Every culture has its own way of dealing with death.

Last week in this column, I discussed some of the past and present attitudes toward and practices surrounding Japanese funerals. There is a quiet revolution taking place in the Japanese way of death, and nowhere is this more acutely seen than in the way people in Japan are rethinking the issue of disposal of the body of the deceased.

. . . Were the smoke on Toribeyama never to fade away . . . would men not feel the pity of things . . .

So wrote Kenko Yoshida in his masterpiece of Buddhist aphorisms of the mid-14th century titled “Tsurezuregusa” (translated as “Essays in Idleness” by Donald Keene). Toribeyama is the mountain in Kyoto where there was a crematorium. The smoke above the mountain symbolized the ephemeral nature of human life, a lyrically expressed metaphor of Buddhist thought.

Today, cremation is by far the most popular method of dealing with the dead body. This, however, has not always been the case.

Introduced to Japan from India by the Buddhist priest Dosho at the end of the seventh century, cremation was for ages widely opposed by many segments of Japanese society. Confucianists, for one thing, considered it “barbaric and unfilial.” It may come as a surprise to many that right up to the time of World War II, a full 50 percent of those who died in Japan were buried without being cremated. (This is despite the fact that, according to the Nihon Itai Eisei Hozen Kyokai [Japan Association for the Hygienic Preservation of Human Remains], embalming was only introduced to Japan as a scientific practice in 1988.)

Exorbitant land prices

As was pointed out last week, cremation in Japan is in no way expensive. Most cremations cost about 50,000 yen; and this is why few crematoriums are in private hands. But what to do with the ashes? With the custom of paying annual or semiannual visits to temple gravesites on the wane, the elderly of Japan are beginning to wonder if it’s worth paying a fortune if no one comes along to tend the site.

Due to the exorbitant price of land in big cities, many cemeteries are now far out of town. Professional funeral services use such locations to advantage whenever they can, stressing the beautiful view that the departed have in the lap of nature.

But these distant locations become a problem for busy grownup children, who may not be able to find the free time to travel to them. There is also increasing pressure on young dads to stay home and give what is called “family service,” that is, time with the kids. Consequently, for growing numbers of people, it’s hard these days to look after both the generation above and the one below.

One result of this is that the number of people who dispense with a formal funeral and dispose of the cremated ashes themselves is growing — a practice newly known as chokuso, literally “direct funeral.” Although some of Japan’s bereaved are deciding to opt for the practice of scattering their loved one’s ashes in a sankotsu (scattering funeral) or shizenso (natural funeral), this means of disposal has yet to catch on — and it was actually illegal in many parts of Japan until recently. Indeed, as of Sept. 1 this year, there have been only 1,880 such funerals here. By contrast, 30 percent of Californians now choose this method of disposal of their body.

In Japan, the cremated ashes and remaining bones are given to the family to take home. There is no law requiring a funeral. You may — as many Japanese do — prefer to keep your loved ones’ remains with you at home. But if you do choose to scatter them, there are requirements — primarily that all remains must be reduced to less than the size of a grain of rice. In order for this to occur during a cremation, the temperature of the oven must exceed 1,000 C. However, as this is invariably higher than the usual temperature used in Japan to incinerate a body, would-be ashes scatterers encounter the problem of pulverizing the remaining bones.

In California, a grinder known as a “cremulator” is used. The ashes from that, referred to as “cremains,” are then, more often than not, scattered at sea or in a desert. Some people express the wish to have their cremains shot into space.

Japanese people, by and large, have an aversion to their loved ones’ remains being ground up. So here, the Soso no Jiyu o Susumeru Kai (Grave-Free Promotion Society) suggests that the remains be wrapped securely, placed on a flat rock and “crushed thoroughly with an object that the deceased was fond of, such as a golf club or baseball bat.”

The society points out that many people might have an aversion to this, but that those who do it often “chat intimately” about the deceased and “feel that they have made the right decision.”

From woe to go

In fact, while still alive it is possible here to make a contract to have your ashes scattered by paying an advance fee of 230,000 yen. However, as the actual scattering in the mountains or at sea can cost as little as 80,000 yen, the remainder of the fee is returned to the next of kin.

The funeral business in Japan is a virtual monopoly, and funeral parlors are vehemently opposed to “natural funerals.” They want to keep control of the process of burial, from woe to go; and are allied to the Buddhist establishment, who desire, on their part, to draw as many people and as much money into their precincts as possible.

But there are more and more Japanese people, particularly those in their 30s or over, who are being attracted to the prospect of a family funeral held without the good offices of a parlor. They feel, too, that scattering their ashes will free their children from the burden of having to look after and visit their gravesite.

This is the quiet revolution. Japanese people seem to be embracing a diversity of choice in the way they wish their remains to be dealt with and disposed of. In that sense, they are actually drawing on customs which have existed for centuries.

Hence, in matters of death — as well as in life — what appears to be “the Japanese way” of doing something may only be a popular custom that has existed or exists for a particular period of time. This custom is often supported by vested interests: in the case of burials, the funeral-parlor business and the Buddhist establishment. Yet, over the long haul of history, there are many different “set Japanese ways” of doing things.

Freedom of choice here may signal not only a diversification in the kinds of funerals and burial ceremonies that people will have. It may also see the day coming where Japanese can choose either to visit the site of their ancestors’ last resting place or not, according to their own inclination and unfettered by a tradition that itself may be gradually dying out.

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