In 2013, I attended a funeral of the Yamada family in an Osaka suburb. The deceased, age 89, was the widow of the family head whose funeral in 1992 provided the data for my article on Japanese mortuary rituals (Tsuji, “Mortuary Rituals in Japan: The Hegemony of Tradition and the Motivations of Individuals” Ethos 34, 2006). The article revealed both continued compliance with traditions and recent modifications of them. This mixture of the old and the new was also evident in the 2013 funeral of Mrs Yamada.
Some changes I noted in 1992 were funeral halls becoming the common funeral venue and hired specialists playing a major role in dealing with death (Suzuki, The Price of Death: The Funeral Industry in Contemporary Japan, 2000). I also learned that three families in the Yamadas’ neighborhood defied the tradition of kôden, or incense money exchange by refusing to receive it at their funerals.
In the ensuing years, the practice of declining kôden has spread much further. For Mrs. Yamada’s funeral in 2013, the family received kôden only from their relatives, but not from neighbors and other mourners. Professionalization of mortuary rituals intensified. While the family home was the site of her husband’s funeral, Mrs. Yamada’s funeral was held at a funeral hall, and professionals played indispensable roles from her death to her 49th-day-after-death memorial. When her remains were brought home from the hospital, funeral hall workers changed her into a kimono, laid her on the futon, and set up the altar for an urn and incense with flowers and lanterns around it. Later, the funeral director came to discuss options as well as prices of the funeral and other related issues (eg, meals, transportation). He also gave the family a long to-do list, which included notifying banks and insurance companies, filing the deceased’s income tax returns, and settling her estate.
Professionals also contributed to the dramatization of rituals. For nôkan or placing the remains in the coffin, a trained young woman moved Mrs. Yamada’s body from her futon to the coffin in the same choreographed manner as her counterparts did in the movie, Departures. Her coffin was not a conventional rectangular box of white pine like that of her husband. Though the shape was the same, its outer face was of patterned pink brocade. The dramatization continued into her funeral. It opened with a short video that highlighted her life from childhood to old age.
Another change occurred in shôkô or the incense burning ceremony. Previously, mourners proceeded to the altar as the funeral director called their names according to the pre-arranged order reflecting the hierarchical nature of kin relationships and the social status of mourners. However, at most funerals today, shôkô is done in a random order except for the chief mourner who is first, followed by next of kin, and the last incense burner for tome shôkô which marks the end of the ceremony.
The significance of work-related mourners was noticeably diminished at Mrs. Yamada’s funeral compared with at that of her husband’s. This may be because her former colleagues were either deceased or in poor health, and her daughters and son-in-law were retired. Neighbors constituted the largest group of mourners, but professionals took over most of their traditional roles except staffing the reception desk.
What accounts for these changes? Some changes may be adaptations to contemporary lifestyle, which ease the burden of hosting and attending funerals. Random shôkô order relieves the bereaved family from making the often difficult decisions on who goes before whom. As hierarchy among mourners is the guiding principle of shôkô order, does this indicate the decreasing significance of hierarchy as a dominant value? No more kôden saves money, not only for mourners, but also for the bereaved family who need to reciprocate. But might this shrink the enduring social circles that are bound by giri or obligation? In other words, do the modifications of the mortuary tradition reflect the changing nature of Japanese society that is regarded to become muen shakai or a society of people with little or no social ties, where annually over 32,000 isolated people die without anyone looking after their death and only the stench of their decayed remains prompts the discovery of their deaths (NHK Muen Shakai: “Muen-shi” Sanman-Nisen-nin no Shôgeki 2010)?
Anthropologists have been studying rituals as a strategic window for understanding other cultures. I believe the evolving Japanese funerals offer just such a window, allowing us to explore many different aspects of Japanese society, such as families, marriages, workplaces, neighborhood, consumerism, gift exchange, and social change.
Yohko Tsuji is an adjunct associate professor in the department of anthropology at Cornell University. She is a cultural anthropologist, whose research includes aging, mortuary rituals, conception of time, and social change in Japan, the US, and Thailand.