The question arises whether . . . secularization processes lead to a convergence
in the understanding of death rituals as between Japan and western Europe.
The following reflections on recent trends in funeral practice are based on long-term observations and occasional personal participation in funerals in Japan, Germany, and England. Although vivid memories play a part, references to individuals are excluded out of respect for the dead and their families. Details mentioned are based on actual observations, but it has not been possible to pursue specialized additional research during the preparation of this article. Nevertheless, some of the lines of thought found here may contribute to the theoretical orientation of those who are able to undertake such research in the future.
Broadly speaking, the funeral culture of western Europe today is characterized by two significant trends. First, the role of civil institutions has been strengthened greatly at the wish of those who do not feel bound to the churches through personal faith. Consequently, a general weakening of the role of the churches in ritual culture has given rise to increasing variety in both wedding styles and funeral practices. Second, there has been a steady rise in the statistics of those who prefer cremation to the grave burial of the corpse in a coffin. This trend, particularly strong in northern Europe, has very definite implications for surrounding funeral practice, as will be seen. In Japan, cremation has of course been almost universal for a long time, but here the main trend to be noted is the weakening of the power of the traditional Buddhist temples over various arrangements, including cemetery provision. Instead, efficient funeral companies are dominating the scene, and so the question arises whether this is just a matter of practicalities and economics or whether it makes any difference in other respects. Since there are definite processes of secularization at work here, in the sense of the loss of power on the part of religious institutions, the question arises whether these secularization processes lead to a convergence in the understanding of death rituals as between Japan and western Europe, or whether there are underlying assumptions that continue to be influential and different. A tentative answer is that the latter is indeed so, but first some details should be considered.
Stereotypes in movies, light reading material, and so on usually continue to portray churches and church cemeteries as the locus of funerals. In northern Europe, however, city cemeteries have been in use for a long time. The cemetery in Frankfurt am Main in Germany is a good example. Here there is not only a crematorium and a place for viewing the bodies in their coffins before cremation but also a substantial "mourning hall" (Trauerhalle), which can be used for whatever kind of ritual may be preferred. This was built as part of the large entrance structure in 1909 to a design by two Berlin architects.1 The building is usually referred to as being neoclassical in conception, but it is also influenced inside by the well-liked Jugendstil architecture of the period and, in sum, provides an interesting alternative to church gothic or neogothic styles. The mourning hall is decorated with short wisdom sayings of mainly non-Christian origin, such as "Comfort to the mourners - peace to the dead - hope for the living" or "Grief is short but joy will last forever" or "I must be active as long as the day lasts," together with "A useless life is an early death." A single statement of Christian origin is "Blessed are those who sorrow, for they shall be comforted." However, specific references to Jesus or God are avoided. This is to avoid mounting any kind of challenge to freethinkers and to maintain a general culture of death that is thoughtful but definitely not necessarily Christian. Perhaps the clearest expression of this ambivalence, high over the main arch, is "The touching image of death suggests no fear to the wise and no ending to the faithful."
In the pastoral context of actual funerals, this secularized context is a matter of considerable significance because it enables willing participation by family relatives who reject Christian belief. In other cemetery chapels in Germany, however, which are supposed to be religiously neutral, it is not unusual to see the hall for commemorative services dominated by a large cross, even if there is no other church architecture or decoration. The impact of this in any particular case depends very much on the way in which a service is conducted, and in particular on the address given by a pastor or some other person. It is inevitable that resistance to what is presumed to be Christian belief surfaces at funerals because religious language about death, eternal life, resurrection, and so on is widely used. If a pastor chooses to assert the theme of a life in paradise or heaven after death, then nonreligious persons will experience a mental block of resistance. It is astonishing that pastors sometimes seem to be unaware of this and take no account whatever of the probable presence of nonbelievers among the assembled mourners. Observing this once at a funeral in southern Germany, I noticed from the expressions of some of those attending how the pious language of the rather thoughtless pastor caused his message to be rejected altogether.
Yet it is important to take account of nonbelievers, whether explicitly or not, in order to incorporate them into the process of mourning and remembrance. The existence of secular chapels provides a particularly helpful context in which this can be done, even if the deceased person and close family members are themselves Christian believers, whose sensitivities and understandings should also be respected. Moreover, it is perfectly possible to design a service and to speak in such a way that the messages are inclusive. The writer has experience of this from a case in which he was personally involved,2 although the matter was admittedly helped by the fact that the deceased herself had ambivalent conceptions of cultural and religious values, summed up for her in the German word Geist, meaning spirit. Her confirmation text (Konfirmationsspruch) had been Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 5, verse 25: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit," but of course the resonance of the word Spirit here is much more complex in German (as Geist), since it has been used by thinkers (such as Hegel) to mean "mind" in a manner that goes well beyond the discourse of Paul.
The increasing preference for cremation over grave burial has significant implications for choice of funeral style for two main reasons. First, the ashes are much more easily moved and can be preserved or disposed of in various ways or taken to other places. Second, there is no particular urgency after the immediate act of cremation when making arrangements for funeral rituals such as memorial services, and this enables greater participation. In some cases this can lead to confusion. What, after all, is a funeral? In two cases in which the writer was involved, there was a fundamental agreement that after cremation the ashes should be removed to a different place where there could be a memorial service followed by the final committal of the remains. In one case this was to be by burial, and in the other by scattering. This removal of the ashes, in an urn or a box, allows the place of the memorial to be selected and particular people to assemble whose role might be important. In both of the cases mentioned the deceased persons were of great age, had been cared for by others, and hence had died far from the hometowns where they had spent much of their lives and where their husbands had died many years before. It was therefore very meaningful to return them to this location. It was also easy to arrange by means of a few long-distance telephone calls. Yet it is interesting to note that the family members in closest proximity, who were present at the crematorium shortly before the burning of the body in its coffin, insisted on having a form of service at that point. Since this was not "the funeral" as such, most of those who were due to attend the second round were not even informed of it. But it took place in a simplified religious mode. In effect, therefore, there was a double funeral.
While cremation has led to great organizational flexibility, the legal rules for handling the ashes differ from country to country and are subject to change. For example, in Britain the ashes may be handed to next of kin in a wooden box that contains the ashes in a small plastic bag. They can then be preserved or disposed of in whatever manner seems to be appropriate. So it is quite possible to drive away with them by car and take them somewhere else for preservation or scattering. In Germany the ashes can currently be moved only by a professional funeral company, and it is expected that they will either be preserved in an urn in an authorized place such as a columbarium or interred like a coffin in a grave. The latter is relevant when there is a family grave with space available. As to "scattering," this means setting the ashes free so that they will be dispersed by the winds or, if at sea, by the waves. A place of significance for the departed person may be selected. Usually the scattering is not really informal but takes place under the supervision of funeral directors or crematorium officials. The ashes of many persons may be scattered in the grounds of a crematorium. Here they are not just shaken out of the bag, but the bag is placed in another container, which can be swung to and fro by a professional assistant, releasing the ashes a few at a time. The ashes can therefore form a pattern on the ground, for example in the form of a cross, but this will be dispersed before long by wind and rain.
The idea that the human body can be reduced to ashes has long been expressed in the traditional phrase "dust to dust and ashes to ashes," but there has been and still is some resistance to the concept of cremation among conservative Christians, who seem to associate burial in the ground with the prospect of future resurrection. For Europe, the traditional view is stronger in the Catholic south. This is a perspective shared by Muslims, who regularly insist on burial of the full corpse in the ground. Muslim graves typically have little or no decoration beyond a simple inscription. The ornate mausoleums of major sheikhs are an exception, but that is because they have become a center of devotions and attract pilgrims. Normally there are just two small protuberances indicating the position of feet and head, aligned in the direction of Mecca. Thus the dead await the resurrection. Though the number of Muslims in Japan is small, it is obvious that more space is needed for Muslim burials than can easily be found in urban situations. By contrast, cremation is linked to a more figurative understanding of resurrection, and indeed those who need guidance about the status of this kind of religious language could do worse than study the writings of Paul, who, though simplistic in some matters, was very clear that the spiritual body of the resurrection is not the same as the natural body, which is subject to decay and dissolution.
So is there an underlying concept of death and mourning that is nevertheless typical of the Western world? The divide between those who place their loved ones in the hands of God, figuratively speaking, in whatever way, and those who simply mourn their passing and their loss, can probably never be overcome. However, in whatever mode, they have gone before us, and we are left behind, to follow later. Seen from an East Asian point of view, what may seem remarkable is the absence of an interactive relationship with the deceased. That is, they are not regularly venerated as ancestors, and messages are not usually exchanged between them and the living. In this regard, East Asian funeral and burial culture is different from the European.
In Japan, as in western Europe, we have seen various stages of secularization, which have meant that the Buddhist temples no longer dominate death arrangements as they did from the Edo period (1603-1867) until recent times. Their role is significantly challenged by funeral businesses, which manage everything from the hospital to the cemetery, with the necessary formal meal for guests in between. Because of the lack of space in Buddhist temple cemeteries, new ones have appeared on compact land away from the urban centers as such, run by consortia that clearly declare, for commercial reasons, that they are nondenominational. Similar changes have been taking place in Singapore, where a huge cemetery was recently relocated in order to make way for a highway interchange. During this process it was fascinating to see the difference between the way in which Muslim graves and Chinese graves were handled. In the Muslim case, the remains were all most carefully excavated and systematically numbered, so that they could be relocated in a new home. The Chinese graves, on the other hand, were unproblematic, whether Buddhist, Christian, or other, for they already consisted of urns in columbaria that could be relocated with ease if necessary. There were no longer any of the impressive keyhole-shaped tombs set into the side of a hill or slight incline, formerly typical of Chinese burials.
But do all the changes, especially the weakening of the connection to Buddhism in Japan, really make much difference? It seems to this observer that they do not. The underlying concern in East Asian culture is the need to care for the deceased, who are in the process of becoming ancestors. They are thought to need appropriate kuyo, which means something like respectful care. They also need to be maintained as approachable persons who can be addressed, rather like divinities, in order to give a report on any major events or intentions. In Japan this is achieved in the immediate family context, most typically by use of the house altar. In Chinese society, ancestral halls are maintained, looking more or less like any other temples housing divinities, with dragons flying at the roof, but in which the ancestors of whole clans, such as the widespread Lin family, or sections of it, are honored. In Japan the dead are often somehow turned into divinities, kami in the Shinto sense. Very widely, also, the dead are revered as hotoke, or buddhas, that being a state to which it is assumed they would probably aspire. The underlying point is that these are all beings who can be addressed in mutual relationship. This fundamental understanding, much stronger than anything similar in the Western world, seems to remain completely unaffected by secularization or by competition among funeral service providers.
1. Heinrich Reinhardt and Georg Sü?enguth. Since the mourning hall was renovated in 2006, it is not certain that all the details mentioned here are original, but they are believed to be so.
2. The situation arose at the Frankfurt cemetery mentioned above because an external chaplain withdrew at the last minute. The city mourning hall itself has no chaplaincy staff, and it is up to the family to arrange whatever they consider appropriate. Although there is an organ and suitable seating, services do not have to be led by priests or pastors.
Gerhart, Karen M. The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009.
Michael Pye was professor of religious studies at the University of Marburg, Germany, from 1982 to 2004, where he is now professor emeritus. He is currently a research associate at the Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute at Otani University in Kyoto. From 1995 to 2000, Dr. Pye served as president of the International Association for the History of Religions. His books include Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism and Beyond Meditation: Expressions of Japanese Shin Buddhist Spirituality.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.