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Funerals in Japan

Please come and visit my wife today. I don’t think she has long to live!” Mrs. M’s not-yet-Christian husband had faithfully served his wife during her year-long hospitalization. It was time. That morning Mrs. M assured me of her desire to see Jesus face to face. That afternoon she had a stroke. That evening Mrs. M was in Jesus’ presence. It was just before Christmas.

During the series of ceremonies held over the next several days, Mrs. M’s words testified powerfully about Jesus through a number of things she had written about her faith for her funeral. I had visited her in hospital that whole year and baptised her in her private room in hospital six months before. Her transformation into Jesus’ likeness was evident through her testimony. The poignancy of grief has a way of opening hearts to the reality of life in the face of death.

The changing nature of funerals in Japan

As of January 1, 2017, the annual number of deaths in Japan has hit a record high: 1,309,515.1 The funeral business is booming! And changing. Indoor tombs and gardens for ashes in Hokkaido are springing up, making “visiting the dead” possible all year round.2 A survey by the Japan Consumers’ Association says that 90.1% of Japanese funerals are Buddhist, 3.4% Shinto, and 2.4% nonreligious. But “as the population of Japan continues to age and society shifts toward nuclear families with fewer children, the growing trend for funerals is away from traditional [Buddhist] services toward smaller, inexpensive ones. Increasingly, people are choosing intimate services that reflect their personal thoughts and beliefs.”3 This change includes more meaningful, Christian-orientated funerals.

The ceremonies of funerals in Japan

Cremation is the norm and usually takes place as soon as possible after the death. Funeral ceremonies can be many:

  • at the hospital before the body goes to the person’s home;
  • washing and clothing the body at home;
  • putting the body into the coffin;
  • leaving the home for the wake;
  • the wake itself (nowadays this is the event most people can attend because it is in the evening);
  • the family spending the night with the body;
  • the funeral service;
  • leaving the service for the crematorium;
  • a brief service before cremation;
  • placing the cooled bones into an urn (passing the bone pieces from one person to another with chopsticks);
  • a service at the graveside (or in a Buddhist urn-keeping temple); and
  • various 法事 (hōji)–Buddhist memorial services.

There is a lot of symbolism in funeral events in Japan. The spirit of the person is seen to be in the body until cremation, which is why family members eat a final meal with the dead person the night before the funeral.

Christian funerals in Japan

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NLT)

The fundamental difference between Buddhist and Christian funerals is that Christians believe and stress that the spirit of the person leaves the body at death to be in the presence of the Lord. The body is an empty shell. The person has already gone, transformed by the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. Therefore:

  • Christians have a living hope as shown through their prayers, testimonies, and singing.
  • Salt is not needed to purify the spirit.
  • There is no need to put a knife, sword, or money into the coffin to help the spirit enter the next life.
  • The coffin does not need to be nailed down to prevent the spirit from leaving before the cremation.
  • Christians don’t worship the body or dead person, so incense is not offered and hands are not clapped before the coffin or photo. Money given at the funeral is marked as お花料 (ohanaryō is for the cost of the flowers), not 香典 (kōden is money to worship the dead before they become a spirit).
  • Christians don’t offer flowers to the dead person (献花 kenka) but can show solidarity with other mourners by putting a flower on the coffin or on the body (if the coffin is open) while remembering the person.

Funeral flow charts in English and Japanese, model prayers, and an example of how to explain a Christian funeral can be seen and downloaded from a folder in my Dropbox.*

Compassion and “compromise”

The difference between Buddhist and Christian funerals should be explained at every opportunity. However, as Christ’s ambassadors we are called to come alongside those who mourn—to reveal the compassion, love, and reality of Jesus, but not to be enforcers of correct behaviour. God can defend himself. Grief affects people in different ways, and if a Christian does clap their hands in worship, one should not run up to rebuke them.

I conducted a funeral in the town hall of a small, rural fishing village, where most of the funeral arrangements were made by members of the local neighbourhood community. They reluctantly agreed to a Christian funeral because the deceased man was a professing Christian. But they insisted that the large flower arrangements from businesses should be placed inside the hall. After much negotiation a compromise was reached and these 献花 (kenka) were still placed in view, but outside the town hall.

God does provide a “way of escape”. In another city, a very new Jesus-follower did not want to attend the funeral of her mother-in-law. “My antagonistic and overbearing husband will insist that I worship her [my mother-in-law] in front of everyone! I feel that I will be forced to give up my faith in Jesus.” We assured her of our prayers. When she returned from the funeral we asked what had happened. “It was wonderful,” she replied, “just before the time when I was expected to offer incense before the coffin, my baby started to cry and my husband said, ‘Take that kid out of here now!’ which I gladly did. God answered!”

Be careful

  • When one is in charge of a church, funerals take precedence! Many years ago, a young pastor had to leave his church because he did not return from his honeymoon to conduct a funeral. This sounds extreme, but in the case of a funeral one needs to drop everything and give full attention to preparing well and conducting the ceremonies with care.
  • Make sure that each ceremony is started and finished with deliberate care. Non-Christians expect that funerals be conducted “properly”.
  • Dress appropriately: black suits, shoes, and ties with white shirts for men; black dresses or skirts and blouses for women. There should be no colour at all in one’s outfit if non-Christians are present.
  • Spend time with the grieving family. Not much needs to be said. Just being together, trying to be Jesus to them, is sufficient.
  • Don’t call the undertaker before the person is dead. (I did this once, not realising that, when life-support machines are turned off, it can still take a while.)

There may be strong pressure from a non-Christian family to have a Buddhist funeral for a Jesus-follower. This can be avoided (and the preparation for the funeral immensely helped) if the Christian, while living, writes out a “funeral will” stating that they desire a Christian funeral, giving Scripture passages to read and hymns to be sung.

When I received the phone call from Mrs. M’s husband I was not in a good situation. I was depressed and in agony, having just fractured two ribs by slipping on ice. That evening, I fell into a roadside ditch on the way to their home—more pain. Yet God sustained me and ministered through me those seven days. No matter what situation we find ourselves in, God’s grace and love are sufficient! Six months later, I had the joy of baptising Mr. M, who continues to serve Jesus.

1. “Japan’s population falls for eighth straight year but number of foreign residents rises,” July 5, 2017, The Japan Times, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/07/05/national/social-issues/japans-population-falls-eighth-straight-year-number-foreign-residents-rises/

2. 北海道新聞March 12, https://www.hokkaido-np.co.jp/article/171267

3. “Funerals in Japan,” July 5, 2015, https://www.nippon.com/en/features/jg00039/ (Accessed May 8, 2018).

* For more practical information on holding Christian funerals see the author’s documents in this Dropbox folder: https://bit.ly/2HNMoSn

Photo provided by author

A South African, Dale Viljoen is in his 40th year of ministry in Hokkaido serving with OMF International. He married Karen Harless after his first wife’s death and continues to be amazed by God’s unconditional love.

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