pray.

A Shinto priest talks about the deceased's background, offers tributes to him/her, wishes him/her to become a guardian deity of his/her home, and recites religious speeches

Attendants offer tamagushi

Tsuya-sai is followed by Senrei-sai. The priest holds a ritual to transfer deceased person's soul from his/her body to a natural tablet called reiji(霊璽). 

Sojo-sai is held in much the same manner as Tsuya-sai. The priest purifies attendants. Shrine staffs put offerings on the altar. A memorial address is given.

Shinto priest

Kaso-sai is a ritual before cremation. The priest offers Shinto prayers. Attendants offer tamagushi and pray. Then the cremation is done.

Maiso-sai is a ritual for burial. The bereaved used to take the dead's ashes from a crematorium to their family grave and bury it there. In recent years, they carry the ashes home and bury it at a ritual called Gojunichi-sai(五十日祭) commemorating the 50th day after the death.
Gojunichi-sai is a ritual to transfer deceased person's soul from a temporary altar to a household altar(祖霊舎, soreisha) as a guardian deity of deceased person's home. Offerings are put on the altar. The priest show gratitude for deities and express a belief in deities. Attendants offer tamagushi and pray. 

Offered foods on the altar are set down on the table, and attendants eat them. It's called Naorai(直会).

The bereaved tear a piece of white paper off the double door of their household altar. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Japanese Buddhist funeral (1)

 My mother passed away from lung cancer in March. I have calmed down at the moment. I was by her bedside when she departed this life at the hospital. A funeral director took her from the hospital to my home, though bodies are often taken directly to the funeral home.

My family's religion is Shingon Buddhism, a school of Japanese Buddhism. She was laid with dry ice on her futon with her head pointed northward. A white cloth covered her face. An incense stick was lighted on a low table by the futon.

The next day, my family members made funeral arrangement with the  funeral director. We chose a traditional Buddhist-style altar, a cinerary urn with cherry blossoms pattern, a paisley-upholstered coffin, a  shroud(dianthus-patterned  kimono made of smooth satin), her photo and a green frame for it, funeral flower stands, and a hearse. Kimono for the dead is sewn by slightly different way.

flower-patterned cinerary urn
and its
 fabric cover

Ordinarily Buddhists hold a wake called tsuya(通夜) and funeral service. Tsuya is held around 7 p.m. The next day funeral service generally starts at 10 or 11 a.m. Working persons can attend tsuya after work. Most mourners choose either tsuya or funeral service.

In Japan, tsuya is generally held irrespective of creed. Most funeral halls and crematories are closed on the day of tomobiki, which literally means "pulling friends" and is a good day for business and lawsuits. However the word is associated with taking the deceased's friends with the deceased.

I reserved my family temple's priest to read a sutra at a local funeral home and requested him to give my mother a posthumous Buddhist name called kaimyo(戒名.)

Two days after her death, she was moved from my home to the funeral home. Two encoffiners performed a ritual called yukan(湯灌) to encoffin bodies at the funeral home. In front of our eyes, they carefully spilled warm water on her arms and legs, and shampooed her hair. I was so glad to see her hair shampooed because she had taken bed bath after hospitalization. They washed her whole body after we exited the room. Her body in dianthus-patterned white kimono was laid in a upholstered coffin. It is not uncommon for people to sit with and talk to the body almost as if it were still alive. I often talked to her.


burial outfit
It consists of kyokatabira (white kimono), tekko(cloth arm and hand protector), kyahan (gaiters), tenkan (triangle hood), zudabukuro(fabric neck pouch), six coins as a ferriage for crossing Japanese Styx. 
It is a pilgrim’s outfit for journey to the afterworld.
The dead wear kyokatabira with the right side over the left.
The living wear the left side over the right.

On the day before the funeral service, I took Makurameshi(枕飯, cooked rice offered to the deceased) and Makuradango(枕団子, rice dumpling offered to the deceased) to the funeral home, and put them on the altar.

Makuradango and Makurameshi 

Makurameshi is a heaped bowl of cooked rice with upright chopsticks in it. It means a final meal of the dead in this world. The bowl and the chopsticks belong to my mother.  Each of us has our own bowl for rice and chopsticks. Makuradango comes from the Buddhist episode that a bodhisattva offered rice dumpling to Buddha after his death. They are offered so that the dead can eat them or give them to the hungry departed on the way to the next world. Makurameshi and Makuradango are put in a coffin at the end. 

Customs vary by Buddhist sect and region. So we imitate the people ahead of us at the funeral home.

In Japan we offer condolence money for a funeral(香典, koden) to the family of the deceased when visiting them for a wake or a funeral. Koden is sealed in special envelopes tied up with black and white string.

envelope with white and yellow string
(It is used mainly in Kansai region after the 49th day after one's death  )

There are some envelopes for koden.

●description on envelope for Buddhists
    gokoryo(御香料), gokoden(御香奠) or okoden(御香典) (money as a substitute for incense)

envelope for koden and fudepen((writing brush pen)

●description on envelope for Christians
    ohanaryo(御花料) (money for offering flowers)

●description on envelope for Shintoism adherents
    o(n)tamagushiryo(御玉串料) (fees for offering a branch of the sacred tree to a god) goshinzen(御神前)(money for offering to gods)

●description on envelope for Buddhists
    gobutsuzen(御仏前) (money for offering to the deceased)
●description on  envelope for  people of all creed
    goreizen(御霊前) (money for offering to the deceased)

envelopes for koden and juzu(Buddhist rosary) 

Envelope with gobutsuzen are not suitable for a wake and funeral service. It is said that the deceased has yet to attain Buddhahood until 49th day memorial service. However the adherents of the True Pure Land Buddhism use the envelopes with gobutsuzen for a wake and funeral service because the deceased is said to become a Buddha immediately after death. When the deceased's religion is not known, funeral attendants can use an envelope with goreizen. 

Funeral attendants wrap a koden-envelope with fukusa(袱紗).

 koden-envelope on fukusa
 Fukusa is a piece of cloth. Recently, a cloth case for koden is commonly used.

 koden-envelope in fukusa

They give it to the receptionist and sign the book of condolences at a funeral home.
Since only my family members attended my mother's funeral, we received koden in the mail. 

an example of Buddhist-style altars

At a wake, a Buddhist priest reads a sutra, mourners pick up crumbled incense (makko) and sprinkle it on a small fraction of charcoal on ashes in the incense burner(koro) to burn.

A Buddhist priest reads a sutra

A mourner picks up crumbled incense
burner(left) and incense(right)

In some schools of Buddhism, a mourner holds it up in front of forehead after picking incense

A mourner  sprinkles it on a small fraction of charcoal on ashes in the incense burner

A mourner join his hands in prayer after offering incense

Mourners offer incense

The chief mourner(the deceased's family member) expresses their appreciation for coming to the funeral.

After the wake, a light meal such as sushi accompanied with beer and sake is served to mourners. They share some memories of the deceased. The closest relatives may stay and keep vigil with the deceased overnight.

The chief mourner gives attendants a greeting card to express thanks for attending the funeral, salt and an article such as green tea, Nori(dried edible seaweed), handkerchief or hand towel. Mourners sprinkle salt on themselves for purification in front of their doors. Recently salt tends not to be given. 

 salt for for purification(left) and
a greeting card called kaiso-orei(right)

Most bereaved families recently conduct small-scale funeral service. The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged this trend. My relatives are elderly or live far away. Only my family members attended my mum's funeral. We didn't hold a wake.

My mother's funeral service started at 8:30 a.m. on the 6th day after her death. I live in Yokohama city that has 928,450 people over 65 as of March 31, 2021. More people die in the winter than the summer every year. The city has only four public crematoriums. Furthermore, only Covid-19 victims were cremated after 3 p.m. So these crematoriums were booked solid for days.

We made a monetary offering called Fuse(布施) to the Buddhist priest in return for receiving kaimyo and reading sutra before the funeral. We also paid him for transport(御車代, okurumadai).

Fuse and okurumadai

The natural spirit tablet(位牌, ihai) with my mother's kaimyo was placed on the altar.

natural and blank spirit tablet

At the funeral, the priest read a sutra, we sprinkled crumbled incense in the incense burner and put flowers inside the coffin. I put old letters and a deck of paper cards inside the coffin beforehand. She loved to play contract bridge. 

Then we went to a crematorium with her photo in frame, the tablet.

Nowadays most bereaved families choose foreign-type(station wagon or executive sedan)  hearse. We also chose a foreign-type hearse.

Japanese-style hearse

foreign-type hearse

In Japan, more than 99% of the dead are cremated. When the bereaved choose burial, they will go to a great deal of trouble to get a grave for burial. There is little space for burial in Japan.

Only our family members and the priest went to the crematorium. The tablet was placed in front of her body. He read a sutra before cremation. Our family members waited about 1 hour during cremation. Usually deceased person's relatives and familiar persons also go to a crematorium. The bereaved serve a meal to them after (or during) cremation.

Buddhist priest reads a sutra before cremation

Buddhist priest reads a sutra before cremation

As a ritual called Kotsuage(骨上げ), paired relatives pick a piece of bone from the ashes with chopsticks and place them in an urn. We transferred some pieces of her bones into her urn. A crematorium technician put other pieces of them into it.


Paired relatives pick a piece of bone from the ashes with chopsticks
 and place them in an urn

After going home, we placed the photo, the tablet, the urn, an incense holder, a candle holder, a singing bowl with striker, flowers, offerings on a post-funeral altar.

an example of post-funeral altar

We burn an incense stick, ring the bowl and join our hands in prayer daily until the 49th day after her passing. We still do them every morning.

Kotsuage in old times

Credit: Japanese funeral customs: after the cremation: three women and a child pick bones from the ashes with chopsticks and place them in an urn. Watercolour, ca. 1880 (?). Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Left, a Buddhist monk walks off; right, two men converse, watched by a child

It seems that they are two women, a young man and a child. He looks like a teenage boy due to his hairstyle called Wakasyu-mage. I guess that his father died and that he picks bones with his mother, his grandmother, his little sister.