‘Too Expensive to Die’ in Japan?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
WHETHER living here in Japan or elsewhere, death is no respecter of persons.
Neither does death wait until its victim can afford to die. Often it strikes unexpectedly, leaving the bereaved family little option other than to follow the local funeral customs regardless of the cost.
Why not take a few minutes to consider some of the funeral practices and costs here in Japan. If you have never attended a Japanese funeral, you probably will find it interesting to compare it with funerals in your area. But reading about a Japanese funeral may aid you in another way. It is rare for a person to give much forethought to a funeral for himself or a loved one. Still, by noting what is involved in many Japanese funerals, you may conclude that it would be wise to give some thought to what options are open in your locality.
How much a funeral might cost depends on the family status and social position of the deceased. This may be less than forty thousand yen or run into millions of yen.* The undertaker will usually suggest how much to spend. In Japan, neighbors and others will be there to see the funeral and talk about it afterward, so there is much social pressure to give the deceased “a good send-off.”
In some areas of Japan ancient customs still persist. One is that the people living in the same block take care of all the funeral details. However, in cities it is more common to leave all the arrangements to the undertaker. He supplies the coffin and hearse and (for Buddhists) an altar. Also, he may arrange for a place to have the funeral, flowers, taxis to and from the crematorium and the purchase of land for a grave. Help may also be offered in purchasing a suitable tombstone and a household altar if the Buddhist family does not already have one.
Most undertakers are registered with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, but that is not compulsory. A fairly representative pamphlet put out by a registered undertaker advertises two sets of funeral altar, coffin and accessories. The “A” set costs up to 200,000 yen, while “B” is about half that price. Of all the accessories, only three material things remain after the funeral: a register containing the names of the mourners, tablet bearing the posthumous name of the departed and a cinerary urn and wooden box for holding the ashes.
Of course, one need not stop at the prices shown on the pamphlet. Some people may feel that the family’s status or the social position of the deceased calls for something more expensive. For example, an ordinary coffin made of red lauan wood with a veneer of paulownia will cost 20,000 yen. A more expensive wood like cypress may cost 200,000 yen.
Private undertakers are increasing and each one has his own price. They do not have an installment plan like their registered counterparts and their starting fee is about 300,000 yen. Knowing these things, one is not surprised to hear, as at a recent funeral, that the fee of the undertaker alone was 2,000,000 yen.
Whether Buddhist, Shinto or “Christian,” the customary place for the funeral service is in the home of the deceased. People who live in small apartments, though, may feel that they should rent a larger place. Out of preference or due to the large numbers expected, some persons rent a room in a temple. One family recently paid 6,000,000 yen for the use of a room in a famous temple. Exhibition halls and gymnasiums are especially suited to large Japanese funerals.
Vigil over the Dead
Either on the night of the death or the night before the funeral members of the immediate family, relatives and close friends stay awake to watch over the dead. In ancient Japan this vigil lasted a week. During that time there was much feasting and dancing in the hope that the soul of the dead would return. A similar motive was behind a custom that persisted until recently, that of climbing onto the roof of the dead one’s house and loudly calling his name.
The funeral took place at night. It must have been an eerie experience in those days to be in such a funeral procession, a long way from the homes of the people, walking slowly toward the mountain grave with a few lanterns and with a Buddhist priest or two ringing small bells and chanting. Nowadays, funerals are held in broad daylight, and in the cities the procession has taken on the form of a car ride to the crematorium. Only the vigil over the dead remains, shortened to one night.
The Funeral Service
If you have seen one Buddhist funeral service you have almost seen them all. In the room is the altar with a photograph of the deceased. The coffin is behind the altar, while in front of it are the incense holder and burner.
Members of the immediate family, then other relatives, and then friends and acquaintances take their turn in paying their last respects. At large funerals a list of names is compiled and read aloud so that this part of the service proceeds smoothly. What is someone coming to a Buddhist funeral service expected to do? Holding a rosary in his left hand he first bows to the priests and members of the immediate family. Then he faces the altar and bows toward the photograph of the deceased. Moving closer, he takes some incense off the holder and drops it into the burner. Finally, with both hands at his sides, he bows his last farewell to the departed.
This part of the service often takes place between Buddhist sutra chanting by one or more priests. A priest, for his part in the service, receives a commission that varies greatly according to the temple, sect and rank of the priest. At one recent funeral the priest received 10,000 yen, while at another funeral a priest was given 500,000 yen. So even the religious service at a funeral can be costly.
Cremation or Burial
At the end of the funeral service the coffin is put into an elaborate hearse and taken to be cremated or, in a few instances, to be buried. Even when someone is cremated, the remains are usually buried in a grave, though a small one.
How much does a grave cost? Well, in Japan land is scarce and expensive. A plot 90 x 90 centimeters (about 35 inches square), currently the conventional size, costs some 200,000 yen. And that is not the end of the matter, for next comes a stone marker on the plot. Depending on its size, shape, workmanship and type of stone, the marker may cost from 200,000 to 800,000 yen. The most common type has four square parts. The top one is a rectangular prism with the family name cut into the front face and the posthumous name on the side.
“A posthumous name?” you may wonder. Yes, a name given to someone after he has died. It is customary for such a name to be given to a deceased person by a Buddhist priest. But complying with this custom is quite an expense. Called kaimyo by the Japanese, a posthumous Buddhist name can cost from twenty thousand to a million yen or more. The price depends on the Chinese characters chosen as well as the sect and rank of the priest who writes them on a tablet purchased from the undertaker. This name is supposed to benefit the dead in another world, but some persons are beginning to wonder if such a costly custom is necessary.
For those who do follow this custom, the special tablet with the posthumous name is put into the Butsudan. What is that? A household Buddhist altar, which also can be very expensive. Although an average Butsudan costs 300,000 yen, the price can range up to thirty million yen. In the days before this portable household altar made its debut, a place of worship was built into one of the rooms in the house. This was called a tokonoma. Many houses still have a tokonoma, but this built-in alcove, often taking up half of one wall, is now used mainly for a simple floral arrangement.
If you have been taking note of the various expenses that can pile up in a customary Japanese funeral, you may feel, “That’s certainly a heavy financial burden on the family.” You are right. But Japanese custom even spreads the burden to others, perhaps trying to relieve the family somewhat. This is through the custom of others making gifts of money called koden, meaning literally “incense offering.”
Outside the house where the funeral is held, a small tent and table are set up. There a receptionist accepts the koden. Later, some of the money is used to buy a gift for the donor as a token of acknowledgment. The remainder will be used to defray some of the funeral expense. It is when the koden is received that the register or record of mourners is made.
Less Expensive Funerals
Registered undertakers are sometimes asked to handle the funeral of a person who has been on social security. For such the government pays a flat rate of 51,700 yen. As you can appreciate, these funerals are simple. While still being dignified, such funerals do not leave the bereaved family saddled with debt.
The funerals held by Christian witnesses of Jehovah are usually much less costly than traditional Buddhist funerals. This is because of their understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the dead, combined with the modesty and reasonableness the Bible recommends. Take, for example, a recent funeral at one of the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The undertaker was called upon to supply only the coffin and the light van to take the body to the crematorium. While most Buddhists who have a loved one cremated and then buried spend a great deal of money for a stone burial marker, the Christian family in this case did not feel was necessary. They realized that what is most important is a person’s standing before our Creator, who will in time resurrect those ransomed by Christ’s sacrifice. An added reason was that the family would not be making annual religious pilgrimages to the burial spot, as the Buddhists do.
“But was there any funeral service?” you may ask. Yes, after the cremation, at a time convenient to the majority, a memorial talk was given at the Kingdom Hall. There was no costly altar, photograph or incense for worship. Neither was there any need for koden to be given by visitors. The minister who gave the discourse about the Christian hope of the resurrection expected no pay for his services. Members of the congregation anonymously contributed the beautiful flowers on the platform. Many Buddhist relatives and acquaintances expressed appreciation for the simple ceremony, which, after a song about the resurrection hope, closed with a prayer to the One who is able to resurrect the dead.
A Topic for Thought
Our brief consideration of a traditional Buddhist funeral does illustrate why for many persons it could almost be said that it is too expensive to die. Yet it can be appreciated that not all the expenses that result from following custom are necessary. It is true that at present death is ‘part of life.’ Still, when persons make decisions in accord with what is really necessary or best, and not just according to custom, survivors need not have added to their sorrow the burden of debt.
As an aid to understanding costs, an American dollar is worth about 300 yen.