Have you ever wondered what cremation ceremonies are like around the world? Cremation is a tradition that can be found in many cultures, each infused with rich meaning and symbolism stemming from local belief systems.
Blending Shinto beliefs, Buddhism, and classical Eastern Philosophy, the Japanese have a beautiful practice of honoring deceased loved ones with a ceremonious cremation practice known as kotsuage, which consists of close family members performing a unique ritual with the cremated remains. Let’s learn about this special cremation tradition found in Japan.
Religious and Philosophical Influences Found in Japanese Funerals
Japanese funeral traditions are influenced by the Shinto religion – an ancient belief system and set of rituals native to the island of Japan – and Buddhism – a popular eastern religion that began in India before eventually spreading throughout Japan.
Over the years, these two belief systems merged and blended in a beautiful way that is unique to Japan. Today, funeral services in Japan often include elements of both Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, which can be seen in the kotsuage rituals, decorations, cremation urns for ashes, gatherings, and throughout many other aspects of Japanese funeral practices.
Kotsuage: A Japanese Cremation Ritual
Kotsuage is a very specific aspect of the Japanese funeral process, and it relates directly to the cremation component of the funeral. It usually takes place after a number of other rituals, such as the wake, visitation, public gatherings, and feast.
So, what happens during Japanese kotsuage?
Cremation of the body.
According to Buddhist teachings, cremation is a way to free the spirit from the body, allowing the loved one to transition into the next phase of their existence in another world.
Special chopsticks are selected to sift through bones.
Chopsticks usually consist of unmatched pairs, meaning two different types of wood. This symbolizes the separation between the world of the dead and the world of the living.
Close family members pick out bones and place them in a cremation urn.
Picking out certain bones may be seen as gathering luck, strength, wisdom, or healing. This practice is reserved for close family members only. The cremation process turns the body into a mix of ash and small bones.
In western cremations, it’s common for the professionals at the crematorium to remove bones from the remains and hand over only the cremation ashes to the family; in Japan, bones are left in the remains intentionally so that they can be carefully collected and gathered in a cremation urn during kotsuage.
Ashes and bones are collected in cremation urns and kept in shrines for 50 days.
It’s common for Japanese families to split up the cremated remains into several urns for ashes, allowing family members to set up their own private shrines at home.
Cremation urns are transferred to a cemetery.
Buddhist tradition shows special significance to the number 49, making the 50th day standard for transferring the urns to the family plot at a cemetery.
Kotsuage is a meaningful ceremony for many Japanese families. It’s important to remember that every family has different traditions, beliefs, and preferences, meaning not all kotsuage cremation ceremonies may look exactly the same.
Some families may include portraits, incense, shrines, and other meaningful tokens as part of their funeral services. Rituals can also vary from region to region, offering an abundance of beautiful ways to honor deceased loved ones in Japan.
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