It’s your funeral. What’s your pleasure?
Wine funeral? Jazz funeral? Outer space funeral? Internet funeral? “Natural” funeral, in which your ashes mingle with the ocean waves or fertilize and therefore in a sense become, say, a blossoming cherry tree under which, come spring, your loved ones can mourn your passing even as they celebrate your reincarnation?
That’s by no means a full list of available options, but it gives an idea of the degree to which individual choice, market mechanisms and pure fun have infiltrated even this most solemn of occasions.
Fun? Unabashedly. A recent book on the subject bears the proud, exclamatory title, “I Want a Happy Funeral!” Author Hiroyuki Wakao defines death as “graduation from life,” and a funeral as “life’s greatest event.” His book is an invitation to make the most of it — or to make nothing at all of it, if you’re among a growing number of people for whom all ceremony is humbug best dispensed with.
All this would have seemed grossly frivolous to almost any Japanese as little as a generation ago. Death was not something you trifled with. For hundreds of years it had been, in a sense, more important than life. Evanescence was beauty; warrior codes enjoined the samurai to “have the idea of death in his mind day and night, night and day, from the dawn of the first day until the last minute of the last day”; Zen sages taught, “If you are really desirous of mastering Zen, it is necessary to give up your life and plunge right into the pit of death.”
“Death,” wrote Hideo Kishimoto in “The Japanese Mind” (1967), “is not a mere end of life for the Japanese. It has been given a positive place in life. Facing death is one of the most important features of life. In that sense it may well be said that for the Japanese, death is within life.”
An abrupt shift from burial to cremation after World War II (sanitation and lack of space being the pivotal issues) seems to have proceeded without trauma, but the funerary rites — wake, sutra readings, bestowal of posthumous Buddhist name, ceremonial handling of the ashes at the crematory, burial of the ashes at the family grave, periodic memorial services thereafter — were timeless and went more or less unquestioned, as did the enormous expense involved: At an average cost of ¥2.3 million, Japanese funerals are considered among the most costly in the world.
Social change is corrosive to ceremonial rigidity, and Japan since the 1990s has been in permanent flux. Families, the bedrock of the traditional society, are breaking up or not being formed. Disgruntled wives refuse to be buried with their husbands — preferring in many cases (and facilities are emerging to make this possible) to be buried with their pets. Children no longer consider it a sacred duty to tend their parents’ graves, and indeed the parents, increasingly diffident as life spans stretch, insist they don’t want to “cause trouble” to their aging children.
You can sum it all up in a single word: “Individualism.” “My” funeral must suit “me,” be a fit conclusion to “my” life — which has less and less, and often nothing at all, to do with national life, social life, family life or any other collective.
And so what have we here? Last month alone two magazines, Takarajima and Shukan Economist, ran cover stories on modern funerals and their burgeoning variety. No longer does custom preside over our return to Eternity. We can have the satisfaction of doing it our way, at a fraction of the cost — ¥400,000, for example, for a “cherry tree funeral”; ¥157,500 for a sea burial, the boat captained by a priest who intones sutras (or not, if you prefer) as he scatters your remains on the bobbing waves; ¥188,000 for a “balloon funeral,” an economy-class version of the outer space funeral popularized in the 1990s by writer Timothy Leary and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, among others.
Outer space funerals, rocketing your ashes into Earth’s orbit or to the moon, are popular in Japan too, among those who needn’t count the cost. The balloon funeral, conceived for soaring imaginations held in check by earthbound budgets, is the brainchild of Tochigi-based Balloon Kobo. Its main business is balloon advertising; funerals are a relatively new departure. In 90 minutes, your remains rise to the stratosphere, where the balloon breaks and your ashes fall back to Earth, perhaps to nourish a cherry tree — at any rate, to nourish something.
There’s more to this than mere faddism. It reflects a whole new attitude toward death, and therefore toward life. “Mid the uneasy wanderings of paleolithic man, the dead were the first to have a permanent dwelling,” wrote Lewis Mumford in “The City in History” (1961). “A cavern, a mound marked by a cairn, a collective barrow”; these were mankind’s first graves, sites of remembrance and veneration, symbols of the link between the living and the dead. Can that link survive the “happy funeral?”