Japanese Funerals: A Traditional Perspective

  • When I lost one of my foreign friends, I was surprised because her funeral was organised two weeks after her passing. We don’t wait that long in Japan.

    Today I would like to give a brief introduction to Japanese funerals. However, please bear in mind that some areas have their own unique style and culture so what I will introduce does not encapsulate everything.

    Tsuya – 通夜

    Tsuya is organized one day before funerals at the dead person’s house or a ceremonial location, usually one to three days after the person’s passing. All of the deceased person’s family and close friends gather at the family home the night before the funeral. During Tsuya, the deceased lays on a futon mat and the face is covered with a white cloth. Family and friends gather around the body and chat about the deceased.

    The word Tsuya means, ‘through the night – people used to pray all day and all night, keeping incense sticks burning all the while. Nowadays, it is organized for just a few hours in the evening.

    Funeral/ Soshiki – 葬式

    On the day following Tsuya, the funeral takes place at a ceremonial location commonly used nowadays. It used to take place at the deceased’s home. The monks read prayers for the deceased so that they can go to heaven. To attend funerals, people wear black clothes from head to toe, with Buddhist beads in hand. Moreover, you cannot forget about Koden, which is money guests give to the family in respect. Usually the money is given in a special and specific envelope and offered to the family at the entrance to the funeral. After the ceremony, the body is transferred to a crematorium and burned. Then the family collect the fragments of charred bones into a small box using chopsticks.

    Okuribito – おくりびと/ “Departures”

    The film Okuribito would be an excellent source of information for anyone interested in Japanese culture in relation to death. The movie is not at all sad or depressing, it has a comical edge to it, which I’m sure can be enjoyed by everyone.

    The word “Okuribito” means ‘leave-taker’. It is actually the profession of preparing the deceased for funerals. There are less and less opportunities to see these kind of professionals at work nowadays because the processes involved are becoming much easier and simpler to perform with the advances of technology. So, for an insight into this traditional Japanese occupation, I really recommend watching the movie. Every culture deals with death differently; find out how our respective cultures differ and compare.