The growth of unorthodox rituals surrounding death in Japan show a significant loss of belief in the afterlife and ancestor veneration, writes anthropologist Hikaru Suzuki in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (May).
The practices of “live funerals,” that is, funerals held while the recipient is still alive, non-religious funerals, and cremation and the spreading of ashes, have all experienced growth since the early 1990s in Japanese society. The concern to have one’s funeral while still alive and healthy expresses a growing uncertainty about life after death.
In the past, death meant becoming an ancestor of one’s household and assured one’s own continuance into the future. The importance attached to one’s ancestors has decreased with the large scale migration to the cities, the predominance of nuclear families, and the financial independence of descendants without depending on ancestral land, Suzuki adds.
The growth of non-religious funerals mirrors the alienation of many from ancestor veneration, since the Buddhist priest is important in creating such a link. The high fees Buddhist priests now charge is another reason for such alienation. The practice of scattering ashes of the dead in requested sites is another indication of how fostering personal memories of loved ones rather than ancestral veneration is taking hold among the Japanese.
The traditional concept of the impurity of the dead (dealt with by elaborate burial rites) has also fallen upon disfavor. Suzuki concludes that these new funeral rites render the traditional practice of “praying for” and “praying to” ancestors both difficult and unpopular.
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Centre for New Religions, Dept. of Theology, King’s College, Univ. of London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS)