A dying business: family graves in Japan

Picture expired. Ryukai Matsushima, a Buddhist priest whose father pioneered a movement of seeking gravemates, walks past a communal resting place at his temple in Tokyo, June 4, 2014 AFP

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  • 11

    M3M3M3

    The idea that someone should tend to my grave after I die strikes me as one of the most selfish thoughts any human being can ever have.

  • 16

    Strangerland

    The idea that someone should tend to my grave after I die strikes me as one of the most selfish thoughts any human being can ever have.

    It's quite a nice thing actually. My wife and I make the trip to her hometown a few times a year, and spend a few days with the family, a trip to the family grave being a part of this. We all go together, burn some incense, clean up the flowers. It's not like its work or anything. The whole thing takes 10 minutes, if that. And conversely, it maintains a family bond.

  • 11

    Tessa

    I'm hearing all sorts of tales of woe regarding family plots. One of my students comes from Aomori, and her husband from Yamaguchi. She's the eldest of three girls, he's the eldest of three boys, and the responsibility for maintaining the graves falls on each of them. It's incredibly stressful, not to mention expensive, to have to keep running from one end of the country to the other to wash a few slabs of stone enshrining the souls of a whole bunch of people they never met in the first place. They've made the decision not to burden their kids and grandkids with the responsibility. Hear lots of stories like this.

    Likewise, family altars seem to cause friction too (for example, someone inherits the house but refuses to maintain the altar that goes with it, etc). Lots of buck-passing going on! People are getting selfish for sure.

    BTW an informal survey of my married friends and students suggest that majority of them balk at having rest eternally with their mothers-in-law. They don't mind their husbands so much.

  • 17

    tmarie

    I love how the monks and these folks make millions off death in this country. Monks with mercedes and BMWs speakings highly that it pays to be in the death business. Frankly, the faster this practise of spending millions on chanting monks, insanely priced plots and tombstones... dies the better.

    We get dragged to the FIL's family tombstone twice a year and my husband has siad it will end when his FIL is dead as no one likes it - and those with their names on the stone weren't exactly nice people from the stories I have heard. The family hates dealing with it all except FIL but he drags everyone there. It's one thing to pay respect to the people you knew and loved, another to spend money on a family line you never knew.

    I am more than happy to visit my family's grave stones when "home" but they cost a fraction of what things cost here. Death is a huge business here and the locals are suckered into things they "have" to pay for such things. No thanks. Burn me, spread my ashes and be done with it.

  • 8

    Tessa

    I love how the monks and these folks make millions off death in this country.

    Ooooh, yeah! It's a lucrative trade to be sure. And don't get me started on the "kaimyo" (naming) custom. I hear endless complaints about that one! Was pretty gobsmacked to read this a while back:

    http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/life_and_death/AJ201107274995

    Those priests had the nerve to act like they were doing everyone a big favour? Disaster victims, no less!

  • 6

    M3M3M3

    @Strangerland

    It's not like its work or anything. The whole thing takes 10 minutes, if that. And conversely, it maintains a family bond.

    Don't get me wrong, I agree it can a worthwhile activity for the living, but I don't think those close to death should preoccupy themselves with worries about who will tend to their graves once they are gone.

  • 1

    Cricky

    Dead.....dead, once dead I really do not think they care, at all....thus it's a totally pointless exercise tending a grave. They do not care, they are dead!

  • 0

    Lowly

    tmarie-

    "spread my ashes"

    I too like this custom, but it is Western. In Japan I believe it is illegal, and in any case, VERY kimochi warui from the few conversations I've had with J peeps about it. All the associations of impurity, a dead body (despite ash), and of course ghosts and spirits haunting that must be appeased. Even way out in the ocean would be unkosher (so to speak!) from a J perspective.

    (Of course, it's not like anyone would ever know…)

  • 2

    GW

    Strangerland,

    I think you will think differently if you ever have to start footing some or part of the bill for those stones, hint it aint cheap!

    When my FIL passed I learned a lot about all this, I saw my MIL handing off envelopes of stacked 10ers a number of times(like a sumo match!) & then when they went to put my FIL inside the plot was full, the stress & extra envelopes of 10ers was disgusting witness & hear about while new thinning stones were made etc, no thanks!

    Times have changed where family plots aren't going to work for a lot of Japanese, easier more cost efficient ideas are welcome in this business

    And perhaps we should start taking temples & shrines!

  • 2

    Kurobune

    Thanks for the highly informative link, Tessa ! (11:45 am JST)

  • 7

    smithinjapan

    Good. This kind of thing is ridiculously overpriced and outdated. When I go, just burn me in a cardboard box and put the ashes wherever you please (hopefully somewhere nice... at least I would like that). If anyone remembers me it doesn't have to be at any particular place.

  • 1

    CGB Spender

    As somebody who is personally confronted with the problem of how to decide where and how to keep the remains of a very close person it is very big issue for me. If only the expensive costs for a grave wouldn't be, it would not be a problem. Ultimately one wishes to preserve the remains of your most loved another as long as possible because it keeps a part of her in this world. But graves (no matter where) are essentially only temporary. In Japan they are only upheld by generations who keep paying for the grave lot. But if you're mourning the loss of your partner, you'd want her to get the best possible journey over the Sanzu river and beyond.

  • 2

    tmarie

    Lowly, very well could be illegal but things being illegal doesn't stop people and let's be honest, much more friendly to Mother Earth. The ghost crap and whatnot, who cares?

    Tess, an interesting link - thank you. We passed up on getting our land "blessed" and lord, you would have thought I was the Anti-Christ based on the look of the sales guy - he was probably said he wouldn't profit off it as well. When I pointed out I wasn't Buddhist and it cost a couple of ichiman yen bills for a bunch of chanting from a guy who pulls up in a robe in a Merc, he sheepishly nodded his head. The husband was happy to save the money and not sit outside in some boring ceremony no one understands anyway.

    I had to suffer through a seven year rememberance service for the dead grandfather in law and it was painful. Everyone sitting around while some monk went on and on and on and on... No AC and in the middle of August. Hell on earth. I shudder to think how much money the MIL handed over that day for suffering for a few hours. The price of the fruit alone at the alter was more than I would spend on food for two weeks for two of us!

  • -2

    Augustus Fukushima

    If you decide to live here, have some respect for local customs and religion. Its only decent. Further, your suggestion that all the monks are living luxuriously is frivolous. Many are living in abject poverty but continue because they value the service they provide the community.

  • -1

    Lowly

    Marie-

    Like I said, no one would ever know. Just don't tell any J friends you are doing it!

    PS was that a seven HOUR service maybe?

  • 2

    SwissToni

    tmarie, you might want to think again about scattering your remains on land. From my experience of cremation in Japan, unlike home ashes are not pulverised and provided as a fine powder.

  • -9

    Tessa

    From my experience of cremation in Japan, unlike home ashes are not pulverised and provided as a fine powder.

    Yuck, is that true? That's nasty. Do they hand actual organs back, or something?

  • 0

    CGB Spender

    @Tessa unlike insensitive westerners, Japanese are not as careless about the remains of their deceased as to pulverize them. The bones are kept in a large urn and are placed in order so that feet are at the bottom and head is at the top.

  • 0

    Tessa

    @CGB

    Not one member of my family has ever been cremated, ever! I might be the first.

    By the way, according to Wiki: An unavoidable consequence of cremation is that a tiny residue of bodily remains is left in the chamber after cremation and mixes with subsequent cremations. Something you might want to keep in mind when making your decisions. Not that it's an issue for me. Ashes to ashes, and all that.

  • 5

    edojin

    Tessa-san ... the body is cremated to the point where only the bones remain. Then while they are still hot from the incinerator, the family stands around the remaining bones and puts them in an urn ... with the use of chopsticks. From my experience, I used one chopstick and a relative used the other one and together we picked up & placed a bone in the urn. This is done until everyone in the family has had a chance to do this. Beforehand, the skull cap has been set aside and when all the remaining bones and ashes have been put in the urn, the man in charge of the procedure puts the skull bones on the top of the pile. Then the urn is closed ... and taken back home where it remains for one month. Then the family gathers again at the cemetery and the urn is placed inside the family tomb (probably alongside other urns that have already been put there ages ago), from the front where the main stone has been removed. When everything is finished, the main stone is returned to its original place and sealed once again.

    And Tessa-san, all the organs have been cremated. As I said above, only the bones remain.

    The first time I experienced this I was in a huge crematorium. While the chief priest from the family cemetery was saying final words over the intact body, I heard a hideous scream from somewhere in the crematorium. Sent chills up & down my spine. As I looked around, I could see numerous other bodies being prepped for cremation or being wheeled out of the oven with only the burned bones remaining. A chilling scene ...

  • -2

    Tessa

    As I looked around, I could see numerous other bodies being prepped for cremation or being wheeled out of the oven with only the burned bones remaining.

    My friend told me that when she attended the cremation of her father-in-law, there were six other cremations in progress and her family only recognised the correct "oven" by a placard (in other words, there were several other groups of mourners in the room at the same time). Japan seems to have a peculiarly high death rate!

    Yuck!

  • 2

    Harry_Gatto

    My wife's family grave is in Gokokuji, a very large cemetery in Tokyo and is quite impressive; the main stone is 3 metres high and has been there since 1903 with a more modern memorial stone dating from the the 1930s. (The whole thing is an expensive PITA but that is beside the point). The remains of more than 20 family members are under there including both my in-laws.

    So Tessa, you obviously haven't attended any Japanese funerals yet and I won't bore you with all the details but the whole experience is very different, believe me. I've been to a few and if the funeral is a family member then you are closely involved. As we are talking about the actual cremation let me tell you what happens: when the cremation is finished the "oven" is opened and the large stainless steel tray on which the coffin was placed is slid out. Most of the bones are recognisable and have shrunk by 30 or 40%. The operator will run a large magnet over the remains to remove any metal, nails etc and then he will supervise the bones being placed in the urn (this is quite large, about 15 inches high and 10 inches in diameter). As CGB mentioned, the bones are place into the urn in order by the relatives using very long chopsticks, couples will pick up the same bone together which is a bit nerve-wracking the first time you do it as, being the only gaijin in sight, you don't want to drop your end of the bone with all the relatives watching. The top of the skull goes in last and the urn is sealed and placed in a box and given, usually, to the eldest son if available.

  • 0

    GW

    A couple posters above have pretty well described the procedure at the crematorium, the coffins are burnt at very controlled temperatures to ensure bones are remaining, the whole chopstick thing is true, very nerve wracking the first time you have to do this, something I will not forget.

    But only certain bones go in the urn, the rest gets disposed of.............. so clearly a LOT of ash doesn't make it in the urns, where it goes I don't know, maybe someone else here knows.

    I would think if one wanted their ashes for scattering it would be very simple to just up the temperature & cremate longer & you would end up with just ash to scatter should be easy to do

  • 1

    CGB Spender

    GW

    But only certain bones go in the urn, the rest gets disposed of..

    Not true. All bones that weren't reduced to ash go into the urn. Additionally some parts of the bones or smaller bones are put into a smaller, personal urn for the next-closest relative to keep at home. Which bones are chosen is left up to you (in case you are the next-closest relative). So you might want to keep a part of the skull, a part of the backbone, and a part of the arm or leg, whichever parts seem to be most meaningful to you. These are small ceramic urns that are wrapped with a decorative sheet and one keeps it in ones home, usually in the Butsudan.

    Source: own experience

  • 0

    choiwaruoyaji

    Japanese funeral customs, especially the stuff with the chopsticks, are extremely weird and should be abandoned.

  • 6

    cleo

    Japanese funeral customs, especially the stuff with the chopsticks, are extremely weird and should be abandoned.

    The first time I experienced the family side of a funeral was at FiL's funeral. I found the whole thing, in particular the lifting the bones out with chopsticks and the crematorium man lifting up a bone he called the nodo-bokoke and telling us that the shape of it showed that the departed was actually very healthy (apart from being dead, he hadn't been what anyone would call healthy for several years previously), very distressing. I decided that day that I would never again do the lifting bones with chopsticks thing, neither would I impose it on my kids. I told Mr cleo if he goes first, he's being fast-tracked (no bone-lifting-by-family-members) straight into the family grave, assuming that's where he wants to be; and if I go first, I want to be burned to a powder and scattered over a coral reef; if the kids want to do o-haka-mairi, they can have a holiday in Okinawa, I'll be there.

    your suggestion that all the monks are living luxuriously is frivolous. Many are living in abject poverty

    Not the ones doing the funerals, they're raking it in hand over fist AND preying on the susceptibilities of the grieving families. When FiL passed away it seemed every phone call MiL had with the priest upped the cost another couple of hundred thousand yen; we weren't sure if he was persuading her or if she was throwing the money at him; there was a definite atmosphere of 'we have to do it right (=spend lots of money) for O-Jiichan's sake'. And it's the gift that keeps on taking; every year the anniversary of his death involves yet another inflated 'donation' to the temple.

    Not saying all Buddhist priests are like that; one priest who befriended me when I first came to Japan was a saint. But the ones doing the funerals are all riding around in Mercs and Porsches.

  • 4

    choiwaruoyaji

    I want to be burned to a powder and scattered over a coral reef

    Good for you.

    I want the same (burnt to a fine cinder) but just have the ashes scattered in the bushes in the park where I played with my kids when they were little.

    Those were the happiest days of my life.

    There's a bench there so if they ever want to remember their old man they could sit on the bench and have a beer.

    Better than wasting money on the scam-artist priests.

    But hold on... I've got a good few more years left!!! ;-) (I think)

  • 1

    Himajin

    Monks with mercedes and BMWs

    Really? Ours drives a dented kei one-box thing...the fees for kaimyo mentioned in Tessa's link are also much higher than are charged by our temple. It's 3 man for a memorial service(3rd, 7th, 13th years etc), 1 man for the zip by to pray at Obon. I think oftentimes, famous temple=big bucks. One of our relatives had a service at a temple mentioned in the Goeika and it was costly!

    Yuck, is that true?

    Yes, the bones are well-preserved by control of the temperature of the cremation, and the whole skeleton is there on the tray.

    Japan seems to have a peculiarly high death rate!

    I've heard it's 100% (I am sorry! I couldn't resist......)

    Additionally some parts of the bones or smaller bones are put into a smaller, personal urn for the next-closest relative to keep at home. Which bones are chosen is left up to you (in case you are the next-closest relative). So you might want to keep a part of the skull, a part of the backbone, and a part of the arm or leg

    That all depends on the shuha, which branch your family belongs to. DH's family is Shingonshu, and they don't get an urn to keep at home...you have a separate one but that is put into the temple in a dedicated hall, it holds a piece of the skull and the nodobotoke. It's kept in the home for the first 100 days only. It's all determined, there isn't any choice in the matter. Each branch has slightly different customs.

  • 1

    GW

    All bones that weren't reduced to ash go into the urn

    Afraid not, at my FIL cremation, a LOT was left on the table so to speak, only a few select bones made it into the two urns, leg bones were way too long for example.

    When I was there I asked someone at the funeral home & they told me the leftover ashes were taken care of respectfully but I didn't get an actual answer as to what was done

    Source: own experience

  • 4

    Paul Paul

    This is easily one of the most interesting and informative threads I have ever read on JT. Thanks to those that described the processes involved with detail, respect and sensitivity.

  • 1

    senseiman

    I tend to agree, I will not be burdening my children with the cost of maintaining an expensive rock with my name on it.

    Another cost which the article doesn`t mention is the amount of land that is devoted to these graveyards and the negative effects they have on their surrounding area. I work one day a week right next to one of them - basically they covered three small mountains entirely in concrete and asphalt in order to build it. It is the ugliest, most depressing site you could imagine and it looms over the entire area.

    The thought of having my soul be part of such a terrible scar on the landscape just makes me sick - no thank you.

  • 1

    BurakuminDes

    I see so many graves here in a state of disrepair that obviously this tradition is unsustainable for many families. Anything that reduces the economic burden on ordinary people - and cuts out the obscene profiteering of the funeral industry - is a great thing. Kudos to the Buddhist Priest involved in this, hope the movement grows!

  • 2

    Carcharodon

    A natural burial/ green burial is how I want to depart. Wrap me in a hemp shroud, plop my in the shallow grave and plant a tree on top. Avoiding the funeral industry ( and not just in Japan, but the West is equally bad ) as much as possible much is highly desirable. They are like vultures - literally and figuratively.

  • 1

    tmarie

    Lowly, thank heavens it was not but it felt like forever. Two hours or so I believe. Hell on earth.

    If you decide to live here, have some respect for local customs and religion. Its only decent. Further, your suggestion that all the monks are living luxuriously is frivolous. Many are living in abject poverty but continue because they value the service they provide the community.

    I do but sorry, if you think respect means being an idiot and parting with hard earned cash for some hocus pocus chanting, no thanks.

    I don't think I, or anyone else for that matter, suggested ALL monks are rich. You'd have to be blind though to not notice how many of them are beyond wealthy though.

    Hima, open your eyes around the temples and funeral places. The guys are racking it in off grief and loved ones who feel they need to do and pay X to ensure safe passage for the dead person. It is disgusting to think of "holy men" cashing on on death but that is exactly what happens here. Death and the promise of good luck when it comes to house, building and land blessings. No thanks. I'll save my yen for something more concrete.

  • 2

    CGB Spender

    GW

    Afraid not, at my FIL cremation, a LOT was left on the table so to speak, only a few select bones made it into the two urns, leg bones were way too long for example.

    Ok, it obviously isn't a strict rule. If they had left bones of my wife on the table, I would have protested. Even if at that time I've been in deep shock. Fortunately my wife was small and so there were no too large bones.

    The chopstick bone taking is a very important tradition and is to be respected, unlike choiwaruoyaji above who is ridiculing it. Only the next of kin do this anyway. How serious you take these matters depends strongly on who is cremated anyway.

  • 3

    cleo

    The priest at the temple that 'runs' the graveyard where FiL's family grave is has a not-very-new van-type thing parked in front of the temple that he uses for moving around in his official priestly capacity, and this year's latest Merc parked round the back for when he's off-duty.

  • 2

    choiwaruoyaji

    The chopstick bone taking is a very important tradition and is to be respected...

    Don't agree.

    Who says we have to accept and revere every tradition as if it is written in stone?

    And on this particular issue, I am taking my cue from the many Japanese people who have told me that they don't like or want this "tradition"...

  • 2

    Tessa

    If you decide to live here, have some respect for local customs and religion. Its only decent.

    I respect your stance, but the locals themselves are abandoning local customs in droves (as the existence of this article attests to), so why should we have to abide by them?

    The guys are raking it in off grief and loved ones who feel they need to do and pay X to ensure safe passage for the dead person. It is disgusting to think of "holy men" cashing on on death but that is exactly what happens here.

    Without divulging too much personal information, I used to give private lessons to a head priest's young wife. She wasn't very happy in her role as babymaker, and often quarrelled with her husband. Whenever it all got too much, she would throw her suitcase in the Merc and check into one of Osaka City's premium hotels until she'd cooled down (it was near my home at the time, she sometimes invited me for lunch while she was staying there). I really liked her, but she was hardly living up to my image of the humble priestly life!

    This is easily one of the most interesting and informative threads I have ever read on JT. Thanks to those that described the processes involved with detail, respect and sensitivity.

    I totally agree, very informative. It has also cemented my growing conviction that I do not wish to grow old and die in this country, or tie my fortunes to one who will.

  • -2

    JapanGal

    Eventually there will be bento box funerals.

    If you are American, you can have yours bones and ashes sent back to the states and hire a boat to take them out to see and dump them.

  • 1

    tmarie

    **She wasn't very happy in her role as babymaker, and often quarrelled with her husband. **

    I'd like to say I feel sorry for her but she muct have known what she was in for before the ring went on. There are men in Japan you don't marry - the oldest son, a monk in a family business (and let's be honest, that is exactly what it is), a guy with mother complex, a farmer and a salaryman who graduated from a low level university - because his job will be crap and he'll always be working and get paid crap. I'm a foreigner and was well aware of this my first year hear because of my J girlfriends.

  • 1

    zichi

    Recently buried the brother-in-law and dropped him into the family grave all for less than ¥200,000, and we still thought that was a bit steep?

  • 0

    Tessa

    I'd like to say I feel sorry for her but she must have known what she was in for before the ring went on. There are men in Japan you don't marry - the oldest son, a monk in a family business (and let's be honest, that is exactly what it is), a guy with a mother complex.

    Oof, she hit the trifecta! He was all three of those. But you are right that she must've known what she was getting into, because before marriage she had to attend a rigorous training school to prepare to become a wife of a priest. Still, her first and foremost role was to provide the family with a son and heir ... not really something within her control.

    I wonder how many foreigners understand that head of temple is usually a hereditary position? It is indeed a family business, an extremely prosperous one in some cases. Probably far most so since the number of deaths outstripped the number of births in Japan.

  • -1

    tmarie

    Yikes! Maybe she was impressed with the amount of money she thought he would make so ignored the baby expectations?? She wouldn't be the first nor the last.

    No idea how many foreigners understand it but I find it is exactly like any company here - chonan is expected to take over. How people can't see that is beyond me.

  • -2

    Tessa

    No idea how many foreigners understand it but I find it is exactly like any company here - chonan is expected to take over.

    Doctors and priests. Pretty much family businesses here in Japan (which means you end up with more than the usual number of shoddy, unwilling practitioners in both trades - in my experience the third generations are the worst!). In all of these families, to have a son to carry on the family name is imperative. I could write a whole bunch of posts about that, too. And no, most foreigners don't know much about it. I certainly didn't until a few years ago.

  • 0

    kaimycahl

    The best business to be in is the funeral business or some kind of business related to the dying. This is the best business to be in it is recession proof, very morbid but very lucrative! Sadly to say!!

  • -1

    ka_chan

    I would prefer to be launched into space but the problem is always that once you are dead, you don't have a say in the matter. You can put stuff in your will but where or not they are carried out is a whole different question. I had an uncle who wanted his ashes spread in the sea but the some of the family members were against it. Not sure why but I knew if his wishes were carried out or not. At the time I was a kid and things like this was something for old people. I guess it is nice that you can see you family member being cremated since there was a scandal not that long ago in the States where a funeral parlor didn't seem to have time to do things write so they would give people any ashes and bits they had on had. Later the FBI found hundreds of bodies in on the grounds. But since you don't have a say on what happens, just hope you have someone willing to carry out your wishes instead of just dumping the ashes as same some money.

  • -1

    tmarie

    And no, most foreigners don't know much about it. I certainly didn't until a few years ago.

    Really? I heard about not marrying them within six months of being here due to the family obligations - and yes, the baby factory aspect.

  • 2

    Himajin

    Hima, open your eyes around the temples and funeral places.

    We've had 7 relatives depart in the past 10 years (only 88 year old MIL is left now of her generation) so I"ve spent way too much time in funeral places and at houji. My eyes are open. Our priest doesn't have a Mercedes, and their fees are reasonable. The Shingonshu temple 5 minutes from our house doesn't have any foreign cars either...the head priest came over to check something for us in waraji, chinos and an T-shirt :-D That doesn't apply to everywhere though. Our relatives' temple in Kyoto charges an arm and a leg for everything. Depends on the branch and the temple.

  • -4

    tmarie

    Great. You've got a good one. There are many, many out their cashing in.

    You might want to checl the back parking lot to see what kind of cars these folks drive during their private time!

  • 0

    CGB Spender

    @kaimycahl

    The best business to be in is the funeral business.

    Absolutely! It's a safe job. People just don't stop dying so there will always be a market for it. And the funeral companies are the ones who get the big part of the pie, not the Buddhist monks (unless you're a high priest, but then it's justified). I recommend watching the movie "Departures" for more insight into this topic.

  • 1

    Himajin

    There isn't a back parking lot. Besides, if they earned their money, who has any right to tell them how to spend it?

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