Japanese Funeral Customs

Japanese Buddhist Funeral Customs

By: Billy Hammond

Japanese funeral customs vary widely from region to region, so a generic description is not possible. The religion of the deceased person's family also has a bearing on the final arrangements, as do other factors such as the age at which the person died, social status and the family's economic circumstances.

I have attended a number of Japanese Buddhist funerals over the years for both friends and relatives and the information here is based on these experiences. Some of the customs, such as the wake service, funeral service, bone collection, etc. are fairly standard throughout Japan(1) although the specific rituals used will, of course, vary with the religious sect officiating. Information on burials has not been included because the vast majority of Japanese funerals are cremations and details on sutras, religious implements, etc. have been kept to the minimum to allow for a more generalized presentation.

Washing of the Body

The body of the deceased is usually washed at the hospital and the orifices stuffed with gauze or cotton. In former times, the family would wash the body; however, it has become more common to leave this up to the hospital. The body is then dressed in a suit (in the case of a man) or a kimono (in the case of a woman). Some men may be dressed in formal kimono, however, this has become rather uncommon. A cosmetics specialist from the mortuary will also put make-up on the body as necessary. The body is then taken to the place where the wake service is to be held.

Choosing the Arrangements

As soon as the person dies, a representative from the mortuary will approach the person who will be in charge of the arrangements (usually the eldest son) to choose the day of the service(2), type of altar for the funeral, food for the guests who come to the wake service, presents for those who come to the wake and/or the funeral, type of casket and other items pertaining to the funeral. As you can imagine, the bigger and taller altars (the typical altar is tiered and decorated with elaborate carvings) cost more. These are assembled at the funeral site by the mortuary workers and usually flowers and fruits are placed on them.

Preparing the body

The body is put on dry ice(3) in a room at the mortuary or in front of the family altar (most Japanese are Buddhists) and the next of kin stay with it or close-by until it is time to put it in the casket. By this time all of the close relatives will have changed into black suits and black kimono or black dresses.

People from the mortuary arrive and place the body in the casket. After the body is placed in the casket, a traditional white kimono, leggings, sandals, paper money for the deceased to pay for the toll across the River of the 3 Hells, and a white headband with a triangle in the center are put into the casket. Burnable items such as cigarettes, candy, etc. that the deceased was fond of in life may also be placed in the casket. After the items have been placed in the casket, more dry ice is added.

The body is placed in front of the main altar if the wake and funeral are to be held at at the mortuary hall or in front of the family altar if the wake is to be held at home.


A table is set up at the entrance of the home or hall and 2 or 3 people greet the people who arrive to pay their respects. Each person signs his name in a registry book and presents condolence money ( koden ), which is contained in a special envelope that has a thin black and white ribbon wrapped around it. The amount given depends on the relation of the visitor to the deceased and/or the deceased's family. The amount within the envelope is written on its outside. The receptionist notes down the amount of condolence money next to the giver's name in the registry book and presents it to the family together with the money after the funeral.

Incense is burned in front of the altar or on a table in front of the casket, and friends and relatives who arrive stand in front of the table facing the casket or sit on a cushion in front of the altar, bow, ring the altar bell, and offer incense and prayers individually.

The visitor extends his condolences to the family members who are usually seated close to the deceased. After speaking to the family, the visitor goes to another room where drinks and food are served.

The Wake Service and the Wake

The Buddhist priest arrives at the scheduled time and is offered green tea. He speaks briefly with the family, during which time people who have not entered the room yet come in and sit on the floor (or on chairs if it is a funeral hall). After everyone has entered, the priest turns to the altar, bows, lights incense and begins to read a sutra. During the sutra reading, the priest gives a signal and the members of the family, who are seated in hierarchical order, rise and go to the incense urn, bow, offer incense, bow again and return to their seats. After the family members have finished, the visitors repeat the ritual until everyone has finished. The priest finishes the sutra, after which everyone bows to the altar and the wake service ends. Depending on the Buddhist sect, everyone may chant the "mantra" of the Buddhist sect in unison at points during the service.

Even after the wake service has ended, visitors will continue to arrive to pay their respects, and it is considered appropriate for friends, other than very close friends, to only attend either the wake service (or visit on the night of the wake service) or the funeral. A small present is given to each visitor as he or she leaves as an expression of thanks from the family.

The family stays up with the deceased in the same room for the night. In some areas, a person who is not a close blood relative (son-in-law, daughter-in-law of the deceased, distant cousin, etc.) may be asked to do this, while in others the next-of-kin take turns staying up with the deceased.

The Funeral

The funeral is usually held on the day after the wake service. The body is transferred to a temple (in the case where the wake was held at home) and placed before the altar that the mortuary has constructed in front of the temple altar. A wooden tablet inscribed with the posthumous name(4) of the deceased is placed on the altar or in front of it. The posthumous name is assigned and inscribed by the priest.

When the time for the funeral service arrives, the priest reads the sutra and partway through gives a signal to begin the offering of incense. Just as at the wake service, each of the family members offer incense in hierarchical order, after which the visitors take turns in offering incense. Almost all of the visitors have rosaries, which they drape over their hands. The person offering incense goes to the urn placed in front of the altar, stands at attention (or sits Japanese style on the cushion in front of it if the urn is on a low table on the floor), puts his or her hands together with the rosary around them, then bows. Next he or she places a pinch of incense on the smoldering incense in the urn after bringing it close to the forehead. Some people repeat this process 3 times; others do it only once. The person stands at attention again (or bows while sitting Japanese style if the urn is on a low table on the floor), and again bows before returning to his or her seat.

The priest finishes reading the sutra (he continues to chant while incense is being offered) and the people bow as he leaves the room. A representative of the family (usually the eldest son) thanks the visitors on behalf of the family after the priest leaves. Telegrams from friends and companies are then read by an emcee from the mortuary. Next, depending on the area, the visitors may be asked to put flowers in the casket during the final viewing. After the final viewing the casket is sealed.

Everyone stands at attention and the pallbearers carry the casket to the hearse. The hearse is elaborately carved and looks like a temple on wheels. The hearse leads the funeral procession to the crematorium with the car or cars with the immediate family members following.

The Crematorium

The casket is unloaded from the hearse at the crematorium and placed on a sliding tray connected to the oven. The family members watch the casket as it is slid into the crematorium and are told by the attendant at what time to return to get the remains. A key that will unlock the crematorium portal (most crematoriums handle more than one body at a time) that the body was slid through is sometimes given to a representative family member.

The family goes home or waits at the funeral home until the appointed time. In some areas, the route used to travel home is changed to prevent the deceased spirit from following the family home. At some funerals, the family has food and drink catered for the family members and close friends and it is partaken during this interim.

At the appointed time, the family members go to the crematorium and the burned body is slid back out. Each of the family members is given a set of chopsticks to pick up the bones to put into the urn. The attendant usually points out the important pieces to pick up to put into the urn, the most important being the Adam's apple. The family members pick up the bones and put them into the urns with two persons grasping the same bone fragment together and putting it into the urn in unison. This custom explains why when two Japanese reach for the same piece of food at the same time with chopsticks, both will quickly pull back, as this is the only time two people hold the same thing with two sets of chopsticks.

When the urn (some Japanese will put a portion of the bones in a temple and some in the family grave, in which case 2 urns are filled) has been filled, it is covered and wrapped in a white cloth. The urn may be taken home and kept there until after the 49th day memorial service, depending on the custom prevalent in the area and the religion. In other areas the urn may be taken directly to the cemetery, and in rural areas there may even be a funeral procession to the cemetery with relatives and friends carrying the urn, the long wooden post or wooden strip bearing the posthumous name of the deceased, a picture of the deceased, ornaments used at the funeral, etc. There are large differences in ornaments, floral arrangements and the processions themselves that are dependent on local customs.

After Cremation

After cremation and bringing the urn home or putting it into the grave (Japanese family graves have a hollow space inside the gravestone to put the urns of the family), there are memorial services as well as prescribed times for gravesite visitation that vary with the Buddhist sect and local customs. Some areas have a service every day for the first 7 days, others have them at varying frequency up until the 49th day service. After the 49th day service, the 1st year Obon (Festival of the Dead) service is often considered important and memorial services are held at the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 13th-years and in other years depending on the sect and the desires of the survivors up to the 50th year.


(1) Funeral customs on Okinawa are different from those of the rest of Japan.

(2) Japanese do not usually have funerals on inauspicious days known as " tomobiki ".

(3) The Japanese do not have the custom of embalming the body.

(4)The posthumous name is called kaimyo in Japanese and it is a name that differs from that which the person had when alive, which is supposed to help prevent the person from returning every time his or her name is called.

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Copyright 2001 A.E.L.S., Inc. (TanuTech) Billy Hammond. Reproduction without express written permission from the author is prohibited.