Japanese Funeral Ceremonies

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The day after the wake (otsuya) is the funeral ceremony (soushiki). This takes place at the funeral parlor where the family of the deceased and the other mourners assemble for a funeral service lead by the same priest who had officiated at the wake the night before.

Funeral altar and coffin

We gathered at 8.30am and the procedure started an hour later at 9.30am. Similar to the previous evening's wake, the priest lead the rhythmic prayers for the deceased using a mokugyo gong and metal bowl-shaped rin gong.

The one man band of the priest using voice and his two gongs produces pleasant and soulful music and the young children in the audience, who were too young to really know the significance of the events, were soon tapping their feet to the Buddhist beat. Anxious mothers and older siblings attempted to control the youngsters' exuberance.

Again, as at the wake, the mourners in turn offer bows, hands clasped in prayer (gasho) and incense to the deceased.

The coffin is now wheeled into the center of the room and the lid raised. Flowers, photographs of relatives and the fruit and vegetables from the altar are now placed in the coffin around the body. People touch the body and weep over the corpse, the deceased's favorite drink, coffee was placed on her lips one last time. This was a very emotional and moving moment. A heartfelt "goodbye."

The coffin is now wheeled outside and placed in a waiting hearse which contains the priest, the chief mourners and leads the cortege of other mourners in their cars to Yagato Crematorium.

Yagoto Crematorium Nagoya

Once at the crematorium we followed the priest to oven number 5 where he said a short prayer and the crematorium workers placed the coffin in the oven, like a torpedo into its tube, doffed their caps and pressed the "on"  switch.

The mourners are then lead into a separate waiting room with drinks and snacks on offer at a small stall. After a wait of around one hour the mourners return to see the cremated body. Twenty years ago at the same crematorium we were allowed to pick at the ashes (ikotsu) direct from the red hot oven tray - obviously a dangerous procedure with young children about.

Now, the crematorium workers sort the major bone parts themselves with chopstocks and take them to one side. Metal objects being placed in the coffin are also now proscribed.

At the side of the room, mourners in pairs each holding a piece of bone transfer it to an urn. Everyone takes turns in pairs until the urn is full and placed in a wooden box covered with a cloth.

The mourners then return home in a different direction to that they have arrived in - a superstition to throw off the deceased's spirit from attempting to return home and haunting the family. On arrival back at the funeral parlor, purifying salt is thrown on the mourners, in another superstitious rite, to cleanse the lingering aura of death.

Purifying salt packets

Nowadays to save time for busy people, the shonanoka (初七日) ceremony (lit. "first seven days") which was once performed seven days after the funeral, is now done by the priest on everyone's return to the funeral parlor. The deceased is given a new name after death and prayers are said for the repose of her soul.

The ashes of the deceased are usually divided after collection and kept in a household shrine (butsudan) at the family home and at a grave in the cemetery, if the family can afford the very large expense involved.

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