Japan has a thoughtful new way to bury the dead

At the identical time, many countries are reworking funerary rituals, altering the way cemeteries function and even destroying historic cemeteries to reclaim land for the residing. In Singapore, for instance, the authorities has forcibly demolished household tombs in favor of columbariums, constructions that may maintain the urns of the cremated. Grave areas in the city-state can be utilized just for a time period of 15 years, after which the stays are cremated and the area is used for one more burial.

In Hong Kong, gravesites are amongst the most expensive real estate per sq. foot and the authorities has enlisted pop stars and different celebrities to promote cremation over physical burial.

As a scholar who research Buddhist funerary rituals and narratives about the afterlife, what pursuits me are the revolutionary responses in some Buddhist-majority nations and the tensions that end result as environmental wants conflict with spiritual beliefs.

Table of Contents


Apply of tree burial

As early as the 1970s, public officers in Japan have been involved about a lack of enough burial area in city areas. They supplied a number of novel options, from cemeteries in distant resort cities the place households might manage a trip round a go to for conventional graveside rituals, to chartered bus journeys to rural areas to bury family members. Starting in 1990, the Grave-Free Promotion Society, a volunteer social group, publicly advocated for the scattering of human ashes.

Since 1999, the Shōunji Temple in northern Japan has tried to supply a extra revolutionary answer to this disaster by way of Jumokusō, or “tree burials.” In these burials, households place cremated stays in the floor and a tree is planted over the ashes to mark the gravesite.

The Shōunji mother or father temple opened a smaller temple web site often known as Chishōin in an space the place there was already a small woodland. Right here, in a small park, free from the giant, stone markers of conventional Japanese grave websites, Buddhist monks perform annual rituals for the deceased. Households are additionally nonetheless in a position to go to family members and carry out their very own spiritual rituals at the web site—not like the scattering of cremated stays promoted by the Grave-Free Promotion Society, which leaves the household with out the particular ritual area required for conventional Confucian and Buddhist rituals.

Whereas many households electing for tree burials don’t explicitly determine as Buddhist or affiliate with a Buddhist temple, the observe displays Japanese Buddhism’s bigger curiosity in environmental duty. Maybe influenced by Shinto beliefs about gods residing in the pure world, Japanese Buddhism has traditionally been distinctive amongst Buddhist traditions for its deal with the environmental world.

Whereas the earliest Indian Buddhist thought framed vegetation as non-sentient and, subsequently, exterior of the cycle of reincarnation, Japanese Buddhism frames flora as a residing part of the cycle of reincarnation and, subsequently, vital to shield.

As a end result, Japanese Buddhist establishments right this moment usually body the problem of humanity’s influence on the setting as a particularly religious concern. The top of the Shōunji temple has described tree burials as a part of a uniquely Buddhist dedication to preserving the natural environment.

Social transformations

The concept of tree burials has confirmed so in style in Japan that different temples and public cemeteries have mimicked the mannequin, some offering burial areas beneath particular person bushes and others areas in a columbarium that surrounds a single tree.


Scholar Sébastian Penmellen Boret writes in his 2016 e-book that these tree burials reflect larger transformations in Japanese society. After World Struggle II, Buddhism’s affect on Japanese society declined as lots of of new spiritual actions flourished. Moreover, an rising pattern towards urbanization undermined the ties that had historically existed between households and the native temples, which housed and cared for his or her ancestral gravesites.

Tree burials additionally value considerably lower than traditional funerary practices, which is a vital consideration for a lot of Japanese folks struggling to help a number of generations. The birth rate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world, so youngsters usually wrestle with out siblings to help ailing and deceased dad and mom and grandparents.

Historically, ties existed between households and the native temples, which housed and cared for his or her ancestral gravesites. [Photo: Cebas/iStock]

Concern over conventional ceremonies

This transfer has not been with out controversy. Non secular and cultural communities throughout East Asia preserve that a bodily area is critical to go to the deceased for varied afterlife rituals. Confucian traditions preserve that it’s the duty of the baby to care for his or her deceased dad and mom, grandparents, and different ancestors by way of ritual choices of meals and different objects.

Throughout the competition of Obon, usually held in the center of August, Japanese Buddhists will go to household graves and make foods and drinks choices for his or her ancestors, as they imagine the deceased go to the human world throughout this era. These choices for ancestors are repeated biannually at the spring and fall equinoxes, known as “ohigan.”

Moreover, some Buddhist temples have expressed concern that tree burials are irrevocably undermining their social and financial ties to native communities. Since the establishment of the Danka system in the Seventeenth-century, Japanese Buddhist temples have historically held a monopoly on ancestral burial websites. They carried out a number of gravesite providers for households to guarantee their liked one has a good rebirth in return for annual donations.

American funeral traditions

Tree burials nonetheless stay a minority observe in Japan, however there’s proof they’re rapidly growing in popularity. Japanese tree burials, nevertheless, mirror developments taking place in burial practices in the United States.

Whereas in the previous, grave slots have been regarded as being in perpetuity, now most cemeteries supply burial leases for a maximum period of 100 years, with shorter leases each frequent and inspired. As represented by the pioneering work of mortician Caitlin Doughty and others, consumers are turning an increasingly doubtful eye to the accouterments of the conventional American funeral, together with the public viewing of an embalmed physique, a casket communicative of social standing, and a giant stone marking one’s grave.

A part of this undoubtedly displays sociological information indicating the decline of traditional religious institutions and a rise at the identical time in different spiritualities. Nonetheless, above all, such efforts towards new types of burial signify the elementary versatility of spiritual rituals and religious practices as they remodel to deal with rising environmental and social elements.

Natasha Mikles is a lecturer in philosophy at Texas State University. This text is republished from The Conversation beneath a Artistic Commons license. Learn the original article.