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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

Contemporary Resting Places of Japan

[From November Issue 2010]

Typical Japanese graves

In Japan, the deceased are generally cremated (reduced to ashes) before being inurned. This is because cremated bodies occupy less space and are more hygienic than bodies buried in a coffin. After cremation, the deceased’s remains are brought to the plot where their engraved family gravestone is located, and where their family’s ancestors lay, and future generation’s family members will eventually rest. Usually, memorial services and gravesite maintenance become the spouse’s or first-born son’s responsibility.

But recently, more people have started choosing a different type of grave site. This is because a family is now considered to be the “husband, wife and offspring.” Additionally, some even consider the ritualistic inheritance of the grave by the eldest son to be old fashioned, while others do not want to burden their children with tiresome grave-maintenance. There are even those who remain single throughout their entire lives.

Ruri-den

At Shinjuku’s Koukokuji Temple, you can find the Ruri-den building that was built in 2006 to house inurned remains. Stepping inside, visitors are immediately welcomed by a large Buddha statue. Lightning the walls are approximately 2,000 smaller Buddha statues made using an ancient glass making technique. Behind each one of these is a locker-style storage compartment where people’s inurned remains rest. All these glass Buddhas shimmer in various colors when illuminated by the full-color LED lighting system.

Ruri-den is located in the central Tokyo area, granting easy access, while Koukokuji Temple manages the building, so future maintenance is never an issue. Since Tokyo is so very congested, a conventional grave would cost several million yen. But a spot at Ruri-den is comparatively affordable, starting at only 750 thousand yen. People purchasing a place here receive a smart card, which when used, illuminates the corresponding Buddha’s location.

Information Manager MURAMATSU Mitsukuni says: “Ruri-den is a cemetery that commuters to the city center decided to build. Everyone began to think of their final resting place after retirement, and we cooperated in creating their ideal spot. It is highly regarded as there is no additional burden on their offspring, and it is easy to visit. The Buddhas of Ruri-den protect the living and guide the deceased into Joudo (the Buddhist Pure Land where people go after death.)”

Japanese “family graves” are also inconvenient for women. Traditionally, women change their family name after marriage, which means that they usually rest in their husband’s family grave. So it was difficult to find a place where women who “don’t want to rest in the husband’s family grave,” or people who divorced, and single people, could be buried.

SSS Network’s women-only, communal grave site

SSS Network is a non-profit organization for women who value the uniqueness of their lives. The group members hold meetings to discuss post-retirement planning while creating support networks. They also enjoy cherry-blossom viewing and social parties. The network members own a communal gravesite, where members can rest after their death, for an affordable 250 thousand yen.

“Deciding our final resting place will allow us to live the rest of our lives in peace. That is why we created the communal grave,” says MATSUBARA Junko, the head of SSS Network. “We value our hearts, so the members have an annual memorial service. We have received comments such as: ‘I am relieved now that I have a grave to rest in,’ and ‘I won’t feel lonely because I know the group will mourn for me.’”

There is also an increase in the number of people who wish to have their remains returned to nature. Blue Ocean Ceremony will scatter the ashes of the deceased into Tokyo Bay. Tentokuji Temple in Chiba Prefecture offers jumoku-so (burial under a tree). In this burial ceremony, the ashes are placed in the ground and a tree is planted on top of the remains. There are 40 kinds of trees and flowers to choose from, including a cherry tree, and this service is very popular as it increases mountain greenery.

There are also some people who make jewelry from the ashes, or with strands of hair, of the deceased. This “mourning jewelry” originated as a European custom and has recently taken root in Japan. Inblooms Co., Ltd, located in Shizuoka, carries a range of over 200 types of pendants to choose from.

Jumoku-so, Tentokuji Temple

Another kind of mourning jewelry uses the power of science. From carbon extracted from the ashes and hair of the deceased, a diamond can be created. For around 200 thousand yen you can make a 0.1-karat diamond. “Rather than holding a grand memorial service which costs some million yen, I wanted to use the same money to make a diamond that I can keep with me forever. I made jewelry for our daughter and myself, from my husband’s remains, and wear it as a charm,” shares SATO Takako, one diamond recipient.

Others still choose to keep their beloved’s remains with them, rather than placing them in a grave, says NOMURA Hiroshi. “Our gravesite is in Hokkaido, but my siblings and I all live in Tokyo. It is very hard for us to visit it often, so we divided our parents’ remains among us. Each of us treasures it in our homes. My house is very small, so we don’t have space to put in a butsudan (a Buddhist commemorative altar), so we placed the remains in a small funeral urn, and put it on a shelf,” he explains.

“I think there are physical and psychological reasons as to why people changed their preference to simpler funeral and memorial services over lavish ceremonies,” says Inblooms PR representative, TOMINAGA Asami. “Urban housing is very small so there is no space to put a big butsudan. And in western-style homes, more modern butsudan may be desired over traditional Japanese ones. The trend toward nuclear families further allows people to choose their own funeral style without the influence of parents or relatives. Of course there are many people who still choose the traditional ceremonies, but I feel there is more freedom when people choose their own way.”

Koukokuji
NPO SSS Network
Tentokuji
Blue Ocean Ceremony
Inblooms Co., Ltd.

Text: SAZAKI Ryo


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