Funeral Etiquette

marrigeWhen a Japanese person passes away, the family plan the funeral based on the religious beliefs of the deceased. Although the number of funerals based on the individual wishes of the deceased is increasing recently, in the case of most Japanese, funerals are performed in accordance with Buddhist beliefs. As there is a strong possibility that you will have to attend a funeral if you live in Japan for a long time, I would like to explain about some of the basic rules of Japanese funerals.

 

The basics of attending a Buddhist funeral

What to wear

Men should wear a black suit with matching jacket and trousers and a black necktie. Women should wear non-revealing attire. A black dress or suit is standard. If you decide to wear a skirt or dress, it should fall below the knees. If you have prayer beads, you should bring them to the funeral but it is not necessary to have some.

Condolence Gift

When attending a funeral in Japan, it is customary to give a cash gift known as a “condolence gift”. The money should be put in a special envelope and handed in at the reception of the funeral. If you are attending the funeral of a colleague or boss, a condolence gift of between \5,000 and \10,000 is usual. It is a good idea to ask other colleagues how much to give and which envelope to use in advance. It is impolite to ask the family of the deceased directly how much you should give and if you do ask, you will usually not receive an answer. There are 2 meanings to giving a condolence gift. One is “an offering to the deceased”; the other is “to support the family of the deceased”.

What to say

Any words that are sincere in feeling are fine but there are 2 standard phrases to use when someone passes away.
1 Konotabiwa, makotoni goshuushousama desu.
2 Okuyami moushiagemasu.
“Shuushou”, is a polite way to say, “I feel sympathy”. “Okuyami” means that you also mourn the passing of the deceased.

Specific words related to Japanese funerals

Moshu – The funeral organizer. Usually the partner or eldest son of the deceased.
Tsuya – A ritual which takes place the day before the funeral in which friends and family view the body.
Sougi – A religious funeral ceremony.
Kokubetsushiki – A farewell ceremony.
Although “sougi” and “kokubetsushiki” are traditionally different ceremonies, one being religious, the other non-religious, they are usually performed together these days.
At funerals, the guests are expected to place “goshoukou” (incense chips), “senkou” (incense sticks), or “funmatsujou no makou” (powdered incense), into a specific container. 

Rituals of a Buddhist funeral

After going through reception, enter the funeral hall and sit down. You may be required to kneel down on a “zabuton” (Japanese cushion). Seating is pre-arranged for the family members so you should either ask the funeral hall staff, or sit towards the back of the hall. While the priest reads out the sutra, he will say the following words “Goshoukou wo onegaishimasu”. Following these words, those attending, starting with the closest family members will perform the ritual of offering incense. As this ritual is different depending on the funeral, watch the people before you and copy them. Although some people may go home after giving incense, it is customary to wait in your seat until the end of the funeral is announced.

The basic ideas behind a Buddhist funeral

Although there are many different sects within Buddhism, the basic idea behind a Buddhist funeral is that, after passing away, the deceased is freed from the human ego and becomes a “hotoke” or soul. Buddhism is also based on the idea of reincarnation, the endless cycle of life.
After the ritual of “Tsuya”(looking over the body for one night), the “kokubetsushiki / soushiki”(funeral) takes place on the next day so that those attending can pay their respects and say their farewells. Finally, the body is cremated. Only the family members usually take part in the cremation ceremony and the other attendees usually only attend the “Tsuya” and the “Kokubetsushiki”.
Although cremation is the most common practice in Japan, in a few areas, burial is also possible. 

 
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