Japan has a cremation rate of over 99%, the highest of any country in world. Some local governments even ban traditional burials. This was not always the case – before World War II, cremation was only practised by the very rich, but after the positives of cremation, including its efficiency and cleanliness, became recognised, cremation rates rose across the country.
While many may think that cremation limits one’s options for a funeral service, Japan has taken the opportunity to create lavish and memorable services, so that Japan also has one of the highest average funeral costs in the world. A traditional Japanese funeral has several components: a wake, cremation, burial in the family grace, and a memorial service. Each component of this service can be expensive, but the main reason behind the high cost of the Japanese funeral is that in this densely-populated country, space for burial plots is scarce. This has contributed to the increasing popularity of scattering the ashes of the deceased instead of burying them according to tradition.
The Japanese funeral ceremony is elegant and usually grounded in Buddhist traditions. The entire funeral process from the initial ceremony to final memorial service can take up to 100 days, depending on local custom. During the ceremony the departed is given a new, Buddhist name, so that the deceased’s spirit will not respond if their name is called, preventing them from returning and remaining bound to the earthly world.
Before the cremation takes place, the family may place flowers around the head of their deceased loved one. They will then remain present at the crematorium while the casket is moved to the cremation chamber and during the cremation itself.
Once the family and other loved ones are presented with the remains after the process of cremation is complete, a touching and fascinating ritual is held in which the mourners all participate in separating the bones from the ashes. Using large chopsticks, they remove the bones and place them in an urn in such a way as to keep the body in an upright position. First the leg bones are placed in the bottom of the urn and so on until the head bones are finally placed on top. The ashes themselves are usually stored to be buried alongside, although occasionally they are shared amongst the family members.
In a traditional Japanese funeral, the urn containing the deceased’s remains is then taken home and placed on the family’s altar where they are displayed for 35 days. At this point the urn is removed to the family grave.
During and after this time, a number of memorial services will be held for the departed. In some traditions these services take place in the first 49 days after the funeral service, while in other traditions the memorial services will be held daily for the first week, or on the 7th, 49th and 100th days following the funeral. Japan has a rich history of honouring their ancestors, and these memorial services will not be the last, but will be held periodically over the course of the next several decades (or in some cases, even longer).