Japanese Funerals – A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

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Believe it or not, in a land as beautiful and great as glorious Nippon, life still continues as it does anywhere else. People are born, live their lives, and then inevitably pass away. Such is the way of life that even the Japanese, who are rumored to live healthy, extraordinarily long lives, cannot avoid.

Unlike western funerals, Japanese funerals are very intricate and long with various steps starting right at the hospital all the way to the end. These steps are referred to as The Pre-Wake, The Wake, Cremation, Burial, and Memorial Service. Even after the funeral has concluded, there are still ceremonies that take place months, and even years after the funeral is over.

If you are living in Japan, you’ll no doubt have to go through this unfortunate experience. Keep reading as I take a deep dive to outline everything you’ll need to know to prepare yourself.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

After Death

The funeral process begins shortly after death. Depending on the circumstances, you may either find yourself in the hospital with the family at the time, or shortly after when the body is moved from the hospital to the family’s home or funeral home. If you know you will not be at the hospital, you can skip this and continue reading at the Pre-Wake or Wake. As expected, there will be a lot of mourning and the experience of seeing someone pass away before you. A very traumatic experience if you haven’t experienced such a thing before, but I won’t go into much detail involving that. 

After the relative has been pronounced dead, the closest family member is responsible for calling funeral homes and making arrangements over the phone. While this is happening, the nurses will plug up all the orifices, change the clothes, and adjust the body before rigor mortis sets in. After the nurses finish their work and everything is arranged with the funeral home, the funeral home will come and meet the family at the hospital to get the body. The closest family member will go with them and the body, getting into the back of the van. As the van departs the hospital, everyone including the hospital staff will stand and bow their heads deeply until the van is completely out of sight.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

The Pre-Wake

The Pre-Wake begins after everything is set up at the funeral home. Family members of the deceased will stay and spend several nights with the body. The room I was staying at was like a traditional ryokan with two tattami floored rooms, kitchen, and a bathroom stocked with amenities. There was also a catering service provided by the funeral home.

As part of the tradition, a wrapped sword is placed over the body with the belief that if anything comes to desecrate the body, the spirit will take the sword to defend itself from the desecrator. Right before the body, a small table is placed with a vase of flowers, incense, a candle or oil lamp, and a floor pillow below the table. Next to that table is a smaller wooden tray that is placed with a cup of green tea, water, mochi, and a bowl of white rice with a pair of chopsticks sticking out the top. This is replaced with new food every two days in a ritual known as kyuzen-nikku. If you are familiar with Japanese dining etiquette, it is considered bad to stab your food, and this is why. 

The funeral director will introduce himself to the family after he is done setting up, and begin working to gather information regarding the funeral. The family will decide on everything like the size of the funeral, flower arrangements, coffin type, gifts given to the attendees, and the family priest who will conduct the funeral. After everything has been agreed upon, a frame wrapped in a cloth will be handed over. This wooden frame has wooden slats with kanji on them that detail each rite. Once that rite of the funeral process is complete, it will be flipped over. Basically the road-map that guides the funeral process and will be displayed during the entirety of the funeral.

This pre-wake period can last depending on the availability of the family priest. During my first experience, we had to wait a week because the priest was booked with other funerals, but the second time we only had to wait two days. During this period of waiting, incense must be burned at all times. The belief is that the smoke from the incense helps lift the spirit up to heaven, otherwise the spirit would stay trapped here. This will last until the body is cremated. Other distant family members and co-workers may come and visit during this time to offer incense and their condolences, especially people who won’t be able to make it to the wake. 

On the day before the wake, the family priest will come with items used for the nokan-no-gi or encoffining ritual mentioned before, that will take place the following morning. These items include a walking stick, straw sandals, a white yukata or kimono, six sen (coins dating back to the Edo period), which is used so that the spirit can cross the Sanzu River or River of Three Crossings, and two wooden spirit tablets ihai where one is given to the family and the other to the temple where the bones will be buried that is covered by a protective stiff cloth.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

The Wake

Shortly before noon on the day of the Wake, the funeral staff will come into the room to wash and prepare the body in a ritual known as yukan (湯棺, or the last bath. The staff will bring in a portable tub, towels, and makeup. The initial washing will be done in private behind closed doors, and the family will only participate when the body is wrapped discreetly in towels. Everyone will be handed disposable wipes to wash the feet and face of the body. The funeral staff will dress the body in the clothes chosen by the family that everyone will see at the funeral. Typically this will consist of a suit, yukata, or kimono depending on the families preferences, however it is now common for the family to choose something less traditional and something more preferred by the individual who had passed.

The coffin is brought into the room, and the men will all help lift the body into the coffin, futon included. This starts the second part of nokan-no-gi (納棺の). Blocks of dry ice are placed over the chest, and around the pillow underneath the head. A white blanket is then pulled over the lower half of the body. The items that the priest brought with him the previous day are placed into the coffin with the body. Personal items picked out by the family will also be placed into the coffin with those items. This typically consists of the person’s favorite snacks, clothes, and items related to their hobbies as long as they are combustible. After this is done, the coffin will stay in the room with the family until moving to the funeral auditorium.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

Based on the size of the funeral, it can take place in a big or small auditorium. All over Japan, there are black and white auditorium buildings for this occasion. Bigger funeral homes may also have their own auditoriums. At the funeral, the coffin is centered in the front of the room with a portrait of the deceased, surrounded by waves of white flowers and orchids. On both sides of the room, there are large flower arrangements that are purchased by family members, friends, and companies. Before the coffin, there are two chairs and a table for the priests. Behind the priests will be another table for offering incense.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

Within an hour before the funeral, people will start to show up. Usually, there is a dining hall for people to wait in, and drinks are served. Attendees will bring condolence money known as kodan and give it to the funeral staff. You will never see a kodan given directly to the grieving family, as that is seen as poor mannered. Those who do give a kodan will receive a gift bag after the funeral is over. Outside of the auditorium by the entrance doors, a display is shown with pictures and personal items of the deceased as a memorial. When the funeral begins, funeral staff will begin to usher people into the auditorium. Once everyone is seated, the priest and his acolyte will enter the room, bowing before everyone, and sitting in the two chairs near the coffin. The priest leading the funeral will sit in the middle, while the assistant will sit to his right. The ceremony will go on for an hour as the priest reads a sutra and prays. 

The assistant priest will accompany the sutra with instruments such as drums and symbols. Halfway through the funeral, everyone will be welcomed by the priest to offer incense.  During this time, all eyes are on you as everyone will be anticipating the foreigner to mess up. To do this right, follow these steps below:

  1. Approach the powder-filled bowl and bow deeply. 
  2. Take your right hand and pinch some powder using your thumb, index, and middle finger. 
  3. Bow your head slightly and bring the pinch of powder eye level.
  4. Sprinkle the powder into the other bowl on right over the incense burner in the middle.
  5. Repeat the second, third, and fourth step two more times before taking a step back and bowing again.

When the funeral has concluded, the family will stay seated while the rest of the attendees leave and depart the auditorium. The immediate family and close relatives will be invited to dinner. This is considered the last dinner with the deceased before the spirit leaves our world. The portrait of the deceased is displayed in front of the dining room and offered a bento box. If the dinner and funeral are taking place at the funeral home, the coffin will be moved back into the room the family was staying at during the Pre-Wake. Expect to have guests over throughout the night as people will come to have a final drink with the deceased.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

The Cremation

On the following day, the next half of the Wake and Cremation will be done. This half of the funeral is a bit more personal than the previous day, so you will most likely only see close relatives of the family. The same priest will arrive and a short sutra will be chanted. The coffin is brought down and the lid opened to expose the body. During this time, everyone will be welcomed to gather around as flowers are passed around and placed in the coffin until just the face of the disease is left. The lid will be placed back over the coffin, and the men will partake in lifting each end of the coffin and carrying it out of the auditorium to the hearse that is waiting outside.

All the attendees will stand on both sides of the hearse in complete silence until the coffin is loaded in. The priest will give a short prayer, and a deep long bow is given as the door of the hearse is closed. If the funeral has a big turnout, everyone will take a bus to the crematorium. Otherwise, people will follow the hearse in their own car. The way to the crematorium will be a slow ride as the driver will avoid the main roads and take many lefts and rights. This is part of a belief that if you take the same way to the crematorium and back, the spirit following will get confused and lost. 

Once at the crematorium, the coffin will be unloaded and wheeled into the building. Everyone will proceed in a single file line and fill into a room where the body will be cremated. The priests will begin another sutra as the coffin is pushed into the crematory. Everyone will bow deeply as this is happening until the doors of the crematory are closed. As the sutra continues and the body burns, everyone will offer incense similar to how it was done the previous day. As the body is being burned, everyone will be invited to a light lunch. Definitely something I didn’t want to do as I didn’t have the appetite for each after such an experience. The lunch will go on for about an hour where everyone will talk with relatives. The immediate family members will get to sit and eat with the priests while everyone else will find their own seats. This will last for about an hour, the time it takes for the deceased to be fully cremated and the bones recovered.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

Passing Of The Bones

After cremation, everyone will enter back into a room similar to the one they were just in. In the center is a giant platter with a pile of bones on it. The cremation technician will put aside pieces of the skull while explaining what each bone is. He’ll hand out sets of long chopsticks, and everyone will begin the tradition known as kotsuage. Each family member will pick up a piece of bone together with the chopsticks and place it in the urn. This tradition is why it’s also taboo to pass food to people with chopsticks. This will go on until all the bones are placed into the urn, the cremation technician crushing down the bones now and again. Once all the bones are in the urn, the pieces of the skull will be placed on top, but not crushed down. The urn is then sealed and placed into a box. With the priest leading, everyone will proceed out of the crematorium like they did when they came in and load back onto the microbus to go back to the funeral home.

At the funeral home, everyone but the immediate family members is allowed to go home, and the funeral is officially over at this point. The priest and the immediate family members will go back to the auditorium and place the box of ashes where the coffin was. The priest will lead the family through another sutra where everyone is asked to participate. After that is done, the family will be free to leave and the urn will go home with the family to be placed within the family shrine known as a bustudan. The house will smell of incense, fresh flowers will be put in vases around the shrine, and personal items of the deceased will be placed nearby. This will last there for a month until the burial at the family shrine.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

The Burial

A month after the funeral, the burial process will start at the temple where the family’s grave is. The urn and portrait of the deceased will be brought along to lunch at the priest’s residence where it will be displayed at the front of the room, similar to the dinner that happened during the Wake. After lunch, everyone will be brought to the shrine itself and the priest will chant another sutra. Everyone will approach the shrine and offer incense in a similar way that was done during the Wake with incense powder. Due to the family being part of the Tendai Buddhist sect, as well as the temple, an additional ceremony was added where pieces of paper with a depiction of Tsuno Daishi were handed out and then tossed into the air in unison as a gesture of asking for good luck to the deceased in their trip to heaven.

After the sutra, the family will walk to the family grave, usually on the temple grounds. Immediate family members will be given items like the urn, spirit tablet, flowers, incense, and a long plank of wood with the deceased’s Buddhist name on it known as a sotoba. The family’s gravestone is cleaned up as old dead flowers are tossed out, and replaced with new flowers. The gravestone is washed in water from the temple, and incense is burned and offered to the ancestors that are already buried there. The maintenance man of the temple will come and break open the seals of the grave. If you manage to sneak a peek, you’ll be able to see urns that were placed when past family members passed away, and can date back hundreds of years ago.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

Memorial Services

Following the burial, the immediate family is expected to visit the grave every month, changing out flowers with new ones, burning incense, and cleaning the gravestone with water. Things like drinks and snacks are typically left. Officially, this can also take place within the 7th, 49th, 100th day according to Buddhist beliefs since the burial, however, traditions vary between families. The portrait of the deceased family member will be placed within or near the household’s altar, typically where all the family’s deceased portraits are found, and incense are still burned occasionally. The next big memorial will take place a year later where the family will gather to visit the gravestone of the deceased. Obon, or the festival of the dead, where the spirits come to visit, is another gathering event for the family where they will visit and clean the gravestones of their ancestors.

Japanese Funerals - A Firsthand Guide To Traditions & Etiquette

An Experience

There you have it. Probably the most in-depth guide and explanation you’ll find on the internet regarding funerals in Japan. I was unfortunate enough to have to go through not one, but two funerals during my time so far in Japan. Fortunately, I documented everything so that I could write and share the experience here for fellow gaijin who may have to go through the same thing I did.

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