Cemeteries in Japan: How do the Japanese Honor Their Ancestors?

  • Have you ever wondered what happens in Japan when people visit a cemetery? Every country in the world has different customs surrounding death and the honouring of ancestors, so it is no wonder that Japan also has its own rituals and customs when visiting the graves of relatives and other loved ones.

    Going to the cemetery to visit graves is called Ohaka Mairi (literally grave visit) in Japan. The grave itself is a sacred place where the ashes of long lines of ancestors and descendants are being placed. Foreign tourists and some foreign residents will mostly not be able to see what happens in a Japanese cemetery while some have probably not ever set foot at one at all.

    What is it that Japanese people do when they go to a Japanese cemetery?

    Cleaning of the Grave (Osoji)

    The relatives that visit the cemetery are the ones who typically clean the grave. They bring with them a bucket and a dipper, and pour water in order to wash the body of the family gravestone as shown in the picture above. They also bring gardening tools to tend to weeds and dispose of grasses that have grown on and next to the grave. If they are not brought from home, a bucket and dipper can usually be borrowed from the flower shops just outside the cemetery, and are returned after use.

    Incense and Flowers (Osenko and Ohana)

    Both incense and flowers are used as an offertory. Incense has been an important part of Japanese culture and is being used in a variety of settings, including this one. There is a special stand for both the incense and flowers on the front of every gravestone. The family puts the flowers inside and then places the lighted bundle of incense in its stand. They could either bring both flowers and incense, or buy them from the flower shops. In some instances, the family also brings food to offer. In that case they also bring it back home afterwards in order to prevent crows from gathering at the graveyard.

    Prayer (Oinori)

    When the family is done with cleaning and offering, they now offer their prayers. All members of the family put both hands together and pray to their ancestors and say their thanks to them as well. Some families also bring an Ojuzu (Buddhist prayer beads) with them, which they wrap around their hands while they pray.


    Author’s photo

    Besides serving as a quiet place to remember your loved ones who have passed away, because they are often lined with beautiful (cherry) trees Japanese cemeteries also often have marvelous sights all year round as the trees change with the seasons. If you ever get the chance to visit one, no matter what season it is, you will surely be impressed with their beauty.

    Related Articles:
    Japanese Funerals: A Traditional Perspective
    O–Bon: The Festival of Honouring Ancestors’ Spirits