Japanese Funeral 101 cremation

Cremation is a law in Japan, where there is a crematory in the municipal area you live in. As stated before, the percentage of cremation is over 95% in Japan. Most are cremated due to crematory existing within.

Then where are the places where crematories do NOT exist?

There are two place. One, very obvious is town where it does not have due to budget. In this case, they allow the citizen of that city/town to use the adjacent city facility and reimbursed after the service by the city/town hall. Where I live, Samukawa town uses Chigasaki city’s crematory and the citizen of the town is compensated later. The city of Kamakura does NOT have one due to history of the city going against building crematories within the town. Also, if you dig anywhere in Kamakura, ruins of the past will show up and the construction must stop each time until everything is cleared. The city does not want to take a risk of uncovering artifacts, thus delegating all work to a private crematory in city of Zushi. Please note that most of the crematories are municipally owned unless there is some reason. Within 23 districts of Tokyo, all of the crematories are owned privately and NOT run by the government.

The other reason for NOT cremating is, simply there is NO crematory on the little island you live on. There are many islands forming an archipelago in Japan and some islands just don’t have enough people to make its own facility. These people are exempt from being cremated.

There is ONE other group in Japan, who are not cremated but does not abide to the above restrictions. These are the foreign clergy of the Catholic church, where the church itself owns the graveyards. You must be a foreigner and a clergy, along with the church owning a vast amount of graveyard space.

In Japan, cremation was NOT a must. But there is a record in the temples where people were cremated over a thousand years ago. Cremation became a law during Meiji era, for several reasons. One was space for the graveyard was shortening and the other major reason was for public hygiene. But still, people did not understand and abide to the laws until quite after WWII.

In my previous issue, I wrote there is a law that forbids cremation within 24 hours. This is the reason behind it. Within 24 hours, human cells are still alive and there is a slight chance of that “declared dead” person can come back alive.

What happened during the great Kanto earthquake in September 1st, 1923, people were shocked by the tragedy and the size of the quake. It was said that people went in a state of shock (but still alive). These people did NOT respond and were declared (pronounced) dead. Oh my God! You can probably imagine what went on. Poor medical knowledge created a major mishap.

To stop such a mishap to occur, the government issued a law NOT to cremate within 24 hours. Probably there is a truth behind this story. My grandfather lived through this era and lived to tell me about it. The story is being passed on by word of mouth still.

Cremation is held at the crematory. In the past, the facility will burn the furnace using crude (heavy) oil. Smoke would come out of the chimney and haunt people with the ashes. Nowadays, this does not happen. It’s run electronically using electrical or gas turbines in many places. Some still use oil to burn in the furnace but turbines are used to cremate efficiently. The smoke is passed through a pool of water filter or electronic filter so that no black ashes will come out.

In the Japanese crematories, we do not make ashes out of bones. We keep the bones and stuff them in the urn. There are two customs within Japan that keep all the bones or just a partial of the bones. A group of academic society which I am in a part of, did a research whereabout the line is of collecting full body bones or partial of the bones. We came to a conclusion that the line is somewhere in the Gifu prefecture. It’s almost like where do they cut the eel in half (from the back — spine or from the front — stomach side).

After the ceremony, the hearse will take the coffin with the honorable family member in the hearse, along with the people wanting to ascertain the death in another car or bus, and stay until the rest of the ceremony.

Cremation process takes about an  hour to 90 minutes using the modern furnace. There are places that uses heavy oil to burn and sometimes need to wait for overnight but this is rare in the large industrial cities. One might come across in the rural places, where ceremony takes as many as a week.

During the 90 minutes or so, people would wait in the lounge or their reserved rooms. They may eat and drink while at the crematory. When all is done, the immediate family members are called to verify the bones. (What’s there to verify? Just the flaming red bones right out of the furnace and you can’t tell who that is). Then the bones are cooled down and once cooled, they become very brittle. They are like white charcoal sticks. When cooled, the rest of the members are called in to pick up the bones.

During the wait, the survived might have another ceremony of the “7th day” ritual and declare that the mourning is over for  now. This is usually held after picking up the bones but there are times that due to the schedule of the monks, the ceremony is advanced.

In Kanto (Tokyo) area, all of the bones are picked up but in Kansai (Osaka) area, partial is picked up. The bones which being kept for the partial is the esophagus area, where the vocal chords exist. Basically the Adam’s apple. This is due to when shown, it looks like a statue of Buddha, and is called “Nodo Botoke” or the Buddha of Throat.

Each bone is picked up by two people using a long chopsticks. Each person stands on either side of the remains and picks up one bone at a time and place in the urn. The reason two people are picking up is so that they are 100% sure you won’t drop the bone while placing in the urn. It’s said to be  unlucky if you drop the bone.

In a area where partial bones are picked up, there are couple of traditions as well. One tradition is just keep the Adam’s apple, and the rest is handled by the crematory to dispose of, and the other tradition is to take all but place the Adam’s apple in a smaller urn to be deposited in the head temple.

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