Speaker to explore Buddhism, burial practices

WMU News, Oct. 10, 2008

KALAMAZOO, Michigan (USA) -- Buddhism and burial practices will be the subject of the next talk being presented through the Soga Japan Center Speaker Series at Western Michigan University.

The talk, "Buddhism on the Ground and Below It: Locating the Dead in Contemporary Japan," is set for 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, in 3301 Friedman Hall. Making the presentation will be Dr. Mark Rowe, assistant professor of religious studies at McMaster University.

Rowe is exploring the interplay of religious identity, new family structures and changing social norms within the matrix of Buddhist responses to radical shifts in contemporary Japanese burial practices. A central premise of his research is that new burial practices do not merely register societal change, they also may provide the very arena where social norms are first contested.

"The ongoing public debate over the status, treatment and location of the dead brings into sharp focus Japanese Buddhism's efforts to maintain its longstanding social and economic base in mortuary services," Rowe says.

"My work explores the recent 'grave crisis,' a phenomenon characterized by a move from extended family graves to individual forms of burial and exemplified by 'posthumous divorcees'--women who think that one lifetime spent with their husbands is enough."

According to Rowe, temples in each of Japan's major sects are creating so-called "eternal memorial graves," and burial societies to cater to the growing number of Japanese who either refuse to be interred in traditional extended-family graves or lack the requisite descendants to maintain them.

Those societies, with their emphasis on individual rather than family bonds, have important implications for both the study of Japanese notions of self and Japanese religious affiliation as a whole.

Go to wmich.edu/sogajapancenter to learn more about WMU's Soga Japan Center.