Ceremony Traditional Culture

Funeral (Sōshiki)

Hello everyone how are you?  Toddy’s subject is Funeral (Sōshiki in Japanese), along with birth in life, it is very important event.

So let’s talk about the funeral of the Buddhist ceremony in order.

Indifference to religion

We Japanese, frankly speaking, are tend to show indifference to any religions in daily life, however, we have taken on a variety of different religious practices, such as Christian-styled weddings in most cases or/and local Shintō rituals.

But as far as funerals are concerned, we are absolutely Buddhist styled funerals carried out by priests at a sophisticated funeral hall.

On the other hand, funerals at home or temples are drastically decreasing nowadays.


At the same time, funerals in Christianity, Muslim, and Shinto Shrine are very few to take place.

A Buddhist Majority

Japanese society accommodates a wide variety of faiths. When a loved one passes, however, the majority of Japanese choose to hold a Buddhist funeral.

According to a survey by the Japan Consumers’ Association, 92.1% of funerals are Buddhist, 2.4% Shintō, and 5.5% other religions and/or nonreligious.

While Buddhism is important to many, it is often only at the end of life and special anniversaries (hōyō) marking the passing of a loved one that people turn to their parish temple to ask a priest to chant prayers and conduct rites for the departed.

This style of religious observance is facetiously referred to by some as “funeral Buddhism.”

Services have been normally held at a temple, the deceased’s home so far from the olden times but recently many people seem to change to use a funeral hall.

But when there wasn’t the funeral hall, we did like the photo in which that was my father’s funeral held in 1973.


What is Sōshiki (Funeral)Services held?

Although Buddhist funeral rites vary by denomination and region, in general the body after death is washed and laid out with the head toward the north.

After death there is a ceremony called “Matsugo-no-mizu” (Water of the last moment) where lips of the deceased are moistened with little bit of water.

A small table is put next to the bed with deceased. On such table there are some flowers, incense and a candle.

Some people put a knife on the chest of deceased. This knife should defend her or him from the evil spirits.

Family of the deceased then informs cousins and friends. As a sign that someone died family puts a white paper lantern in front of the house. A death certificate is issued.

Family also contacts a priest of the local temple and a funeral hall to make arrangements for the funeral.

People are rather careful when determining the day of funeral. Some days are believed to be “tombiki” (“friend pulling”) when it is good to organize a wedding but who are not suitable for funerals.

Japanese would say “you would not like to join the dead in the grave”.

Body of the deceased is washed. Little bit of cotton or gauze is put in the orifices. The deceased female wears are a kimono. Men sometimes wear it too.

But usually dead male wears a suit. To improve the look of the deceased a make-up may be applied.

The body is then put on a dry ice in the casket/coffin. It is a tradition that few other things are placed in the casket too.

They are a white kimono, six coins for the crossing of the Sanzu River (“Sanzu-no-kawa”) or River of Three Crossings and several objects the deceased used to love like for example sweets.

When the casket is ready it is put on an altar.

The second stage in the funeral activities is the wake. Traditional colour of sorrow in Buddhism is white. Still most of people in Japan today wear black when attending the wake.

People at the wake sometimes carry set of prayer beads called “juzu”. Juzu is similar to the Rosary.

Sōshiki, Funeral
juzu prayer beads

People arriving at the wake bring condolence money or “koden” in a special envelope that has a black and white ribbon wrapped around it. The amount of money is written on the envelope.

Sōshiki, Funeral
envelope with condolence money、”koden”

People are seated. Family and close relatives sit in the first row. The Buddhist priest will then chant a section from a “sutra” (religious scriptures).

In front of the deceased there is an incense urn. The family members will offer an incense three times. Other people at the wake will offer incense in the place behind seats where the family members are seated.

The priest completes the sutra and that way the wake ends. When leaving each guest gets a present. The present has a value between 25% and 50% of the money people gave as condolence money.

The vigil for the deceased is held by the family and close relatives during the night before the funeral.

Sōshiki, Funeral

The funeral is held the day after the wake. Following the service the body is cremated, after which family members use special chopsticks to place pieces of bones in a small urn (kotsutsubo).

A 2016 report by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare showed that 99% of Japanese burials involve cremation although we used to bury the corpse under the ground until recently.


Depending on their relation to the deceased, friends and family may choose to attend either the wake or the funeral service.

Typical mourning attire (mofuku) is a black dress for women and a black suit and tie for men. Those attending also commonly carry a Buddhist rosary known as a juzu. Dress at a wake is less formal.

The urn stays on an altar in family home for 35 days. Incense sticks or “osenko” are kept burning all the time. Then the urn is carried to the cemetery.

Some people carry the urn to the cemetery immediately after the urn is ready.

“Haka” family grave,gravestone

The “haka” (family grave) is typical for cemeteries in Japan. Haka has two parts – a stone monument and a chamber or crypt where urns are put.

On the side of monument sometimes you may see engraved the name of the person who paid for the monument. The names of persons buried in the grave can be written on the monument.

Memorial services differ from region to region. During first week after death they are held every day. There are special services held on the 7th, 49th and 100th day.

There is a traditional memorial service performed during the Obon festival.

Japan’s Evolving Funeral Business

Japan is a country of high technology. So, let’s just mention very expensive graves who include small pc with a touch screen showing all sort of details about the deceased – a her or his photo, different messages, a family tree etc.

Demographic aging and other social transformation under way in Japan are occasioning changes in funeral practices.

People are increasingly opting for smaller funerals and for greater personalization of services. Also on the increase is the number of uncared-for graves.

Responses to Japan’s funerary issues include new options such as space burial, where for a fee a portion of a loved one’s ashes can be launched into the cosmos.

Two hundred twenty companies from Japan’s funeral industry took part in a trade show in December 2015 at the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition complex.

Capturing the most attention at the show were space funerals. The services on offer included encapsulating the deceased’s ashes and launching the capsules into space—a celestial version of scattering ashes at sea.

Space interment has been available in the United States since 1997. Among the luminaries served have been the television screenwriter and producer Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series; the astronaut Gordon Cooper; and, the first lunar interment, the astronomer Eugene Shoemaker.

A focal point at the December trade show was the space-interment exhibit by Osaka-based Ginga Stage. (Ginga means “galaxy” in Japanese.)

The company is the Japanese sales agency for the US celestial funeral operator Celestis.

Its service offerings include launching remains atop a rocket and releasing them in space for ¥450,000, placing remains in earth orbit aboard a satellite for ¥950,000, and placing remains on the moon for ¥2,500,000.

Portions of the ashes of three Japanese were part of the space-release payload on Celestis’s fourteenth launch on November 6, 2015.

Balloons for carrying a loved one’s ashes aloft

Another US celestial funeral operator, Elysium Space, has been marketing its services in Japan since October 2013.

These include launching remains and releasing them in space, whereupon they circle the Earth before plummeting through the atmosphere like a shooting star.

The firm charges ¥300,000 for its Shooting Star Memorial service.


Utsunomiya-based Balloon Kobo lets families have the ashes of their loved ones scattered over the area of their choice.

It places the ashes of the deceased inside a large balloon of natural rubber, fills the balloon with helium, and sets it aloft over the chosen terrain.

The balloon climbs to an altitude of 30–35 kilometers, where in the lower pressure of the stratosphere it swells to three or four times its original diameter and pops, scattering the ashes earthward.

Balloon Kobo charges ¥260,000 for a balloon funeral.

Smaller and More Personal

Japanese funeral practices started changing noticeably around 1990 as homeowners began to abandon the practice of holding funerals in their homes.

Today, nearly all funerals take place at mortuaries. Attendance of services, meanwhile, has shrunk.

Kotani Midori, a researcher at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, attributes the development partly to demographics.

Citing statistics, Kotani explains that when an elderly parent passes, children in their late 50s tend to hold the largest, most ceremonious funerals.

Amid the graying of Japanese society, however, a growing number of parents are living until their children have reached retirement age.

The older survivors are less inclined than their younger predecessors to hold large-scale services.

In additions, small families are dropping the traditional practice of holding a visitation wake and then a funeral ceremony the next day, opting instead to wrap things up in a one-day package.

In Japan’s large cities, up to 30% of families choose to do away with funeral ceremonies altogether and simply hold a cremation and interment.

Kotani cites a 2010 survey as evidence of the change in Japanese funeral practices. The survey respondents indicated their preferred format for their eventual funeral.

“Just family and close friends” was the most popular choice, at 33%.

“Just immediate family, no distant relatives” was the second most popular, at 30%. “No funeral” was the choice of 7% of the respondents.

A Grave Problem

Gravesites are another issue in Japan. As the population migrated to urban centers, people have become less likely to live near the graves of their parents and ancestors.

A November 2013 survey by Kumamoto revealed that about 40% of the graves in the prefecture were completely uncared for—in the city of Hitoyoshi the percentage was an astounding 80%.

In many cases lineages have died out or families have long since left the prefecture, leaving no descendants to care for the graves.

Left to the elements, some of the gravestones have toppled, and many have been discarded illegally.

A trend in Japanese cemeteries over the past 20 years is the practice of interring unrelated individuals in common graves.

This is partly a reflection of the growing involvement of nursing homes in owning and managing gravesites.

Companies and school alumni associations are also increasingly active in owning and managing gravesites, showing how vertical, family ties are giving way to horizontal, social and professional affiliations in the realm of long-term care for bodily remains.

Furniture for holding loved ones’ remains in the home—a boon for those who can’t afford gravesites or can’t travel to cemeteries to pay respects

Funerary Priests at Standardized Prices

Japanese are beginning to push back against the funeral industry’s chronic lack of transparency in regard to pricing, prompting funeral providers to respond with standardized fees for such services as the traditional officiation by Buddhist priests.

Change is under way, too, in people’s interaction with Buddhist priests at funerals. Japanese families traditionally call on priests to officiate at funerals.

If they have an established relationship with a temple, they turn to the temple priest. Otherwise, they secure an introduction to a priest through the funeral parlor or other channels.

Japanese continue to attach great value to the practice of having a priest chant scriptures at a funeral to guide the spirit of the deceased to deliverance in the afterlife.

People are beginning to recoil, however, at the lack of transparency in priests’ fees.

Mainstream Buddhist figures are among those pressing for reform. One of them is Hayashi Kazuma, a Tokyo Buddhist priest of the Tendai sect.

Hayashi launched a company in 2004 to serve families that lack temple affiliations by dispatching priests for officiating at funerals in the Tokyo area.

What triggered Hayashi’s entrepreneurial initiative was a friend’s complaint about receiving a ¥5 million funerary bill from a temple.

The friend just managed to scrape together ¥3 million to offer the priest from the temple.

But the priest rejected the offering as wholly insufficient and left the wake in a huff.

And according to Hayashi’s friend he subsequently refused to arrange for interring the deceased’s remains.

Hayashi’s company website provides members, who pay a one-time fee of ¥10,000 to join, a clear and easy-to-understand price list for funerary services.

The total price for a no-frills, two-day package of officiating at the wake and funeral ceremony is ¥90,000, considerably less than the average price for comparable services in Tokyo.

Hayashi’s customers are happy about the transparent and affordable pricing, but his counterparts in the Buddhist establishment are less enthusiastic with the Japan Buddhist Federation even calling on him to desist from publishing his price list on the web.

“I hear of people who’ve needed to pay ¥1 million to engage a priest for a ceremony,” remarks Hayashi.

“That sort of behavior will be the end of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism is about serving people, not temples.”

Let’s finish this story about Japanese funerals in the home of deceased. His or her photo is kept on or near the family altar. In the first year after death traditional New Year cards can not be send or received.

In the end, “part of the articles is quoted on the article written by Nagasawa Takaaki of Nippon.com and published on January 21, 2016 and a researcher, Kotani Midori, at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute”

Thanks a lot for browsing.

About the author

古林 茂樹(Shigeki Furubayashi )