About half a century after [Rissho Kosei-kai's] cemetery was established, it began to experience alterations that reflected the changes in the daily lives of the Japanese people.
Rissho Kosei-kai established Kosei Cemetery in 1951 to serve members from other prefectures who came to work and live in Tokyo, who in future wanted to be buried closer to their homes in Tokyo and to fellow members of the Sangha. Japanese people often have family burial plots in cemeteries associated with a local parish temple in their ancestral hometown. Founder Nikkyo Niwano made it a point to maintain cordial relations with traditional Buddhist temples, and he encouraged members living outside the capital to stay on good terms with the local parish temples to which their families belonged. However, it was decided to build a cemetery in the suburbs of Tokyo to serve the needs of members who had left their far-flung hometowns.
In Japan, wakes and funerals are followed by cremation, and the ashes are kept in an urn until interment on the forty-ninth day after the death. This is a final leave-taking, at which family members often break down and start to weep.
By and large, Japanese people have since ancient times been particularly careful of the remains of the dead. This may be why they make repeated trips abroad to find and bring back to Japan the remains of comrades killed in wars in faraway lands. One day not long ago, the two daughters of a Japanese woman who had emigrated to Puerto Rico and passed away there came to our cemetery, asking if half of their mother's remains could be buried there. When the remains were interred, these two young nisei women wept for joy at having finally been able to fulfill their mother's wish. I think this was also an expression of the particular feelings Japanese people have about taking care of their family's remains.
However, about half a century after our cemetery was established, it began to experience alterations that reflected the changes in the daily lives of the Japanese people.
One of these lifestyle changes involved the manner in which people now work and live. In former times, people seldom moved away from their hometowns, but now more and more do. Japanese people customarily visit their family graves at least once or twice a year, and so more people are moving their family graves from their ancestral hometowns to a cemetery closer to where they are living so they can more easily pay these visits.
Another change is the increase in nuclear families with fewer children, which in time can mean that nobody is left to take care of the graves, leading to an increase in abandoned graves. Also, more parents do not want to burden their children with the responsibility of caring for their graves after they are gone. These changes are contributing to the increasing popularity of "eternal memorial graves," in which memorial services are held at the same time for a large number of deceased persons whose remains are interred in a common grave. Though there are far fewer abandoned graves in Kosei Cemetery compared with many other cemeteries, we do feel the need for an eternal memorial grave facility and are currently planning to build one.
Interment varies from place to place. Sometimes the remains in a mortuary urn are placed in the burial chamber, but at Kosei Cemetery, the remains are interred without the urn, in accordance with Founder Niwano's belief that the remains should return to the soil. It is of course good to think about your loved ones, but your grief will not be assuaged as long as those thoughts continue to represent deep attachment. When the remains are allowed to return to the soil of the grave, it will become a place where the living will find strength, rather than pain and sorrow, from thoughts of the deceased.
I think that Buddhism is fundamentally a religion for the living. Thus, while Kosei Cemetery is a place of rest for the deceased, I think it should also be a place of healing for survivors to overcome their attachment and bereavement.
Norio Yoneda is the director of Kosei Cemetery in Tokyo.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.