The long goodbye

Text and photographs by ERIC PRIDEAUX

Without a traditional funeral, common thinking goes, the departed souls of Japanese would aimlessly wander the earth for all eternity. The ritual occupies the very core of the Buddhism practiced in Japan today, and the fees charged for it -- as high as the price of a luxury car -- are a main source of revenue for the country's temples.

News photo
Toba funerary slats with sacred text stand behind a flower-bedecked family grave in Tokyo, on which a drink favored by the departed has been placed.

Yet oddly enough, the funeral is to most Japanese little more than a series of pro forma gestures and utterances whose meanings were forgotten centuries ago by all but the most learned scholars and clergy.

In matters of fashion and music, there is a predictable gap in opinion between the generations. But when it comes to honoring the dead, young, not-so-young and even very old Japanese appear united in their bafflement at the Buddhist funerals that are the most common means here of bidding a final, terminal farewell.

Many complain that rather than make the funeral a simple and heartfelt appeal to the gods to welcome the newly dead, families too often take it as an opportunity to show off, paying fortunes for lavish altars where coffins are dwarfed by floral displays, or for gravestones that are monumentally ostentatious.

Though nationwide data is scarce, last year the average Tokyo funeral cost 3.5 million yen, including refreshments for guests, funeral company bills and temple fees, according to the results of a municipal government survey released this year. This also cited the most expensive funeral as costing 16.5 million yen -- or about the going price for a Porsche 911 Turbo.

By comparison, in the United States -- which is also known for expensive funerals -- the average cost of a funeral is now $6,130 (760,000 yen) -- about a fifth of the Tokyo average -- according to the Wisconsin-based National Funeral Directors' Association.

Eighty-one-year-old Teru Tanaka, whose husband died 25 years ago, has little patience with all the profligacy. "With our economy in such a rut, it's wasteful spending money on this stuff," she says. "The person's not even around any more."

Tanaka also complains about being obliged to attend funerals of distant acquaintances merely out of social obligation. With annual koden (obituary gifts) shelled out at funerals averaging almost 50,000 yen in Tokyo, it's easy to sympathize with Tanaka. And never mind that the average grave in Japan costs about 2.5 million yen, including the land-use fee and price of a stone marker, according to Rokugatsu Shobo, a publisher of cemetery trade magazines.

About 80 percent of the Tokyo survey's respondents said they were dissatisfied with the status quo. In particular, more than a fourth of respondents cited hidden funeral costs as a main irritant.

More significantly, a third said the ceremonies were "too elaborate." Even a condensed description of common protocol reveals why. A seemingly endless array of procedures are deemed necessary to remove the spirit from the realm of earthly matters -- the ultimate goal of the Japanese funeral.

Just after death, the body is washed in warm water to purify it for its journey into eternity. And many families are careful to place a dagger or sickle on the dead person's chest, a samurai-era custom meant to ward off malevolent spirits called mamono -- literally, "devil beings" -- who may attempt to occupy the corpse. Within days after death, there's an all-night vigil called an otsuya, originally held to confirm that the person laid out before the family had indeed died.

The next day, it's time for the funeral, at which a robed priest chants esoteric Buddhist verses called okyo while mourners offer incense. The deceased is taken away in a strikingly ornate hearse -- something like Kyoto's Golden Pavilion on wheels -- to a crematorium for final disposition. Almost all Japanese opt for cremation, partly from custom but also out of pragmatic concern over space. In Tokyo and Osaka, it's illegal to bury a body intact without special permission (which is rarely granted).

The gloomy intimacy of the cremation surprises many Westerners. The body is placed inside an oven whose flame, weaker than those in most Western crematoriums, leaves much of the skull and the large bones intact. Then, the closest kin use large, wooden chopsticks to remove fragments of the seared and brittle remains from the platform, and place them in a ceramic urn that is first taken home and finally inserted into a compartment in the family grave.

As exhausted as the family may be at this point, the ministrations don't end here. They must gather on every seventh day for seven weeks to pray that the departed soul may be given repose -- a tradition with roots in the millennia-old Hindu religion, from which Buddhism developed. During the seven-week period, the dead person is believed to abide in a restless, intermediate state of death. But if the family's entreaties are successful, on the 49th day the spirit enters the next world in a state of sublime tranquility.

Even after that, families gather at temples on certain anniversaries of the death to encourage the spirit, through prayer, as it travels farther from the world of humans and closer to the gods. Priests are paid to conduct the affairs.

Obviously, with so many ritualized steps to perform, it's easy for mourners to bungle the funeral routine. Close friends and relatives are advised to rehearse before paying their respects, when etiquette dictates they first kneel a distance from the deceased and bow, then crawl nearer, view the dead person's face, bow again, join their hands in prayer, turn to family members, bow once again, and -- in as subdued a voice as possible -- utter the phrase: "Totemo yasuraka na okao desu ne. (The facial expression is so very peaceful)." Slip-ups abound.

Of all the bloopers on record, perhaps the most innocently outrageous were those by Osman Sankon, the television personality from the Republic of Guinea and a former diplomat from that country.

Sankon had lived in Japan only two years when in 1974 he was invited to a funeral. Waiting to pay his respects, he tried to learn what to do by watching his fellow visitors. He could make out that they lifted pinches of powdered incense to their foreheads -- an act of reverence -- but from where he stood he couldn't see them then placing that powder in an urn. So when his turn came up, Sankon winged it and stuffed three helpings of the stuff into his mouth before racing off to the bathroom to wash it out.

Upon his return, he noticed visitors saying to the bereaved, "Goshusho-sama de gozaimasu (My deepest condolences)." Sankon improvised again, solemnly intoning: "Gochiso-sama deshita (Thank you for the food) . . ."

Almost 30 years later, the celebrity remembers his acute embarrassment as if it were yesterday. "Everyone wanted to laugh," he said in a recent telephone interview. "But they couldn't, because it was a funeral."

The universal sense of befuddlement is masterfully captured in "Ososhiki (The Funeral)," Juzo Itami's wryly comic 1984 film about how an elderly man's family responds to his death, a story based on recollections of his own father's funeral.

When the household decides to simplify matters by putting grandpa in a casket without first laying him on a futon, the surviving old patriarch scratches his head and mutters, "This just isn't how it's done back home in Mikawa." Then, on the eve of the vigil, a husband and wife stumble over tongue-twisting funeral greetings provided by an instructional video.

Besides confusion, another recurring theme in the film -- whether suggested by the officiating priest's exorbitant fee or the mysterious gust of wind that scatters mourners' cash offerings -- is money.

Tickets to paradise

Anyone in Japan who has ever paid for a funeral will understand the centrality of money. Of all the fees involved, one of the most controversial is that given to priests for composing kaimyo, the posthumous names assigned to the deceased for use in the otherworld. Comprising several Chinese characters that represent, among other things, the person's deeds in life, kaimyo come in various ranks. The longer the name, the higher the rank.

And the higher the cost. According to the Tokyo survey, the average charge in 2001 was 381,700 yen -- but the most splendiferous went for a breathtaking 2 million yen.

The names are a main target of criticism by opponents of Japan's high-priced funeral system and its close relationship with the Buddhist establishment.

In ancient times, kaimyo were primarily given not to the dead, but to living, devout Buddhists, who received the sobriquets as part of their initiation into the religious life. Monks are still assigned kaimyo today.

The shift toward the modern practice, in which any layman can obtain a kaimyo, came during the great changes in religious life that occurred during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Previously, rituals honoring the dead had mainly been household affairs, with little input from temples. But in the mid-17th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate -- fearful that religious influence from abroad might bring social disruption -- ordered subjects to register with Buddhist temples to prove they were not Christian. It was the priests' role to monitor the piety of their flock -- and one easy way was to watch how carefully they followed the rites and practices of ancestor worship.

Before that century drew to a close, there were already complaints that the clergy were abusing their new powers by selling kaimyo to wealthy buyers, for whom the names brought prestige and, surely, a degree of preferential treatment from temples.

To many Buddhists who believe a life of moral rectitude is the only way to nirvana, the practice of supplying kaimyo for money is a clear violation of principle. And even in the Buddhist establishment that issues them, the notion that a fancy name in death makes entry to heaven any easier carries little weight.

"Personally, I think it makes no difference," said Tenyu Koyama, an assitant professor of Buddhism at Taisho University in Tokyo who is a priest in the Shingon sect. "There are no distinctions made in paradise."

Koyama, however, said these names do serve some purpose, in that survivors must live honorably to avoid sullying their ancestors' kaimyo, in which they have so much pride. And he added candidly that, for better or worse, Buddhist organizations rely on them for revenue as parishioners nowadays are contributing less and less to temple coffers.

That, say critics, is the problem.

"Temples are corrupt . . . Whenever religion mixes with power, the result is corruption," charged Mutsuhiko Yasuda, chairman of the Grave-Free Promotion Society, a nationwide organization of 12,000 members which has for more than a decade pushed for alternative -- and relatively inexpensive -- methods of disposing of human remains, including tossing cremated ashes on mountainsides or into the ocean. So far, the group says it has carried out 667 such "natural funerals" for 1,173 people. The average cost is 100,000 yen.

Back to nature?

Yasuda isn't merely concerned with cost: He questions the very legitimacy of today's Buddhist funerals in Japan, reciting the widely accepted view that Buddha himself told his closest followers not to get involved in the funerals of laymen. Yasuda also invoked the example of the medieval Japanese priest Shinran (1173-1263), founder of the Jodo Shin (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism, who is said to have instructed his followers to throw his remains to the fish of Kyoto's Kamo River upon his death. "Lots of people think returning to nature is the most Buddhist thing you can do," says Yamada.

The idea of natural funerals appears to be growing in popularity. A fourth of the respondents to the Tokyo government survey wished for their ashes to be cast to the wind -- up markedly from the 14 percent recorded six years earlier. But though there may be some movement afoot, don't expect the inherently conservative population to effect big changes anytime soon.

Take the example of Yoshiteru, a 23-year-old college student in Tokyo whose wild mane of hair belies a traditional mindset. Yoshiteru, who asked that his surname be omitted, recalls understanding none of the Buddhist chanting at either his grandmother's or uncle's funerals.

"The ritual is all very superficial," he said. "Customs have been passed down by the generations, but nobody understands their inherent meaning."

Like many Japanese, however, he felt no particular need for reform. "Posthumous names are mostly for show and yes, they're expensive. But there's no point in getting rid of them," says Yoshiteru. "It's just the way Japanese funerals are. It's our tradition."

The Japan Times: Oct. 27, 2002
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