Attending my first bone placing ceremony in Japan.
Earlier this month I was asked to join a 納骨式 (noukotsushiki) for a young church member’s mom who passed away earlier this year. This is a ceremony where the deceased person’s bones are brought from the family’s home to be placed in a tomb. By attending and asking questions I was able to learn quite a bit about how death is handled by people (especially Christians) in Japan and thought I would share some of my findings.
No individual graves
The graveyard we went to was massive and looked like a small village, complete with street names, rest areas and of course, vending machines. I immediately noticed from the rows and rows of tombstones, that none had individual names with birth and death dates, instead it only had family names. After asking, I was told that in Japan people are buried together in a grave owned by the family. It is also common for churches to own a grave-site to use for burying its members. Such was the case for the ceremony I attended.
The deceased’s remains
In Japan, more than 99 percent of the dead are cremated. The cremation ceremony itself is also unique in that after the cremation the family will use chopsticks to pick out bones of the deceased and place it in an urn or wooden box.
BTW, sometimes two people will work together to place a large bone in the container and for this reason it is a huge social faux pas to pass food to someone with your chopsticks. It reminds people of this funeral tradition so please never pass food with chopsticks in Japan!
After the cremation ceremony, the bones are taken to a remaining family members home and kept there until the bone placing ceremony.
The bone placing ceremony itself was very short, only taking about 20 minutes and consisting of some hymns, a short devotion, and prayer. The graveyard staff then moved a large flat stone covering the grave and one man went down a ladder to place the remains on a shelf along with the urns of other deceased members.
A Christian testimony
When comparing our church’s grave with those surrounding it, I quickly noticed a number of differences. For starters, there is no altar for burning incense. Every other grave I saw had an incense altar that would be used for Buddhist prayers and ancestor veneration. I also noticed a symbol of the cross which marked the church’s grave as different from those around it. The church’s tombstone also had these words engraved: 「我々の国籍は天にあります」meaning: “Our citizenship is in Heaven”. I thought that it was pretty significant that even after death, these brothers and sisters continue to stand out as different from those around them and still give testimony to the grace of God in Christ.
The importance of being remembered
I’ll never forget what a pastor once said at a youth camp in South Africa. “What is the first thing people do after a funeral? …They eat cake”. He was explaining that after death, everyone just carries on with their lives and forgets about you. It was pretty hard-hitting words and made me think that in South Africa, funerals only really exist to help the living move on with their lives. In Japan, it’s the complete opposite. Funerals mainly exist so that the deceased can be remembered. To be remembered after death is incredibly important in Japan and the act of remembering does not only happen once at a funeral service. Apart from the 4 different ceremonies that make up the funeral, all the churches we have been to also have a yearly church service dedicated to remembering the deceased and thank God for their lives. Photos of the deceased as well as their hand written testimonies are put up in the church. Later in the day there is 墓前礼拝 which is a worship service held in front of the church’s grave-site. Church members sing hymns, listen to a sermon, and pray whilst remembering the deceased and thank God for their lives. There is no belief that the spirits of the dead remain on earth, but this service is simply a way to show love to the deceased, remember their example of faith, and thank God for their lives.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, Hebrews 12:1
Death is an incredibly difficult situation to deal with, but I have been encouraged by the faith of my Japanese brothers and sisters and their deep desire to be good witnesses of the security and life we have in Christ. Although funerals are very different here, it is the same Christ who gives them hope in times of grief.