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.

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.