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Changes in Care for the Dead in Japan

by Stephen G. Covell


Death practices - how we deal with the body, where we dispose of the remains,
how we ritualize the passing of another human being - have changed in Japan.


Two years ago I sat in a small theater at the University of California, Berkeley. I was there with two dozen Buddhist-studies scholars for a special screening of Departures (Okuribito, the original Japanese title), a beautiful film that revolved around death and care for the dead. By the end of the film, there was hardly a dry eye in the audience. Perhaps Buddhist-studies scholars are particularly emotional, but I think the impact would have been the same anywhere. Death moves us like few other things, and nothing brings the reality of death closer to us than care for the body of the deceased. Death makes us question who we are and why we exist. Most religions seek to supply answers to these questions. Death practices vary from culture to culture and from time to time, and Japan is no exception. Death practices - how we deal with the body, where we dispose of the remains, how we ritualize the passing of another human being - have changed in Japan. Indeed, the modern period, especially the past several decades, has been witness to numerous changes. These changes reveal shifts in how Japanese understand death and the role of Buddhist temples in death care, and even how Japanese understand their relationships to one another.

The film Departures is in some ways a perfect example of the changes in death-care practices in Japan. In the film, we see only rare glimpses of the Buddhist priesthood despite the still-central role priests play in death care. Where have the priests gone? Where has the temple gone?

The fact is that the priest and the temple are still there, still central to death care in Japan. Funerals in Japan are still overwhelmingly Buddhist. The many denominations and individual temples of Temple Buddhism in Japan1 still see funerals, memorials, and care for the ancestors as a crucial part of what they do. A young priest's training invariably consists of a heavy dose of ritual practice aimed at perfecting the delivery of funerary rites. For many Buddhist priests, care for the dead at the temple or by the priest represents a primary method for serving the community and spreading the teachings of Buddhism. It is also a key funding source for the majority of temples. So, despite debate among Buddhist practitioners over the validity or usefulness of performing funerals and memorials, and despite vocal accusations of corruption and secularization of Temple Buddhism by the mass media and academics who espouse the "corruption paradigm" (daraku setsu) - which I have argued against elsewhere2 - it is highly unlikely that temples and priests will simply disappear from the realm of death care in Japan.

It is not just the Buddhist establishment that continues to see Buddhism as playing a dominant role in death care in Japan. As Yohko Tsuji notes, for the average Japanese, funerary rites play a pivotal role in confirming, maintaining, and at times challenging individual social roles and personal identity. Tsuji argues that this is one reason why, even though most Japanese do not appear to "believe" in Buddhist funerary teachings, they still seek out Buddhist rites, which have woven their way into the social fabric of Japan over a period of centuries.3

Nevertheless, Buddhism does appear to be slowly fading into the background at funerals, even though the priest sits center stage. Just as in Departures, the priest and the temple more and more appear to be secondary characters in the care for the dead. There are a variety of reasons for this, including a serious debate concerning posthumous names and funerary rites that continues within the Buddhist establishment and in the popular media, changes in how people understand death and the afterlife, the professionalization and commercialization of death care through funeral companies, and changes in family structures.

Buddhism has dominated death care in Japan for centuries. Perhaps the most notable aspect of that care, certainly the most debated recently, is the granting of a Buddhist precept name (kaimyo) to the deceased during the funeral. A survey regarding posthumous precept names reveals interesting aspects of the current debates over Buddhist funerals.4 Temple lay members (danka) responding negatively regarding the necessity of such names numbered 32.9 percent, but 64 percent of students and 77.3 percent of the Internet respondents revealed dissatisfaction, showing a decidedly negative view of posthumous names among the young and tech-savvy.

As to why there appears to be such a negative view of this key component of the Buddhist funeral, a survey of head priests (jushoku) found many (70.7 percent) responding that "the problem lies in the commercialization of faith, in which posthumous precept names are given in response to remuneration." There are many possible reasons why the meaning and function of posthumous precept names, and the Buddhist funeral more generally, are questioned today and why the priests surveyed believed the perception of commercialization dominates public opinion. Here I will discuss the following: (1) in sectarian and popular literature it is argued that priests fail to teach the laity about meaning and function, and (2) views of the afterlife and salvation are rapidly changing in Japan.

One critique leveled at the priests of traditional Buddhism, often by the priests themselves, is that they fail to explain the meaning of the ritual services they perform - that is, they fail to preach. However, my fieldwork shows that many do take advantage of the opportunity death care provides to discourse on Buddhist teachings. The perceived lack of preaching may come from differing expectations regarding the teaching. For example, the priest will often take the time to explain the ritual implements or the outline of the funeral process and thus guide the bereaved through the ritual, whereas a growing number of laity appear to seek a more personally meaningful approach to teaching, such as memorializing of the deceased.

Attempts to teach about the meaning and function of posthumous precept names, or to advocate for the continuance of performing funerals as they always have been, face an uphill battle. Japanese views of the afterlife, and of the role of the funeral in death care, are rapidly changing. One problem created by these changes is that posthumous precept names and Buddhist funerals no longer hold the effective meaning they once did. One Tendai priest comments:

"I doubt there are too many people in today's world that fear spirits. And, I don't think that talking about classical worldviews like hells and pure lands has any power of persuasion. In which case, the meaning of holding a magical service to appease the spirits [of the dead] is denied. . . . What people seek in Buddhism is a ritual to memorialize the dead and express condolences. However, the problem is that today's ritual has become a ritual for the purpose of having a ceremony. The peace of mind, which originally should be sought, is given nothing but lip service."5

According to the survey of temple lay members, students, and Internet respondents cited above, only 41.4 percent of temple lay members believed in the existence of a world after death, with students and Internet respondents numbering about the same (40.5 percent and 39.5 percent respectively). A different survey, conducted in 1996, found that only 15.9 percent of respondents believed in a world after death, but another 38.8 percent thought it might be possible.6 Regarding the existence of spirits or a soul (reikon), 47.8 percent of temple lay members admitted believing they exist, compared with 54 percent of students.7 These numbers suggest that for many contemporary Japanese the granting of a posthumous precept name, or the holding of a funeral ritual to secure some form of postmortem salvation, may hold little meaning beyond social custom. A survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government further confirms this. According to this survey, 60 percent of respondents answered "a funeral is a custom for seeing off the deceased" and only 32.4 percent answered "a funeral is a religious act for praying for the happiness of the deceased." This shows, when combined with the survey results cited previously, that many see the Buddhist funeral not as a "religious" act designed for the well-being of the deceased in the world hereafter but as a "customary" act designed to allow the living a moment to say farewell to the deceased. If this is the case, the question is begged, "Why must a funeral be Buddhist?" Though the term customary is misleading, since it creates a potentially false division between religion and custom, setting them apart as static opposites, the surveys nonetheless demonstrate that a shift is occurring from needs framed as next-life-focused to ones framed as this-life-focused. Buddhist institutions must address these changes to remain relevant.

And this gets to another factor influencing changes in the roles Buddhist temples and priests play in funerals and death care: funeral companies. Funeral companies have come to play a dominating role in the provision of death care in Japan. Funeral company employees are likely to be the first people (after hospital staff) to begin caring for the deceased. In many cases they, and not the family members, are the ones to contact the temple and make arrangements with the priest. And in a change from the past, it is the funeral company that guides the surviving family through the grieving process. Indeed, in response to the critique that priests fail to preach, many priests complain that funeral companies, which today often schedule funerals down to the time allotted the priest for conducting the ritual, do not allow them any time to preach. Funeral companies work to care for the needs of the living to mourn their loss, thus usurping what half a century ago was one of the primary roles of the Buddhist priesthood.

Another factor often cited to explain changes in Buddhist death-care practices is the slow decay of the relationship between the priesthood and temple lay members. The future of this relationship is of great concern to officials of the denominations of Temple Buddhism, and most are seriously engaged in programs to reach out to temple lay members.8 As the relationship weakens, and as functional relationships at funerals between priest and attendees become impersonal service-based relations, the opportunity to encourage understanding of the religious meaning of the funeral or any other part of Buddhist death care becomes limited.

The granting of lay precepts, and precept names, to the living is one way employed by some members of Temple Buddhism to infuse meaning into death-care practices.9 Given the above numbers regarding the changing views of the Japanese public toward the role of the funeral and the existence of an afterlife, this move to shift meaning to the living might seem an effective route to bring about positive change. In a sense, the living would become more involved in what has been a key part of the funeral by learning about and taking on a precept name before death. However, changing this association of precept names with death to an association with leading a moral life while alive requires changing basic assumptions about association with the temple: the temple must shift from a place one joins in death to a place one actively associates with in life, from a place that centers on ensuring the welfare of the dead to one that centers on activities to encourage the living to explore and practice the Buddhist teachings. One of the greatest challenges to Buddhist denominations is the "conversion" of temple lay members from believing in the temple as a place for postmortem practices only into active believers in the tenets of Buddhism.

Another road taken by some temples has been to move away from traditional temple lay membership patterns and, while still focusing on death care, seek new relationships with the laity. The effect on the funeral service itself varies, but the effect on temples and their relationships to the laity is significant. The primary change here is in where one is buried and how one is memorialized. A Buddhist-studies scholar, Mark Rowe, points out a variety of new developments within Temple Buddhism, including "eternal memorial" graves. These graves, even when administered and cared for by temples, are often nondenominational. They also do not require that families maintain them. This is a dramatic shift away from the standard form of affiliation with a temple through death care and multigenerational family membership at the temple. Such graves allow temples the opportunity to reach new members of the lay community while assuring a steady revenue stream. Perhaps what is most important is that the temples engaged in offering these grave sites are growing in number and represent what could eventually become a new model for how people associate with temples through death care. These new associations for burial and memorial clearly demonstrate the changing nature of veneration and the manner in which it is not simply affected by social structures but affects social structure as well. As Rowe notes, priests engaged in these new practices are particularly effective in reaching out to contemporary Japanese who more and more seek ways beyond the traditional family structure to care for the dead. Rowe states, for example, that "the two most common forms of relationship or bond (en) in Japan are those of blood and locale. What is fascinating to note about some of these burial groups is the way they are appropriating the en bond in new ways. The En no Kai offers no modifier for en, and becomes thus a 'Society of Bonds.' The use of the term shienbyo by the Society for a Women's Monument consciously modifies en by adding "will" or "intent" and thus enabling these women to form new types of bonds."10

So, what does the future hold for Buddhist death care? One thing is certain: change. Rowe's work points to changes in family structure and personal relations that are putting pressure on the institutions of Temple Buddhism to change how death care is delivered. My own work points to a variety of other pressures as well - from a growing desire on the part of young priests to become more engaged in care for the living to very practical financial concerns - that will continue to bring about changes in how Buddhist temples and priests are involved in death care. Unlike in the film Departures, but more like in the book on which the film was based, Buddhism is not likely to fade away into the background of death care in Japan. We are witnessing today the birth of new Buddhist death-care practices, some of which will last and some of which will be short-lived, but all of which point to a time of change and experimentation in Temple Buddhism. The institutions of Temple Buddhism will change, but Buddhist priests will not become merely the background chanting to a purely secular death-care industry.


1. Temple Buddhism refers to those denominations of Buddhism founded by the seventeenth century and includes such denominations as Tendai, Shingon, Rinzai, etc.

2. Stephen G. Covell, Japanese Temple Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006).
3. Yohko Tsuji, "Memorial Rituals in Japan: The Hegemony of Tradition and the Motivation of Individuals," Ethos 34, no. 3 (2006): 391-431.
4. Results of the parishioner/student/Internet survey can be found in Chugai nippo (May 9, 2000): 12. Those for the abbot survey can be found in Jimon koryu (August 2000): 86-89.
5. Hokushindo, ed., Jiin no genzai [Buddhist temples of today] (Tokyo: Hokushindo), 184.
6. Survey conducted by the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society, 1996. Cited in Kenji Ishii, Deta bukku: Gendai nihonjin no shukyo: Sengo gojunen no shukyo ishiki to shukyo kodo [Religions of contemporary Japanese: Their religious consciousness and behavior in the fifty years since World War II] (Tokyo: Shin-yo-sha, 1997), 85.
7. The stronger numbers shown by youth reflect the growth in interest in the occult, afterlife experiences, and the like among Japanese youth. Whereas the denominations of Temple Buddhism tend to promote traditional values and culture, Japanese youth are showing more interest in experiential religion. Bukkyo Nenkan Hensan Iinkai, ed., Bukkyo nenkan '88 (Kyoto: Hozokan, 1988), 22-23.
8. Covell, Japanese Temple Buddhism.
9. The turn to precept reform is nothing new. Calls to reform priestly adherence to precepts have been made throughout history in Japan, and calls to have laity adhere to lay precepts have also been made on occasion.
10. Mark Rowe, "Grave Changes: Scattering Ashes in Contemporary Japan," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, no. 1-2 (2003): 112-13.


Stephen G. Covell is Mary Meader (Associate) Professor of Comparative Religion, chair of the Department of Comparative Religion, and director of the Soga Japan Center at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He received his PhD from Princeton University in 2001. His research focuses on contemporary Japanese Buddhism and he is the author of Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation (University of Hawai'i Press, 2006).

This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.

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