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The Japanese Buddhists conceive death as the beginning of a new life in the afterlife. For them, there is no clear boundary between life and death. They form a continuum, life and death overlap and combine simultaneously.

The deceased becomes an individualized ancestor through a succession of ancestral rites. At the end of this process, he receives a posthumous Buddhist name and becomes a protective ancestor of the family line.

Death is apprehended with great serenity as it serves just as a gateway toward another stage. In the past, the tombs were installed in the middle of the village.

When someone dies, before the vigil, they purify the body with frankincense to remove the impurities generated by death. On a table next to the corpse are placed candles, incense, and flowers: that practice is called « the decoration of the pillow ».

Then, by turns, they moisten the lips of the deceased so that he can rebirth: that practice is called « the last moment water ceremony « .

During the vigil, a Buddhist monk reads a sutra and gives a posthumous name to the deceased. At the end of the vigil, each person must sprinkle himself with salt or water. This gesture is considered a sign of purification which helps to keep away the evil spirits that surround death.

They dress the body with white cloths and place his head to the North, or the East, toward the direction of the Buddhist kingdom.

Buddhist cemetery

The relatives are traditionally dressed in white because, in Asian cultures, white represents the color of mourning. However, with Japan opening to the Western world, they may wear black color during the vigil and all other ceremonies.

The family places in the defunct’s hands a Buddhist rosary composed of 108 beads and a small bag filled with silver coins. The coins will allow him to pay for the crossing of the river of death, while the rosary will help his soul to detach itself from human desires and to reach virtue. They can also deposit a knife on his chest to keep away the evil spirits.

Next to the body, they place a bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks planted in it: this represents his last meal before his crossing to the afterlife.

During the cremation, the family and the relatives have lunch in his memory.

After the cremation, they deposit the remains of the bones and the ashes in an urn with the help of chopsticks and then reduce it into powder. They keep that content on an altar inside the family home for 49 days.

A Buddhist priest prays on the 3rd, 7th, 21st, and 49th days to guide the deceased’s spirit to the afterlife. After these 49 days, the family can choose to place the urn in the cemetery, in the family vault, or to keep it at home, in a cupboard containing the memories of the deceased and incense.

At the end of the ceremonies, the participants receive a gift to thank them for coming to the funeral. The Japanese do not observe a mourning period after the ceremony.

Buddhist cemetery

During the Middle Ages, they stigmatize and discriminate the persons in contact with death. Those people are called the Burakumin (“the hamlet people”). All of them are considered impure, and their activity is shameful. They live all together in isolated villages, prepare the food for the falcons and treat the animal skins.
At this period, to obtain complete purification, the body is burned.

The burial is reserved for the condemned to death and the impure beings such as the Burakumin. They are thus condemned to the putrefaction and the decomposition of their bodies.

Sources

Fabienne Duteil-Ogata, Les pratiques funéraires contemporaines japonaises : quels lieux pour les morts et pour la mort au Japon ?

(https://journals.openedition.org/essais)

Anais Pillet, Les rites funéraires au Japon, pays du soleil levant

(https://www.researchgate.net/publication)

(https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rites)

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