Author mug On Faith

Jay Sakashita

Death rituals let
the dead remain with us

Death rituals keep the dead alive. By creating and regulating relationships between the living and the dead, Japanese death rituals keep the spirit of the deceased apart from the world of the living and yet a part of the lives of the living.

Though widely observed in Japan, few Japanese families in Hawaii perform the kotsu-age ceremony, a ritual to place pieces of the bones of the deceased in an urn after cremation.

Family members pick up and pass the fragments from person to person using mismatched chopsticks and place them into the urn, feet first so that the deceased will not be stored upside down.

The mismatched chopsticks symbolize the separation between the world of the living and the dead.

The last piece of bone placed in the urn is the nodo-botoke, or Adam's apple, because it resembles the shape of a Buddha sitting in meditation.

This bone is carefully packed into the top of the urn, just under a piece of skull.

Because of the traditions surrounding the kotsu-age ceremony, using mixed chopsticks when eating or passing food directly from one set of chopsticks to another is considered a breach of social etiquette in Japanese culture.

The centerpiece of Japanese death rituals is the funeral.

The characteristic chanting by Buddhist priests, often unintelligible to listeners, is meant to ready the spirit of the deceased for the other world. According to the Rev. Eshin Matsumoto, of Palolo Kwannon Temple, the spirit of the deceased is transformed through symbolic ordination, sutra chanting and other rites designed to help the dead attain enlightenment.

Buddhist priests also provide the dead with a posthumous Buddhist name (kaimyo or homyo), an act that bestows a new spiritual status that the deceased will enjoy in the other world.

Though there is no set charge for kaimyo at Buddhist temples in Hawaii, people in Japan have paid up to $300,000 for a prestigious kaimyo. Kaimyo are written on memorial tablets (ihai) that enshrine the spirit of the deceased. Ihai are then placed in a temple or cared for on the family altar at home.

Japanese death rituals do not end at the funeral, but continue in a series of memorial rites, including the 49-day memorial service.

This important ceremony facilitates the voyage that the deceased makes from this world to the other, and completes the transformation of the dead from a spirit that is prayed for to an ancestor that is prayed to.

Death rituals allow the dead to remain with us in very real ways.

The rites communicate meanings and memories of loved ones, allowing our relationships with the deceased to continue. And as long as the dead still have a presence in our lives, death does not kill completely.

Jay Sakashita teaches religion at Leeward Community College.

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