Because death and funerals can be explained in many ways,
there can be confusion and worry over how to conduct funerals,
complicating the dealings between relatives and the temple.
In recent years, the approach to funerals in Japan has become diversified. There is a shift away from traditional funeral services toward simpler forms, such as natural funerals (to return cremated ashes to nature), family funerals (only family members are invited), and direct funerals (cremation immediately after death, with no rituals). The background of this situation can be found in the long-lasting economic recession, the trend toward nuclear families because of movement of the population to cities, and the resulting limited contact among members of the extended family and with neighbors - a condition that has given birth to the term muen shakai (the unconnected society). I must also include in this list a lack of effort by the temples and Buddhist clergy. For most Japanese, funerals have been conducted according to traditional rites based on the relationship between the bereaved families and the local temples of which they were parishioners.
In urban regions, where it is difficult to preserve such traditions, there is a disadvantage to being able to freely choose a service complying with the wishes of the deceased and his or her survivors. Because death and funerals can be explained in many ways, there can be confusion and worry over how to conduct funerals, complicating the dealings between relatives and the temple.
Service Economy Funerals Questioned
Without regular association with a shrine or temple, there is no way for people to know the meaning of religious ceremonies, nor is there a feeling of the need to know. Without such regular involvement, it is only natural that more people would choose a style of funeral that does not call for a priest. Today, with the increasing number of people who have had no involvement with a religious institution, this trend is usually first apparent in wedding ceremonies. No priests are summoned, and no go-betweens are present. The ceremony is often conducted with just close friends as witnesses, in addition to the family.
On the other hand, there are some people who would like to call a priest to preside over a funeral, but they do not know where to ask. I have heard some say they have no idea how to get a Buddhist posthumous name or remunerate priests who preside over a funeral.
In response to these needs of the people of today, in May 2010 the major national retail corporation Aeon Company began sales of funeral services at uniform prices throughout Japan. Aeon has imposed its own quality standards on funeral services and offers the convenience of charging the funeral costs to a credit card. All costs necessary for funeral services are itemized transparently by category, such as fees to funeral directors for setting up and decorating an altar, the cost of hospitality for the attendees, and religious expenses paid to Buddhist priests for such things as chanting Buddhist sutras or giving a Buddhist posthumous name. These fees are quoted at what are described as "assured national uniform prices," and funerals are sold the same as any other products handled by Aeon's giant shopping centers.
Reacting to this, the Japan Buddhist Federation has questioned the pricing for "services" of such things as offerings, sutra chanting, and bestowing a Buddhist posthumous name. Donations, which are the first of the Six Perfections practiced by a bodhisattva, are particularly important. The compassionate donation of money is the same as other kinds of donations in the proper religious sense. It is not possible to put a price on such services, as if they were commercial transactions, treated mechanically with "national uniform prices."
Aeon's pricing of funerals is perhaps appropriate for the larger cities, but in reality it is high for rural areas. It may surprise some people that urban funerals are so expensive. In the same way that hourly wages for part-time work differ between rural areas and cities, the cost of a temple funeral varies according to the economic environment. In addition, one must also take into account the existing relationships between the temples and their parishioners. The economic foundation of most temples in Japan is donations from parishioners. The amounts of donations to a temple will vary, even for identical funeral services bestowing the same level of a Buddhist posthumous name. The amounts depend on such things as the existing relationship with the parishioner as well as the background and characteristics of the particular region.
Against this backdrop, in the end Aeon agreed to refrain from displaying in brochures and on the Internet the amounts of donations to temples. Aeon consented to mention them instead only in telephone consultations, courteously taking into account its clients' situations.
As far as we priests are concerned, what Aeon is offering is an opportunity for the temples to rethink how they have gone about things until now. As secularization and individualism are advancing, we must certainly reflect on the fact that the Buddhist clergy have not taken a proactive stance with respect to the weakened contact that their neighboring residents have had with religion.
Role of Temples in Funeral Changes
We can say that the fundamental function of the Buddhist funeral service today is the ceremonial posthumous ordination of the deceased into the Buddhist priesthood. This is a very important rite that allows the deceased to continue his or her religious practice and attain enlightenment even after the person has departed this world. Also, in the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, the funeral is the rite that guarantees (or acknowledges) passage into the Pure Land. That is because so few people enter the priesthood during their lifetime. In most situations it is the deceased who are ordained, and the funeral rite of today provides the necessary ceremony for this.
On the other hand, more funerals have become considered farewell gatherings. Through the rites of funerals and farewell ceremonies for which a priest is invited from the temple to chant a sutra, the bereaved extended family can mark the departure of the deceased. But at many funerals the family is so worried about neglecting other mourners not belonging to the family, who come to offer incense, that the family neglects to take proper leave of the deceased. Or if the deceased withdrew from society long before death, giving up ordinary personal relationships, the trend is for the bereaved to wish only to bid farewell to the deceased, and thus they choose a funeral that involves just one family or an individual. The increase in private funerals reflects social change, as people lose connection with their relatives and local communities.
Furthermore, there are cases where the wake and funeral ceremony are omitted, and a priest comes directly to the crematorium to chant sutras. Even this is not done at a direct funeral, when people gather only at the crematorium, and only cremation takes place.
There are many reasons for choosing any one way of sending off the deceased. For example, there are cases of parents dying in a nursing home without being visited by their children in their last years. The deceased's economic circumstances and past relationship with the family would determine the type of funeral.
Lessons Learned from March Disaster
The great earthquake centered in northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, and the tsunami that followed left more than twenty thousand people dead or unaccounted for. I participated in the Japan Buddhist Federation's relief efforts after the earthquake, and what struck me most about that experience was the strong and close relationship that remained between the people and the temples in the disaster area. Family memorial tablets were the first things that many people searched for after their furniture and household goods were swept away in the tsunami. This was due to the regular close connections between these people and their local temples, and to the depth of faith within their hearts.
After the disaster, a number of priests from Tokyo and other prefectures rushed to the stricken area with the idea of at least offering the chanting of sutras for those who had lost their lives there. When the priests arrived, however, they found that the temples there were all helping each other, regardless of sect, and in turn the local population and the temples were also helping each other. This cooperation resulted in the sutras' already being chanted at memorial services. The people in the disaster area have long had daily, very close contact with their temples. Rather than having sutras chanted by clergy they didn't know, they asked that the memorial services be performed by clergy they knew from the local area. Apparently they did not want just anyone sending off their dead, but rather it was important to them that the priests be those whom they already knew and saw often, priests who could acknowledge and share their suffering, saying things like "I know, I know, it's a terrible thing!" in the local dialect.
Realizing this, the Japan Buddhist Federation devoted its efforts to providing logistical support to the temples and clergy of the disaster area. It can certainly be said that the functions that the temples performed under such critical conditions were very important. Temples everywhere will certainly need to have a close, long-term connection with the local populace from now on.
While the great disaster in March left more than twenty thousand people dead or unaccounted for, many more lost their homes. Most of us today share the feelings of sorrow, distress, and difficulty experienced by the people in the stricken area. But to those of us who are not from the disaster area, death is an unusual event. As we go back to our regular lives, we start to forget those feelings. When that happens we may feel somehow dissatisfied with our ordinary lives and feel self-centered. Buddhism teaches that all our lives are subject to the processes of birth, aging, sickness, and death. Most of us live long enough to experience old age and sickness. Death is not only in the last stage of life, however. It starts when we become chronically ill. A fatal disease strikes, and we have to withdraw from society. Our social death starts at that point.
To think about how to face death is also to think about how to live life. One doesn't suddenly come to grips with the problem of death; we must prepare for it by routinely facing its inevitability.
If before your death you have routinely discussed with your family what sort of funeral you want and where you want to be buried, then the ones who are left behind are not thrown into confusion just before your death. As to the question of the kind of offering to the temple, you should either visit the temple to discuss it while you are still in good health or consult someone from your area. When you decide on the arrangements you want, you can inform your relatives.
The role that Buddhism can have, even in the advancing "unconnected society," is to encourage families to come to the temples regularly. The priests can reach out and give counsel in times of difficulty. It is important for the temples to be deeply involved in their local communities and to build a relationship of mutual trust with the local populace.
The priests should take part in the process of dying as much as possible, as well as in its aftermath, and share the sorrows and tears of bereaved family members. I hope that every priest will become the only kind of person bereaved families will want to preside at funerals.
Yoshiharu Tomatsu is head priest of the Jodo Shu (Pure Land) sect temple Shinko'in in Tokyo and is a senior research fellow at the Jodo Shu Research Institute. Since 2010 he has been secretary-general of the Japan Buddhist Federation and secretary-general of the Japanese Association of Religious Organizations. He is a lecturer in religious studies at Taisho University and teaches at the Keio University School of Medicine, both in Tokyo.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.