Home > Focus on Japan, Focus on Japan 2011 > A Japanese Funeral

A Japanese Funeral

June 29th, 2011

Last week, my wife’s father, Junzo, passed away after a long illness. We got the call late Thursday, and so headed up to Nagano on the weekend. We decided to rent a car, as there would be driving around to do, and family members would not likely be available often to cart us around. We drove up Saturday morning, hoping to get there by 1:00 pm so Sachi could spend time preparing for what her role would be. However, as soon as we got on the expressway, we discovered that the last three segments of the road to Saku, Sachi’s hometown, were jammed to a standstill because of at least one accident in the tunnels which make up most of the way at that section of the expressway.

As a result, we got off the expressway early, at an interchange called Shimo-Nita (known for its konnyaku and negi), and took the local roads through the mountains and into the Saku valley. We wound up not losing much time after all, arriving at just past 1:30. We even decided to take this way next time as it is somewhat more pleasant.

For funerals and the time leading up to them, everyone dresses according to custom–all in black. Women wear simple black dresses (or, for the ceremony later, black kimono), with basic pearl strands; girls of high school age or younger wear their school uniforms, as Junzo’s youngest granddaughter did. Men wear black suits with white shirts and plain black ties. At the entrance of the home, two large white lanterns are hung on either side; by coincidence, we noted another house just a short way down the street also had these lanterns, indicating that they too had lost someone.

By this time, Junzo’s body was laid out in Sachi’s brother’s living room. (The eldest son is usually the one to take on family responsibilities, and is supposed to stay with the body until it is cremated.) Dressed in a plain kimono, Junzo was laid out on a futon, covered with a white blanket with iridescent white patterning, with a white handkerchief covering his face. A knife in a purple cloth scabbard rested on his chest. Squarish pillows were on either side of his head to keep it straight. As is usual in Japan, the body was not embalmed; the body is preserved with dry ice, though one never sees it or the mist one might expect. To one side, there was a large photo of Junzo in health, with white and black bunting.

Visitors would come to a floor pillow next to the body and pray for a moment. Behind Junzo’s head was a small table with food offerings (including the traditional bowl full of rice with the chopsticks standing straight up), a candle, and a pot of incense. The visitor would take a stick of incense, light it with the candle, and then place the incense stick in the pot. Each visitor could, if they chose, remove the handkerchief and see his face.

The body stayed there throughout that day and into the next, while the family held meals and went about other activities. Family members, neighbors, friends and others would come to pay respects. I found it a little odd at times to be, for example, eating dinner, with everyone chatting away, and–oh yeah, there’s Junzo’s body on the other side of the room.

That evening, a vigil (otsuya) was held. A Buddhist priest came, and with most family members in attendance, sitting behind him, he knelt before the body and chanted–what Sachi referred to as “Namu namu namu,” denoting the specialized speech used, called o-kyou, which many Japanese themselves mostly cannot understand. As this was taking place, a special incense box was passed around; it contained a burning coal and a side tray of incense crumbs; you were to take a pinch of incense, hold it to your forehead, and then drop it on the coals. This is called o-shoukou. After he finished, everyone visited the body again, praying and burning more incense.

Afterwards, we had dinner, with the priest staying to join us. There were no special ceremonies, we just ate and talked. Afterwards, Sachi and I returned to our inn (ryoukan), and slept.

We woke up the next day, and everyone arrived for moving the body to the casket. A man who I figured was the coordinator for the funeral brought a straight (rectangular), narrow wooden casket lined with white silk; it was placed on the floor, sitting on small footstools, beyond Junzo’s now uncovered body. The coordinator waited for everyone to get arranged, and to tie rice-reed ropes (not too dissimilar to what is used at Shinto shrines) around their waists, the stiff strands pointing up and down to indicated heaven and earth.

Then the coordinator brought out a green and purple silk kimono (colors chosen due to Junzo’s preferences), and proceeded to dress Junzo in it. He then placed white cloth coverings over Junzo’s hands and ankles, and slippers on his feet, leaving at least eight cloth strings for family members to then come forward and tie closed. Male family members, myself included, were then asked to come forward and take part of the edge of the top two sheets Junzo rested upon, lift the body up, and place it in the casket. This whole step is called the noukan. The coordinator then covered the body with the blanket used previously, made sure everything was in place, and asked family members to add straw zori sandals and a walking stick to the casket. A box of flowers and petals was then unwrapped, and we were called upon to place these around Junzo’s head until it seemed to float in a pool of color.

The casket was then covered; the top was not on hinges, but was a separate piece, rounded, with small hinged doors above the head. The coordinator hammered four nails almost all the way in at each corner; two rectangular green stones were then given to family members, each of whom used their left hand to tap one of the nails twice. After this, the eldest son was asked to finish hammering in the nails. A white netting was fitted around the casket, and a silk covering around that, both with openings for the doors above Junzo’s head.

JhearseAt this point, male family members were asked to help move the casket to the hearse. The one used for this funeral was western in style, though often a Japanese hearse will have an ornate golden top (see Wikipedia image at right); I saw one as we returned from the crematorium. We all then removed the rope belts and got into cars for the procession. Family members carried items such as the oversized photo with us. When we were ready, the hearse let out a loud, long blow of its horn (not a standard car horn), and took off for the crematorium, all of us following.

The crematorium was in the hills not too far to the south. A beautiful place, I hope to go back there some day to do birdwatching. We collected in a room with two doors leading to ovens, where a metal cart on hydraulics (still radiating heat from the previous cremation) sat waiting. On the other side of the room, Junzo’s photo was placed, and again, incense was lit by all. We were asked to carry in the casket and place it on the cart. The doors above Junzo’s head were opened, so everyone could pay final respects. The casket’s coverings were removed, and the cart was moved into the cremation furnace. The doors were closed and the furnace lit.

The family was then told to wait in one of the buildings nearby, equipped with kitchens and toilets, but mostly common tatami rooms with low tables to sit around. It would be an hour and a half before things would be ready, we were told. We ate snacks and drank juice (saké for those not driving and who wished it), and some of us took walks. I almost wished I had brought my camera with the zoom lens–I know there were some birds I had never seen before.

After the time was up, we were called back in. The cart had already been pulled out, and most of the matter was gone–but a fair number of bone fragments remained, including ribs, vertebrae, recognizable ends of femurs and other parts. They were burned dry, light, and brittle, fragmented but some as much as six inches long. As the family stood and watched, an attendant used a large metal dustpan to collect the bone fragments with a brush, leaving behind remains of the casket. He deposited what he found on a larger metal tray, with the bones from the head in a special part of the tray.

The tray was moved to a part of the room near the shrine with Junzo’s picture, and several sets of rough, oversized bamboo ‘chopsticks’ were handed out. Each family member was called upon to use these to place pieces of bone (not pieces from the head) into a plain white urn. At first, primary family members were asked to do so left-handed; then we came in pairs, using our right hands, two people working together to move individual pieces into the urn. Then primary family members worked to move most of the remaining pieces in, including the dust, which was sifted out by the attendant. This left the pieces of bone from Junzo’s head, which were saved for last–you don’t want them to be in the urn the wrong way up.

The attendant used a stick to compact the bones already in the urn (making slightly uncomfortable crunching sounds), and then the bone fragments from the skull and jaw were added, and the urn closed. The urn was placed in a decorated box. Sachi’s brother was outfitted with a sling which wrapped around his neck, in which the box with the urn was fitted. It was at this point that I teared up more than any other–not just remembering Junzo, but realizing that, if Sachi gets her wish and passes before I do, then I would be doing this for her someday.

Sachi’s brother then walked to the head car with his mother and his wife, as we took the photograph and other mementos with us in the motorcade back home. The urn was placed in the living room where the body had been kept, and we had a light lunch.

Afterwards, we all got in cars again and went to a temple for the actual funeral ceremony. We arrived at the temple and waited for everything to be arranged. Junzo’s remains, along with his photo, were placed upon a dais with other accoutrements, and eventually, we all sat arrayed to one side on strips of thick, bright-red felt carpet while visitors were received. Up until this point, it was a purely family affair. But now, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and other people related to Junzo and/or the family came to pay respects. Each of them made an offering of incense, of the type in the box with the burning coal.

After they had all left, chairs made for tatami rooms were brought out, and we sat through the formal ceremony. The chief priest came out, with his assistant–the same one who had visited the house the night before–sitting on the side at a low desk with metal bowls and a drum along with other devices. The chief priest sat on a low chair atop a floor cushion before the altar with Junzo’s remains, and began chanting. He did so alone at first, but eventually was echoed by or chanted in unison with his assistant. The assistant also made use of the instruments–sometimes the drum, sometimes banging one of two metal pots for a bell sound (one low, the other high), and a hand-held bell on a handle which he would tap slowly and then quickly in three sets of ringing.


As the chanting went on, at two different points we were asked by the coordinator to stand, and come forth in line to offer the coal-top incense behind the main priest. Finally, after about a half hour, the chanting ended, as did the ceremony.

After this, we moved to a dining room with an altar and two rows of low tables. All the meals, previously prepared, lay under white sheets with names written on paper strips atop them. They mixed up my given and family names, so that Sachi’s name was given as “Luis Sachiko.” All but the primary family members were given gift bags, similar to a wedding; the bags, I discovered later, held a small bottle of saké, a rice dish, bean-paste snacks, and a set of towels, along with a card with a small package of tea.

The meals were quite elaborate–grilled fish, meat pâté, sushi and sashimi, tempura, various soups and egg pudding, fruits and so on–maybe as many as two dozen small dishes, common in style but much better quality than fancy inn-style dinners in Japan. There were a few speeches, including one by the head priest, and we all sat down to eat.

After this, I had to get back to Tokyo to catch up on long-delayed work, but after I left, the family took the remains up to the family grave site and placed his remains with all that had gone before him. Before I came home, Sachi called and made sure that, upon entering, I would take a pinch of salt from one of the bowls she had prepared on either side of the door, and throw some on each shoulder and then the top of my head before brushing it off–what you must do before returning to any home after you have attended a funeral.

Thankfully, these two days happened to give a break in the oppressive summer heat; no rain fell during the day, and it was sometimes cloudy, but otherwise relatively cool.

It was quite an experience, and more than most non-Japanese experience unless they are members of Japanese families. While some parts of it were strange to a westerner (like having the body laid out in the living room, or picking out bones of a person I not only knew but to whose body I had shortly before said goodbye), I thought that it was a fairly good way of doing things. In the west, we tend to distance ourselves from death too much, and so fear it perhaps disproportionately. In Japan, from a young age, people are not shielded from this; proximity and contact with the body and its remains seems a sensible thing to expose young people to–though that might just be me.

Categories: Focus on Japan, Focus on Japan 2011 Tags: by
  1. Troy
    June 29th, 2011 at 12:39 | #1

    I really appreciate the detail you presented here in your time of loss.

    Thanks. Having lived in Japan mostly in my 20s, I’m still a cultural moron wrt adult-stuff. I’d heard of the general pattern of events but hearing from you was highly educational.

    fwiw, my favorite Japan site guy has a two-part photo series on Shimonita:


    should you have the time or inclination to visit . . .

    Looking at the map earlier this week I did notice Shimonita was another way to get from Kanto to Saku, it is the first mountain town at the very edge of Kanto, while Saku is like the very edge of Nagano, almost adjacent to Kanto, but for a dividing range or two.

  2. Dan Hartley
    June 29th, 2011 at 15:58 | #2

    “oyatsu”? I hope not! It’s “otsuya” (お通夜) (literally “throughout the night”).


  3. matthew
    June 30th, 2011 at 21:16 | #3

    So sorry for you loss. Thank you for writing up the detailed post. Very interesting. I must admit I am a bit confused. I have attended several funerals and two of close family members where I participated in much of what you describe. However, am I wrong in reading that the body stayed only at the home and from there directly to the crematorium? In my experiences there was an actual funeral service in a funeral home. And in both of my family funerals, we conducted the otsuya at the funeral home as well. (Stayed through the night–rotating shifts)

    The next day was the open ceremony for family and friends and (as for family) we approached the coffin and placed small tokens of appreciation and favorite things–snacks, earrings, pictures–etc… Before placing the lid on the coffin. No nailing it down as far as I can remember.

    Perhaps these differences are indicative of the variety of differences between the many unique regions and cultural differences throughout Japan. ( I am in Yamaguchi)

    Once again, my sympathies to you and your family.


  4. matthew
    June 30th, 2011 at 21:23 | #4

    Strike that–should read

    Perhaps these differences are indicative of the variety of unique regions and the variance within Japan.

  5. Luis
    June 30th, 2011 at 21:26 | #5

    Dan: Yep, o-tsuya. Now corrected in the post, thanks. Though we did have snacks afterward.

    Matthew: Indeed, it was hospital, home, crematorium, temple. I am sure there are differences due to location, religious sect, individual preferences, affordability, etc. The family is not wealthy, but the final cost, what I gleaned of it, was rather significant, though that may also play a role, for all I know.

    Thanks to all for your condolences.

    July 1st, 2011 at 16:00 | #6

    I have it all figured out: from my deathbed, at home or in the hospital, I want my corpse to be taken to a crematorium, and from there that my ashes be taken to the family pantheon in Pontevedra. The pantheon was built by your great-great-grandfather Laureano. No priests, no ceremonies, no guests, no condolences, no fuss. At most, a bagpiper interpreting an old folk Galician melody when the ashes are deposited in the pantheon.

  7. Luis
    July 1st, 2011 at 18:20 | #7

    We have a family pantheon? Cool! I’d love to see a photo of it sometime.

    At present, my eventual resting place is with Sachi’s family, where Junzo was interred (images here, with Junzo lighting incense in one of the photos), in fact. However, maybe they can divvy them up if I have any right to the Pontevedra pantheon.

    July 3rd, 2011 at 02:22 | #8

    Of course you have a right to great-greatgrandfather Laureano’s pantheon! He must have had a sense of lineage and built it for all his descendants. I presume it could have been a problem in the old times due to eventually running out of space, but hardly so today with the advent of cremation.

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