Basics for mourners unfamiliar with funeral etiquette

By JANE SINGER, Asahi Shimbun, Contributing writer, March 7, 2005

Tokyo, Japan -- February and March are the cruelest months in Japan, especially for the elderly. Ailing seniors usually try to hang on for family New Year's gatherings, but they often weaken thereafter, departing this world (kono yo o saru) to join the celestial filament (hoshi ni naru). Midwinter is thus peak funeral season, a frenetic time for mortuary staff, Buddhist priests and local politicians, for whom funerals are an obligatory constituent service.

Funerals in Japan seem to be less about the person who died than about those left behind. A funeral is an opportunity to cement social bonds and to revitalize the Japanese economy through vast expenditures on wall-to-wall lilies and lacquered mortuary tablets. Funeral participants-customers, co-workers or students of family members and members of neighborhood associations-often have only tenuous links to the deceased, but they join the ritual to show respect to the family.

Most Japanese funerals are Buddhist, with a sprinkling of Shinto and Christian rites.

Mourners are invited to attend one or both of two events: an evening wake (tsuya) held one or two days after the death, and a funeral held in the late morning or early afternoon of the following day. Funeral attire is strictly prescribed: Men wear black suits, white shirts and black ties. Women don black dresses or dress-jacket ensembles, accessorized by a discreet string of pearls, and black hose, shoes and bag.

No earrings, rhinestones, or exposed navels, please.

For Buddhist rites you'll also need a rosary, a string of 108 beads to hold in your left hand; at Shinto rites you'll be given a leafy sakaki branch to present as an offering to the deceased.

If asked to attend a Buddhist funeral rite, first determine if koden, or monetary gifts, are accepted.

If so, you must prepare a black-beribboned envelope for the money (don't use new bills). The amount will range from 3,000 yen up, depending upon your relationship with the deceased. When you first arrive at the home, temple or funeral home where the funeral will be held, find the appropriate reception area, which may be labeled ``Neighbors,'' ``Company,'' or ``Ordinary Public.'' Bow to the receptionist and present your business card with both hands, with the words facing the receiver, or write your name and address in Japanese.


At this time, if appropriate, present the koden.

You will then queue to pray before a black-framed photograph of the deceased. The usual rule here, as with most rituals, is to simply mimic the behavior of the person in front of you. To be safe, the following is a general guide to funeral practice.

When your turn comes, proceed to an incense holder set before the altar. Stop and bow deeply to the mourning family. With your right hand, pick up a pinch of the grainy incense from the receptacle on the right, lift it up to eye level, and deposit it in the metal incense burner beside it. If the funeral is crowded, do this just once; if not, repeat once or twice.

Now gaze upon the photo and bow deeply with the rosary draped over both hands to pray for the repose of the deceased's soul. Finally, bow to the family once more and exit slowly, remembering to also bow before the chief mourners standing at the side.

As you leave, you will be handed a wet cloth to wipe your hands and a small gift, typically something for household use or a gift certificate.

If you wish, you may then sit in attendance as the priest recites Buddhist sutras. After the ceremony's conclusion, you will bow again as the deceased and family members depart for the crematorium in a procession of black cars flanking an ornately lacquered hearse.

As you leave the funeral, you will also receive a tiny package of salt with which to dust your shoulders before crossing your threshold to prevent evil spirits from invading your home.