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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.

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