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Funeral pastors

Funeral Pastors Squad (Otomurai Bokushitai) is an NPO which connects volunteer pastors and unbelieving Japanese households for the funeral of a family member. It is an alternative to the Buddhist monks who have taken a dominant role in Japan’s funeral scene for the past several hundred years.

Several factors have combined to cause a reduction in the percentage of “proper” Buddhist funerals in Japan: Japanese society is aging, families have fewer children, and the non-regular employment rate is higher than ever. Along with these factors is a weakened local community. According to a survey, the number of remains cremated in Japan without any funeral ceremony was 16% of the annual 1.2 million deaths in Japan in 2013–14.1

The welfare system in Japan provides benefits to needy households. In addition to monthly living expenses, the cost for a funeral is covered by the system if someone in a needy household passes away. As might be expected, this coverage is minimal. For example, these usual elements of a Japanese funeral aren’t covered: a picture of the deceased, flowers, acknowledgement card, and honorarium to the monk/pastor. The coverage is only for a coffin, coffin transportation, cremation fee, and an urn. As a result, these families have no choice but to omit all “unnecessary” items, so all they get is a lone coffin in the room without any ceremony or ornaments, though these things are regarded as necessary by Japanese people.

Most Japanese people believe that religious workers (usually Buddhist monks) will chant a mantra at the funeral ceremony, regardless of their financial situation. However, the reality is different. Those who can afford it will receive a funeral visit by monks; meanwhile, tens of thousands of households have to give up inviting monks when funeral service providers inform the family of the local “average donation.” On top of losing their loved one, the lack of minimal courtesy stuns the family. We can imagine that many blame themselves for their own economic situation and inability to afford these expenses.

This as a heart-breaking situation. However, we can also see this as an opportunity for Christians to serve people, in the absence of monks.

Starting a funeral service

This is the reason we started the Funeral Pastors Squad in Fukuoka with 25 local pastors, in cooperation with one local non-Christian funeral service provider.

According to a report by the partnering funeral company, four out of ten families who were informed of the NPO actually invited volunteer pastors. It is a far higher acceptance rate than we expected.

Our member pastors believe in justification by faith and conduct themselves with wisdom. While the families are all non-Christian, and sharing the gospel is beyond the limits allowed as an NPO corporation, the pastors try their best to comfort the family based on love, without compromising their faith. They hope and pray these families will become interested in the Bible.

I have attended most of these funeral ceremonies. Families welcomed the pastors with open arms. They personally opened the door for the volunteer pastor, held the pastor’s hand with both their hands for a handshake, sang along in the hymns (even though it was probably their first time to do so), and prayed together with us. Most of all, they listened to the sermon attentively and eagerly. They leaned forward during the sermon, gazing into the pastor’s eyes as if searching for the answer to their inner question about where the spirit of their loved one is now. Some family members showed not only gratitude but also interest in our faith. One lady, at the funeral itself, said that she was willing to be baptized and actually started visiting a church. Another old lady interjected during sermon, “Kamisama erai” (God is awesome)! She told us her hope is to become a Christian and have her funeral ceremony in the Christian style.

I believe the common thinking that “a Christian ceremony is fine for weddings but not for funerals” is being proved less accurate.

A historical perspective

Let’s take a quick look at the history of religion in Japan. Buddhism, publicly introduced to Japan in the 6th century, was not actively involved in funeral ceremonies for the lower classes until the Middle Ages. Before that time, dead bodies were dumped in fields, at riversides, on hills, and at the seaside without burial.

Buddhist monks were assigned by the Emperor, the highest priest in the Shinto faith (historically the two faiths were intertwined, though how this worked is difficult to explain in this short article).2 A monk’s status was like a bureaucrat. Monks prayed for the Emperor and his dynasty but not for the personal relief of people.

Meanwhile, Shinto priests were required to maintain ceremonial cleanliness to prevent any misfortunes supposedly caused by uncleanliness. Therefore, Shinto priests didn’t assist people in times of death. Buddhist monks were also required to maintain cleanliness to prevent any uncleanliness ‘infecting’ the Emperor, the highest priest.

Against this background, Buddhist reformers started to conduct funeral ceremonies for people regardless of their social status. This became a turning point for Buddhism in Japan.

A turning point for the gospel?

Let’s turn our eyes back to the present time when volunteer pastors are receiving sincere gratitude from grieving people who aren’t fully served by religious establishments. Therefore, we may be witnessing history repeat itself. With this turning point, we hope that the gospel will spread all over Japan.

1. Survey results regarding funerals without ceremonies (February 2015): https://www.kamakura-net.co.jp/newstopics/pdf/20150201.pdf; Statistics from the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare comparing population statistics (births, deaths, marriage, and divorce) 2016 and 2017: http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/saikin/hw/jinkou/suikei17/dl/2017gaiyou.pdf

2. A short explanation of the historical intertwining of Shinto and Buddhism: https://www.britannica.com/topic/honji-suijaku

Resources for the historical information (books in Japanese):

Kenji Matsuo, Soushiki Bukkyō no Tanjō 葬式仏教の誕生 (The Birth of Funeral Buddhism) (Heibonsha, 2011), 40-67; 92-109, 159

Kenji Matsuo, Kamakura Shin Bukkyō no Tanjō 鎌倉新仏教の誕生 (The Birth of New Buddhism in the Kamakura Era) (Kodansha, 1995), 50-60

Photo by Karen Ellrick

Nobuyoshi Ishimura is the administrative director of NPO Otomurai Bokushitai and president of Olive Yama Sōsai (Christian funeral service provider). He is a member of Momochi Symphony Church in Fukuoka Prefecture.

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