Shinto Funeral Beliefs & Rituals

by Eleanor McKenzie

Although Shinto is Japan's oldest religion, it has relatively few followers in modern Japan. However, many Japanese Buddhists add some element of Shinto to their style of worship. Shinto is unlike other religions because it has no written scriptures, no religious laws and even the priesthood is fairly informal. Shinto funeral customs are not laid down in a book, but the rituals have been handed down over centuries.

Preparations

Proper preparation for a Shinto funeral is vital and there are at least 20 rituals that the deceased's family must follow precisely. Shinto beliefs are simple but its ceremonies are complex affairs. Added to this, there is no leeway in a funeral ceremony for deviation from the ritual, such as including some form of personal touch. Of the numerous customs, four of them make up the core of the rituals: kichu-fuda, koden, kotsuage and bunkotsu.

Mourning

The kichu-fuda ritual is a mourning custom lasting one day, during which time intense grief is expressed. The mourners wear only black and some carry a rosary as a prayer aid. A Shinto priest performs ceremonies that include chanting, singing and praying to begin and end this period of mourning. During this time of mourning, the family can perform other rituals, such as koden. This is a gift of money from friends and relatives to the close family of the deceased; its purpose is to help with the funeral costs.

After Cremation

The body is cremated, but in Shinto what happens to the ashes is most important. The ashes must be placed in an urn within an above-ground mausoleum. If bones appear among the ashes, then the family observe the kotsuage ritual of one member picking up the bones with chopsticks and passing them to another member, who then places them in the urn. Bunkotsu is the ritual of allowing close relatives to have some of the ashes for their family shrines at home. The priest also gives the deceased a new name that the person uses in heaven, which is called Tengoku. After the funeral, each person who goes back to the deceased's house throws salt over his shoulder to ward off evil spirits. At some houses, salt may be sprinkled on the ground for mourners to walk in. The deceased's family can't go to parties or take part in any form of entertainment for 49 days after the funeral.

Matsuri: Grave Maintenance and Visits

Graves in Japan tend to be quite impressive and have large burial stones. Graves are well-maintained by the family of the deceased as a mark of respect. One reason for this is that in Japan a person's ancestors are not only revered, they are also worshiped, and home altars often display the family ancestors on small tablets with their names. Fresh flowers are brought weekly to the grave, which contains the deceased's ashes. Relatives usually place a bowl of sand at the grave to hold the incense sticks that are lit at the beginning of any visit to the grave. Matsuri is a graveside visit or memorial service that must be performed on specific days and anniversaries: on the 3rd, 7th and 49th days after the funeral, and in the 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th and 33rd year on the anniversary of the death.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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