Japanese funerals are very lavish and quite different to the Western style. Learn more.
The death of a loved one is difficult at any time but the Japanese are comforted by traditions of their Buddhist funeral ceremony. The ceremony and its parts can take quite a while, allowing the family to come to terms with their loss.
While weddings and celebratory festivals are usually Shinto services, funerals fall into the Buddhist realm and involve the whole family. Traditionally the family members did everything from preparing the body to interring the urn, but this is now usually performed by attendants at the funeral parlour. Throughout, family members and friends dress in black with pearls being the only jewelry allowed, and chrysanthemums and a picture of the diseased with black ribbons diagonally across the top corners are on display. In particular, red is banned as it is a celebratory colour.
Before the funeral, the lips of the deceased are moistened and the corpse is washed and dressed in a white kimono, right side folded over left to be the opposite or mirror of what is normal in daily life.
On the day of the funeral, the body is cremated. The guests take a first meal during that time at the crematorium while the cremation process takes place.. Afterwards, the relatives pick the bones out of the ash and pass them from person to person with chopsticks. There are certain things (eg. concerning chopsticks) one should not do in everyday life because they are linked to funeral rites and death, and are suspected to cause bad luck. The bones that have been placed in the urn are then pulverised except the pieces of skull which are placed on top of the rest so that the 'person' is the right way up!
Many guests are present at the funeral ceremony that follows. Each of them pays 'koden' a monetary donation of anywhere between 2,000 and 50,000 yen (depending on whether you are a remote friend or close relative) to the relatives at the entrance and receives a small gift in return. The money should be placed into a special envelope (with black and white ribbons or wire) and the amount of the koden will vary according to where the funeral is held and how well you know the deceased. The notes in the envelope should be new or look new (ironed) and the envelope should have your name on the front and the amount on the back. The money goes to pay the funeral costs and any remaining is given to the family. Finally, another meal is held with lots of beer and food.
The funeral urn with the ashes inside is put on an altar at the family's house and kept there for 35 days while incense sticks 'osenko' are burned around the clock (special 12 hour sticks for the night exist). Many visitors come to the house, burn a stick, and talk to the family. After 35 days, the urn is finally buried in a Buddhist cemetery.
The families of the newly deceased visit the grave once weekly for seven weeks from the date of the funeral. In the seventh week, they offer feasts again to close relatives and neighbours. This is called 'Shiju-ku Nichi', which means 'the 49th day'.
The Japanese visit their ancestors' graves on a number of occasions during the year but especially Obon, the anniversary of the person's death, and the equinoctial weeks.
Many Japanese families have a Butsudan, a small family altar where they pray to their ancestors for safety and whatever else they hope for. Small pieces of food and sake are left on the alter as offerings everyday in some cases or on certain special occasions for others. Most Japanese people believe that their ancestors are always with them, watching, protecting and guiding them.