Privatization, individualization, and the rejection of religion are the three main trends
I see in the evolution of rituals for the dead in recent years.
From ancient times, the Japanese have thought that a living soul dwells within the physical being of a person, and at death, separating from the body, it becomes a dead spirit, for a time existing as a wild and unstable soul. The dead spirit becomes purified as a kami (ancestral spirit) through the rites performed for it over a long time by the members of its family, whom, as its descendants, it then watches over and protects. This body-spirit dualism is the basis of the belief in ancestral spirits that underpinned the formation of the funerary rituals that we know today. These rituals were given meaning through Buddhism and through the development of the idea of the "household" (ie). The Meiji Civil Code of 1898 stipulated that the ownership of the family's grave was a "special right pertaining to succession to the ie" (Article 987). This meant that the deceased were regarded as the very foundation of the group that was the family and so were venerated by their descendants not as ordinary dead but as "ancestors." These rites were generally conducted according to Buddhism.
With the growth of the nuclear family, the aging of the population, and the low birthrate that mark modern society, not only are people increasingly less conscious of the ie, but the family itself is not functioning as a group in the same way as previously. There has been a value shift from group to individual. In this essay I want to analyze how mortuary and memorialization rites taking place at funeral services, permanent outdoor graves, and indoor family altars are changing within a society where the individual has become the unit in place of the family.
Changes in Urban Funerary Rites
I will first examine funerary rites, the very core of rituals for the dead. The ultimate form that has been adopted in urban areas in recent years is the so-called direct funeral (chokuso). It is a simplified practice where the body is cremated directly after death, unaccompanied by any of the traditional rituals, such as the wake or a funeral service. The most extreme form of this is cremation only for the disposal of a corpse, but in fact people have quite diverse views about what cremation alone entails. Some people consider that not holding a funeral or only having a cremation means that there is no funeral in the traditional sense. Buddhist priests are not called in, and general acquaintances are not notified. But these people still make time for a farewell to the deceased, attended by the immediate family and other close relatives. There are others who understand cremation alone as a private family funeral (misso), which may or may not be followed by a formal funeral service. Judging from differences in what kind of rituals are added in cases when cremation is more than the disposal of a corpse, who attends the obsequies, and what people are most conscious of when taking their leave of the dead, it is very clear that no firm definition of terminology has been established. In fact, a variety of terms are applied: direct funeral, no funeral, cremation only, private funeral, family funeral (kazokuso, miuchiso), farewell gathering (owakarekai), and memorial service (shinobukai), among others.
A survey I conducted at two mortuaries in metropolitan Tokyo reveals that 15 to 20 percent of funerals were direct funerals and that 12 to 36 percent were private funerals (including kazokuso, miuchiso, and misso). Thus direct funerals and private funerals together ranged from some 30 percent to 50 percent.1
This trend can also be seen from attitude surveys conducted in Tokyo and the broader metropolitan area. A report on a 2001 survey of funeral costs by the Citizens' and Cultural Affairs Bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government states that 59.1 percent of respondents replied that they wanted "a small funeral attended by those close to them." This was an increase over the previous survey of 1995 (47.2 percent). In that year just under 50 percent of the respondents wanted a family funeral, but in 2001 more than 70 percent did. This trend has probably strengthened since then.
In 2002 the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living conducted a funeral awareness survey to assess the changing perceptions of funerary rites among 365 male and female residents of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area aged eighteen to seventy-six. Most (76.2 percent) wanted a new style of funeral, such as an "unpretentious funeral" (jimiso) or "musical funeral" (ongakuso). Asked about the meaning of funerals, 76 percent said they are "an occasion to bid farewell to those close to you" and 99.5 percent said they wanted family and close friends to attend, while 52.6 percent wanted people they socialize with in pursuing common interests or activities to attend. Also, 70 percent replied they did not need a Buddhist posthumous name (kaimyo), which costs on average four hundred thousand Japanese yen.
We can see from the above that in urban areas there is a marked increase in the tendency for people to invite to a funeral only people connected with the deceased. They prefer not to ask people with no personal relationship with the deceased or who did not share the family's grief, who would come only out of a sense of social obligation. This trend is one of privatization. We see also an aspiration for a more personalized funeral, moving away from family-centered rites to those focusing on the individual. This we can call individualization. There is a further tendency to omit religious elements, which can be viewed as a rejection of religion. Rural areas are also witnessing similar trends, though not to the same extent as in urban areas.
The Privatization and Individualization of Funerals
Privatization, individualization, and the rejection of religion are the three main trends I see in the evolution of rituals for the dead in recent years. Space limitations allow me to deal here only with the first two of these. I would just like to mention, though, that by rejection of religion, I mean a breakaway from the religion of the household (ie), not necessarily a diminution of religiosity, and I have written more on this point elsewhere.2
The sociologist Kiyomi Morioka writes that "differentiating the private sphere from communal life, and holding it in higher regard than the public sphere, is a clear indication of the idea of privacy."3 Privatization, as one of the trends in modern Japanese mortuary rites, means funerals with only the grieving family in attendance, and perhaps some close friends, and no one attending only out of obligation, like company representatives or neighbors. This focuses on what the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-85) calls "first- and second-person death," that is, my death and the death of a person close to me, as opposed to "third-person death," the death of a person unfamiliar to me.4
Behind this trend toward privatization is the growth of individualism. Morioka points out that "privatization accompanies individualism, and individualism promotes privatization."5 As the expression that certain behavior "brings shame on the ancestors" (gosenzosama ni moshiwakenai) implies, in the past people's existence was oriented toward the household ancestors. In an individualized society, where ideas are centered on the household and the ancestors have weakened, and where people form networks with others as individuals, when those individuals die, almost nothing remains of heredity or continuity, even between parents and children, because as each individual is different, so are his or her networks. In other words, a relationship based on one-on-one connections does not survive the death of the individuals concerned. Thus attendance at a funeral, too, becomes limited to those with a connection with the deceased. Actually, with death becoming something primarily associated with old age, funerals are more and more likely to be simply a family affair, since the friends of the deceased either have already died or are often too frail to attend.
How have rituals for the dead that are focused on graves changed? The ie, as the paradigm of the lineal family in Japan, was the monopoly of patrilineal descent. The household was expected to continue in perpetuity from generation to generation. To enable this, the patrimony passed from father to son. But in the modern family, centered on the married couple, both husband and wife think of their own parents equally, and when the children leave home, the couple is all that is left. When one partner dies, the other remains living alone, and when that partner also dies, then the family as a unit also dies. Whereas the traditional ie is characterized by unilinearity and perpetuity, the couple-centered family is characterized by bilateralism and limitation to a single generation.
There is a structural difference here, too, connected with issues that have arisen over permanent grave sites. During the 1980s, as the old norms governing the family began to be dismantled, the group identity of the family weakened, giving place to the idea that the individual was its basic unit. This was the individualization of the family. As well, the increase in the divorce rate, the number of later marriages, the falling number of children in the family, the growth in the number of people choosing not to get married, and the decision of couples not to have children meant that there has been a vast increase in the number of people without heirs to the family graves.
While the system of hereditary grave sites, sustained by norms of perpetuity based on the survival of a consciousness of the ie, has given rise to the kind of "culture lag" described by the American sociologist William Fielding Ogburn (1886-1959),6 changes have begun to occur in response to circumstances, as the one-generational family system moves toward even further individualization. A new substitute system has arisen.
Whereas the family grave was characterized by (1) paternal lineage, (2) heredity, (3) use in perpetuity, (4) use of a headstone, and (5) inscription of the family name on the headstone, the substitute system that rejects the ie is characterized by a broad division between a tendency to address the difficulties within the system and breaking away from the system completely.
Examples of the first are separate double graves, for both the husband and the wife (a variation on the multifamily grave), fixed-term grave sites, and gravestones not inscribed with the family name (which would enable a daughter with a different married name to be interred in the same grave as the parents). The second includes nonhereditary graves, known variously as "group grave sites" (gassoshiki bochi, goshi bo) and "eternal memorial graves" (eitai kuyo bo), facilities not premised on inheritance, where both the grave and the memorialization are shared, and doing away with headstones by scattering the ashes (sankotsu), conducting "forest funerals" (jumokuso), and suchlike, which shows a concern for nature and obviates the need for successors to maintain memorialization.
Since the 1990s in particular, the greatest changes in how graves are regarded relate to a rejection of permanent family graves, a concern for nature, and individualism. Individualism takes the form of an increase in grave sites prepared before death and in "designer" headstones that reflect the personality of the deceased. The one-generational nuclear family, unlike the traditional ie, does not suppress a person's individuality. People now no longer rely on their children to arrange their funerals and are more concerned with how they live their own lives - and how they bring those lives to a close.
Sites for nonhereditary graves of people without descendants increased rapidly during the 1990s from just four in the late 1980s to between 450 and 500 in January 2003, according to a survey carried out by the publisher Rokugatsu Shobo. This growth has continued down to the present. The applicants for inclusion in the "tranquillity shrine" (annonbyo), or "eternal memorial gravesite" at Myokoji, a Nichiren sect temple in Niigata Prefecture, included more families with children than families without children (as of January 15, 2003). This shows that even people with sons (which implies that they should have no problems regarding the succession of the family grave) are buying nonhereditary graves in comparatively large numbers. Perhaps the grave-inheritance system itself has become divorced from modern ideas of family structure and the realities of life. Perhaps, too, we can see here in part a state of dysfunction. Thus the substitute system that has emerged in response to this has made necessary ritual forms different from those of the family ancestral rites where perpetuity was a criterion.
The forest funeral, which first emerged in 1999, is a part of the growing interest in natural funerals in Japan. Bones and ashes are buried under trees, which act as grave markers. In 2002 I conducted an attitude survey among 183 valid responses from people who wanted a forest funeral after they died. I wanted to find out how such funerals are connected to traditional Japanese ideas about the soul and what modern people are looking for in them. I then analyzed the distinctive characteristics of forest graveyards.
To find out people's ideas about the soul after death, I asked about their beliefs in life after death. Thirty-nine and three-tenths percent answered that they either believed in life after death or wanted to believe in it; 31.7 percent said they did not believe in it; and 26.8 percent said they did not know. Almost the same proportion of answers was received for the question about the existence of the soul after death, but the proportion of those who believed or wanted to believe was slightly higher this time.
Those who answered that they believed or wanted to believe in the existence of the soul after death were then asked if they thought their soul would reside in the tree. Of those, 50.6 percent said they wanted to believe so, and another 13 percent said they believed so. Thus 26.8 percent of the whole sample understood that their soul would reside in a tree after death.
While 36.6 percent of the applicants said they did not own grave sites, close to 30 percent already had them. Of these, 17.5 percent said they would inherit family graves, and 9.8 percent said they had bought a grave with their own money.
Respondents were asked why they had chosen a forest funeral. Selecting up to three answers, 76.5 percent said they wanted to return to nature and 43.7 percent said they did not have to worry about whether they had heirs or not. The third most-popular answer was that it was good to plant a tree and sleep beneath it (41.5 percent). This revealed a preference for having some symbol to mark the grave, as opposed to simply scattering the ashes.
This was confirmed by the next question, which asked why they chose a forest funeral over the scattering of ashes. The second most-popular answer to this was that becoming a tree (or flower) after death seemed poetic (44.8 percent). Twenty-four and six-tenths percent said they wanted some kind of marker for the site of their ashes. This showed that people felt it a good thing for their soul to enter a tree as a marker.
Concerning funerary rites, 46.5 percent said they did not expect them but they would be happy if their relatives did conduct services. A little over 20 percent replied that they did not want or need a funeral or had no opinion.
The Family Altar
In the 1990s, as it came to be realized that many people were keeping the ashes of family members at home, ways of doing so gradually increased in scope. Some people kept the cremated remains in an urn as they had always done. Others kept them in containers that were art objects or pottery containers for ashes. Companies even emerged that make ceramic plates and pendants out of pulverized remains and diamonds forged from the remains at high temperatures. In 2005 a number of companies making and selling such products came together to form a nonprofit organization called Temoto Kuyo Kyokai to create for these products a culture of temoto kuyo (on-hand memorialization).
Some elderly people gradually experience a loss of purpose. They lose their parental role when their children leave home and their role as workers after they retire. Marital companionship plays a very important role at this time, helping them weather the changes in their lives. Thus when a spouse dies, the sense of loss is enormous. At the final stage of the nuclear family, what assuages the last survivor's sense of grief and emptiness is often, ironically, the ashes of the deceased spouse. Those who have lost a loved one are sustained by the feeling that the deceased remains always near, that they can hold on to (even wear) the departed, or that they can divide the ashes among all the family members. These arrangements can be summarized as "companionship," "portability," and "sharing."
In previous research, I have characterized rites according to temoto kuyo as a ritual form "friendly" to the nuclear family, which may be described in terms of "companionship," "individualism," "sharing," "portability," and "providing a point of contact between the living and the departed who choose not to build their graves." In 2001 I surveyed attitudes to changes in mortuary rites of a hundred people whose households purchased "on-hand" memorialization items from the Kyoto firm Hirokuniya. The survey confirmed that the respondents were, in performing temoto kuyo, engaging in behavior the same as that performed during rituals for the dead before the family altar (and the mortuary tablets, ihai). This included talking to the deceased, offering food and drink, and clasping the hands in prayer (gassho). Of the respondents, 60 percent were parishioners of Buddhist temples and 80 percent already had a household Buddhist altar. This brings to the fore the point that many people today feel dissatisfaction with traditional family altars (Buddhist or Shinto) and the family grave. Space precludes a detailed analysis of my findings, but in brief, the family Buddhist altar can be understood as the site for ancestor veneration at the lineage level, represented by the relationship between parents and children. Here, what the American anthropologist Robert J. Smith termed "memorialism"7 is manifested by a form of mortuary rite performed with a family.
Rites for the dead have in the past centered on the traditional funeral service, the grave, and the family altar (and mortuary tablets). These are underlain by ancestor beliefs based on a duality of body and soul and given meaning through Buddhism, centered on the ie. Modern society, however, has witnessed a shrinking, and even a loss, of ie-type rituals. Society has become structured in such a way as to make it difficult to preserve an awareness of the ie among people, with the result that they are looking around for, and constructing, social mortuary rites that focus on the individual.
Recently, attention has been drawn to a variation of the forest funeral where people are laid to rest beneath cherry trees. This is called the "cherry tree funeral" (sakuraso). It was pioneered not in a temple graveyard under the existing parishioner system but in a graveyard planned and run on a membership system by a nonprofit organization called Ending Center at a private cemetery in Machida, Tokyo.
The attraction of nature funerals can partly be ascribed to the return to nature that accompanied people's realization that industrialization has contributed to environmental destruction. Another reason is that while the system of hereditary graves had promised a permanency of human relationships, today people cannot place any expectations on their descendants. As a result, they have been released from the spell that is the permanence of the ie. In place of the family ties and permanence within the ie, they seem to be seeking relationships with people outside the family and permanence within nature. The time has passed when people were sustained by a strong communal consciousness, made up of the family and the local community. The loose community of those sleeping and memorialized together under the cherry trees is a symbol that the family is no longer sufficient, though it is still the case that an individual, married couple, or family is allotted a section of land to themselves.
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Haruyo Inoue is a professor in the Faculty of Human Life Design at Toyo University in Saitama Prefecture, Japan. She received a PhD in sociology from Shukutoku University in Chiba Prefecture and specializes in death education and gender studies. In 2000, she founded Ending Center, a nonprofit organization to promote death education. She has authored several books, including Kodomo no sewani narazuni shinitai (Wanting to die without burdening children).
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This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.