“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” Hebrews 9:27
As I joined the immediate family in the crematorium, I was rather surprised when chopsticks were solemnly distributed to everyone present. “We’ve just eaten,” I thought to myself. “What are these for?” My question was soon answered as the partially cremated remains of the deceased were wheeled into the room and we proceeded to carefully place the bones, from the feet up, into the provided urn. I stole an irked glance at my more experienced senior coworker who had inexplicably neglected to communicate this unusual detail in Japanese funeral procedures.
Japanese funerals are, from beginning to end, quite different from the traditional funeral practices of the West. The differences are partially due to the Buddhist emphasis which views death as merely a passage from one life to the next, but that does not account for all the peculiarities of Japanese funeral procedures. For example, the deceased receives a new Buddhist name (called a kaimyō) in Chinese characters, with the length of the name determined by the amount of money donated to the temple. All participants at the ceremony are expected to wear black and bring a gift of money in a special envelope. In many funerals, the attendees will be expected to offer incense to the dead and make prayers on his or her behalf to assist them in their journey. The casket is surrounded by flowers, traditionally chrysanthemums, with a large picture of the deceased loved one prominently displayed. When the ceremony is over and the priest has finished the chants from a Buddhist sutra, each participant will then place a flower in the casket before it is closed. Only the immediate family and a few close friends will accompany the body to the crematorium, usually riding together on a chartered bus.
Instead of the American practice of embalming, the corpse is placed on dry ice and minimal makeup is applied to restore a natural appearance. The body is dressed in formal attire and placed in a simple wooden casket since it too will be incinerated. In some cases, a few favorite items of the deceased will be placed in the casket to accompany the deceased on their final journey.
Japanese funerals are actually comprised of many different ceremonies, beginning with a wake, known as an otsuya, or “passing of the night,” followed by the main funeral and then a final service at the crematorium. The funeral urn is then taken home and eventually placed in the family grave or some other alternative. Depending on local customs and the desires of the family, smaller ceremonies are subsequently conducted by priests on the 7th, 49th and 100th days commemorating the deceased’s death. Escalating costs of funerals coupled with shrinking families and a rapidly aging population are creating significant changes in the funeral industry, altering some of these traditional practices.
While ceremonies related to death vary from culture to culture, every funeral serves as a stark reminder of our finiteness in light of eternity. We should certainly mourn the loss of a loved one, but such events also provide a valuable opportunity to reflect on our own status before a Holy God who holds our destiny, both in this present life and the one to come, in the palm of His hand. In the West, we are embedded in a culture that worships at the altars of youth, beauty and strength, but all of these things will eventually fade, no matter how much we strive to deny it. This is why the author of Ecclesiastes wisely said: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” (7:2) While all of us would certainly prefer to dwell in the house of feasting, it is in the house of mourning that we are more prone to ponder on the deeper things of God, including His defeat of death through the power of the cross.