National

In Japan, 'freestyle funerals' give mourners a chance to celebrate life

by Natsume Watanabe

Kyodo

While Japan is by and large a secular society, the majority of funerals conducted in the country are Buddhist ceremonies. In most cases, the memorials are practiced more out of social custom rather than any overt religious belief.

Even so, funerals tend to be solemn events where laughter and lively music appear to have no place.

Except a joyful ceremony was exactly the kind of send-off I helped arrange for my own father when he passed away. It was his dying wish that his loved ones would celebrate his life rather than grieve over the cancer that killed him.

The idea might seem outlandish. However, the funeral is the final opportunity to bid farewell to the departed. Why, I thought, not make it an event that conveys my father’s character to the fullest? I trust there are many bereaved families out there who might feel the same.

My father, who died in late March at the age of 60, discovered he had cancer a year before his death when he was temporarily posted in Okinawa for work.

An active journalist himself, he was a nonreligious man. He instructed me before he died not to hold any religious memorial service for him, and I was determined to plan a funeral that represented the unique and original person he had been. He wanted to show how much he appreciated all the people he had known in his life.

Urban Funes Corp., the funeral home that conducted the service, pioneers “freestyle funerals” in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Company President Takayuki Nakagawa, 44, had worked in the bridal industry before establishing the funeral parlor in 2002.

“The age is coming when funerals will not be imposed on people but created in line with clients’ wishes,” said Nakagawa.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Japan Consumers’ Association, Buddhist memorial services make up almost 90 percent of funerals nationwide.

Even at Urban Funes, about 80 percent of the 2,500 ceremonies conducted by the company each year are also religious memorials, mainly because it is customary to do so. The company says once the main ceremony is over, many like to host a unique second event where people can say goodbye in a less formal way. Freestyle humanist ceremonies, the company says, are also on the rise.

The idea for my father’s unusual memorial service came in an email titled, “For that time.” It was three months before he passed away, and he sent it to me, his eldest daughter, in Nara Prefecture where I live, from where he was hospitalized after his condition had worsened.

In a single message, he wrote his wishes plainly on decisions to be made from the time he would fall into a critical state through to the funeral itself. He even asked me to take charge of the proceedings as “chief mourner.”

“The concept is to have everyone enjoy themselves, and get rid of their bias about cancer,” the message began. It went on to describe various details of the ceremony, such as putting his memorabilia on display, playing background music and having his friend who is a professional singer perform. I could almost see him happily showing up himself for the celebration.

With the skill of an experienced professional, the funeral planner arranged an event befitting what seemed to me at the time an outrageous occasion planned by my father. The venue was a funeral hall owned by a Buddhist temple located in Yokohama. According to Urban Funes, more venues are responding to diverse needs and allowing customers to use their facilities, regardless of their beliefs.

A portrait of my father was projected onto a large screen followed by slideshow of his photographs. Also on display were drawings and wood block prints that my father created and saved when he had in his youth once dreamed of becoming an artist.

“This was time well spent, where I could bid him a proper farewell,” said a 60-year-old male friend of his who had been a source of encouragement to my father for 50 years.

When my father was battling cancer, he had repeatedly told my mother, “I led a blessed life.” Although his life was cut short by an unexpected illness, it didn’t mean that everything he had built in his life was reduced to sorrow.

Viewing life through his photos, touching the belongings he left behind and sharing stories we never knew with old friends, our family got a glimpse of my father’s life philosophy. Preparations for the funeral, it turned out, became an important time for our bereavement.

The way funerals are practice is influenced by the times. Hajime Himonya, 71, a journalist who specializes on the subject, said humanist funerals were a consequence of the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s.

“Freestyle funerals made their emergence around 1995 when people’s sense of values began to change after the collapse of the bubble economy, as they became keenly aware of the recession and inequality,” Himonya explained.

With small-scale family services becoming the norm, he believes ceremonies will become even more individualistic and diversified. “A funeral means the time from one’s deathbed, to the wake, on to the vigil, and the time to cope with death. How this time is spent beyond physical form is important,” Himonya said.

The fact that we were able to hold a unique ceremony according to my father’s wishes meant the world to my mother.

“The actual feeling of being able to give him a proper send-off will drive me forward for the rest of my life,” my mother said.

In the end, a funeral is not merely a time to bid farewell to a loved one, but also a ceremony for those of us left behind to remember the moments spent with that person, and cherish those lasting memories as we embark on a new future.

The unique funeral conceived by my father and carried through on his own terms became the final but best memory of him for our family.