How Funerals Are Conducted In Japan

Every culture in the world has specific rituals and ceremonies around the greatest mystery of life: death. In Japan, the typical funeral, also called sōgi (葬儀) or sōshiki (葬式), includes initial body preparations, a wake, funeral, cremation, and burial. While there are many other things that take place, that’s the basic order of events. 

These services generally will be either Buddhist or Shintō in nature, but usually, it’s a combination of the two.

This is because of how the Japanese hold both these religions in high regard and have so for many centuries. But, the Buddhist style does seem to dominate.

The Basic Japanese Funeral

The average price of a funeral in Japan costs around 2.3 million yen (or $20,010.00 USD), making this one of the priciest in the world. The rituals involved and plot scarcity play into this high price tag.

This is also the reason why people opt for a Buddhist type of funeral, it’s a little more cost-effective.

Upon the Moment of Death

Either in the days leading up to or right upon the moment of death, the eldest son begins making funeral arrangements. This is due in part to the Japanese belief in specific days being favorable for funerals.

For example, the days known as tomobiki (友引), or “friend pulling,” are ideal for weddings but not funerals. So, they ensure they make the proper day designation as to not commit a faux pas.

The lips of the deceased moisten with water in a ceremony known as “Water of the Last Moment,” known as matsugo-no-mizu (末期の水). 

The family then closes down the household shrine and covers it with a white sheet or piece of paper, called Kamidana-fuji (神棚封じ). This is to keep impure spirits at bay and prevent them from entering the physical world.

Then, the family will prepare a table next to the bed of the deceased with flowers, a candle, and some incense.

Sometimes, they will place a knife on the chest of the dead to drive away any potential evil. Next, they contact extended relatives along with the proper authorities to issue a death certificate.

Preparing the Body

The funerary rites continue with washing the body and blocking all orifices with gauze or cotton. Then they dress the body in clothing. Males wear a suit and females adorn a kimono; both in pure white.

They also wear sandals and have with them burnable items they loved in life like candy or cigarettes. Also, six coins go into the casket when they approach the “River of Three Crossings.” Sometimes they will use makeup on the face of the deceased to improve its appearance if needed.

Then they put the body on dry ice in the casket as it rests on an altar for the wake. Orientation is important as well. The head always sits toward the north or west. The west is particularly Buddhist since it represents the realm of Amida Buddha.

Conducting the Wake

In Japanese, wakes are tsuya (通夜) which translates to “passing the night.” The next of kin sit closest to the casket while everyone else sits further back depending on their closeness to the deceased in life.

The Buddhist priest or monk chants a sutra and the family offers incense into the urn placed near the deceased. Other guests do the same further back in the room.

When the priest finishes the sutra, the wake ends. Sometimes departing guests receive gifts while other relatives stay behind and keep vigil overnight in the same room with the deceased.

The Funeral Ceremony

The actual funeral, called kokubetsu-shiki (告別式), occurs on the day following the wake. The procedure of rituals and incense repeats but the priest iterates a different sutra.

The priest then gives the deceased a new Buddhist name after consulting with the family, called kaimyō (戒名).

The Japanese believe this new name prevents the deceased from returning should someone call their name later on when speaking about them.

These names are often from archaic kanji words or obsolete names. This reduces the likelihood of someone using it in daily conversations.

The prestige and length of the name are also important. This will depend on the person’s lifespan, the size of the family’s donation to the temple, and the status the deceased held in life.

This new name will accompany the dead and they’ll train with it for 49 days after the funeral to become one of Buddha’s disciples.

Funeral Guests and Etiquette

Wake and funeral attendees always wear a special shade of pitch-black formal clothing. Men wear a black tie, suit, and shoes while women wear a black dress or kimono and shoes. If the deceased was a devout Buddhist, the guests carry juzu (数珠), or prayer beads.

Guests also bring condolence money and this amount will depend on the wealth of the giver and their relationship with the deceased. 3,000 and 30,000 yen (about $26 to $260 USD) are the average range.

These come in a special black and silver envelopes they call “packet for anti-celebration,” or bushūgibukuro (不祝儀袋). They will also offer incense packets called kōdenbukuro (香典袋).

There’s a superstition with the amount of money a guest gives and that’s with the number four. This is because four sounds similar to the word for “death” and the Japanese believe this brings bad luck.

From the Funeral to the Crematorium

To finish the funeral, family and guests place flowers in the casket, specifically around the head and shoulders.

The casket then seals shut. In some areas of Japan, mourners use a stone to nail it closed. This then goes into an elaborately decorated hearse with a miniature temple, which then transports to a crematorium.

Almost all funerals in Japan will involve cremation. At the crematorium, the casket goes onto a special sliding tray to which the family is a witness.

From the Crematorium to the Urn

They return to the crematorium at the properly appointed time to pick bones from the ashes and transfer them into a funeral urn or box. They do this with a special pair of chopsticks.

The traditional material is one willow and another oak, to indicate the veil between the worlds. But sometimes they can be metal.

There are instances where two people will hold the same pair of chopsticks at the same time or pass bones between chopsticks before going into the urn, called kotsuage (骨揚げ).

They begin working at the feet and finish with the head. This ensures the deceased rest in a standing-like position in the urn. The hyoid bone, located at the neck, is the most significant to go into the urn.

Funeral Ash Urns Or Boxes

Conduct with the Urn

Sometimes, the ashes divide into two urns. One goes to the family grave, known as haka (墓), and the other goes to a temple, company grave, or outer space burial.

Mourners then bury, toss or scatter ashes within the family plot. But, sometimes they will scatter ashes at sea, near favorite trees, or special locations predetermined by the deceased.

Depending on the customs of a region within Japan, sometimes the urn rests at the family home before going to the graveyard. 

Proper Etiquette At Japanese Funerals

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.