National / Social Issues

Bell tolls for traditional funerals as new sects put their spin on Buddhist rites

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

Japanese funerals are traditionally overseen by a Buddhist priest at the deceased’s village temple. But people drifting to the cities are increasingly looking for alternatives as ties to their ancestral home loosen.

Funeral services are increasingly being supervised by new religious groups and in some cases conducted by their lay followers.

One such group is the independent GLA (God Light Association). Founded in 1969, its teachings center on the notion of an eternal human soul. In 2012 it opened a building housing burial vaults at its spiritual training facility in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture.

The building is of striking design. It houses not only people’s remains but also, if the family wishes, personal mementoes such as photos and messages. It can even display videos of the deceased in life.

On a day a reporter visited, a man in his 60s was paying respects to his mother, who died last year at the age of 91. The family keeps her ashes and some mementoes at the facility.

“When I read about her life, it reminds of her and brings a lump to my throat,” he said.

After 30 years, GLA scatters the ashes of the departed to return them to nature, but it keeps the records of “what they thought and what they did at various phases of their life — and what they generated as a result,” an official there said.

Shinnyo-en is a new school of Buddhism, headquartered in Tachikawa, western Tokyo. It operates a 6,900-sq.-meter cemetery in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture.

Created 30 years ago, the cemetery today is full, boasting nearly 1,400 identical gravestones in orderly rows.

As there is no room left for new tombstones, last year Shinnyo-en opened a mass grave at the site at the urging of followers. Today, the waiting list for that grave is already full.

Shinnyo-en encourages its faithful to accept traditional Buddhist practices to the extent that it recommends holding funeral and memorial services, including burial rites, at their family temples, said Shinji Hirashima, a group spokesman.

But a rise in the number of followers who hail from urban areas and no longer have strong ties to family temples out in the country has pushed Shinnyo-en into conducting funerals itself.

Social trends suggest people will increasingly be looking to independent religious organizations for funeral services.

Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest organization of lay Buddhists, has created a new tradition for its followers, the “yujin-so” (funeral rites by friends) send-off when someone dies.

Created more than 20 years ago, the yujin-so is performed by a Soka Gakkai member with no Buddhist priest present.

The ceremony involves the repetitive chanting of a sutra based on the teachings of the 13th century monk Nichiren.

Around 30,000 male Soka Gakkai members are authorized to perform the yujin-so, but it can also be carried out by women and other people depending on their relationship to the deceased.

Yujin-so is “extremely simple,” said Yoshitaka Wada, a Soka Gakkai supervisor.

Whoever conducts the ceremony first studies the personality of the deceased to prepare an address, which includes a reference to his or her devotion to the teachings of Nichiren. It also includes some words of comfort for the bereaved.

Because Soka Gakkai members carry out the service as friends, they accept no fees from the family.