Japanese Language Blog

Japanese Funerals Posted by on Nov 16, 2008 in Culture

Have you ever seen or experienced the traditional rites that are carried out in a Japanese funeral?  Talking about death and thinking about the prospect of death can be a bit depressing, but hopefully you’ll still get something educational out of this post.

Before the funeral takes place, the relatives of the dead place six coins near the body of the deceased.  According to ancient Japanese beliefs, the underworld consists of three crossing points in which two coins are used to pay the fare for each crossing point.  It’s a lot like the Greek myth of the River Styx, but in Japanese its called sanzo-no-kawa (三途の川) or the River of Three Crossings.

The first crossing point consists of a bridge.  Those who have committed good deeds will walk on a bridge full of precious gems, while those who have behaved poorly while they were alive, will be forced to wade through a river full of serpants.  The second crossing point consists of a ford.  Again, if you were a good person you can be tranported by boat to the third destination, but if you were bad, you have to swim among the snakes.  (Ouch!)  Finally, when you reach the shore you’ll be approached by a female god of the underworld called datsueba (奪衣婆).  She will strip you of your clothes.  Her husband, the male god of the underworld keneoo (懸衣翁), will hang your clothes on a tree.  If the branches bend or droop toward the ground, it means that you’ve accumulated a lot of sins and will be punished accordingly.  The punishment consists of ripping your limbs out and reattaching them so that your legs might stick out of your ears and such.  So yeah, I’m really hoping this is a myth because I’m about fifty-fifty on the sins scale.

Now, let’s move on to the funeral.  Every Japanese funeral has a portrait of the deceased in a frame and a ihai (いはい) or a spirit tablet.  The name of the deceased is written on the spirit tablet.  In fact, the spirit of the deceased is thought to reside on the tablet.  As a result, sometimes the relatives will take the spirit tablet with them and place it in a special room at home.  As the deceased is carried out into the hearse, all the guests will start to cover their thumbs by placing the thumb within their palm.  The Japanese believe that the oyayubi (おやゆび) or thumb represents one’s parents.  In fact, oya (おや) means parent while yubi (ゆび) means finger.  Therefore covering one’s thumb while a hearse passes by is thought to protect one’s parents from an untimely death.

Next, the hearse will take the body to be cremated.  Once the body is cremated, the relatives will pick out the bones from the ashes and place them in an urn using chopsticks.  This may be a bit morbid for some of you out there, but it’s a time when relatives come together to spend some time with the dead and show their respect as well.  Usually when the bones are picked out, one relative will pass the bone to another relative.  The bones are passed from chopstick to chopstick until all of it is in the urn.

There’s actually some interesting chopstick etiquette that stem from funeral practices.  For example, the only time it’s okay to pass something from one chopstick to another is when you’re passing the bones into the urn.  It’s not okay to do this when you’re eating.  Also, don’t place your chopsticks upright in a vertical position in a bowl of rice.  This act is thought to mimic the incense that one burns in a bowl when a family member dies.  In general, nobody likes to mix the pleasure of eating with something somber as a funeral.  So try to avoid these faux pas, because they tend to make one lose one’s appetite and at worst they may offend some people.

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  1. kim:


  2. kim:

    this is soooo cooool:)

  3. Mr. Mac:

    I am very interested in Japan. I hope to be able, someday, to be fluent in Japanese. This article was informative and very interesting.

  4. san_krispilai:

    SUKOI DESUNE !!!!!!

  5. eka:

    i want study japanese language

  6. gerard:

    thank you very much
    it’s very interesting

  7. Soyol:

    Hi. I’m glad to connect this blog. And want to learn free Japanese.

  8. Ruby:

    thank’s for sharing your Traditions in funeral, it’s great and educational… I love to learn other Traditions and Culture….

  9. jovy:

    i really like this information its really good.
    wish to learn also the language.

    its me jovs

  10. nima ghajar(大和他炉):

    very nice
    thank you

  11. Ginny:

    eka, soyol, jovy

    If you want a place to start learning Japanese try the Japanese Byki. You can try some free word lists to the right of the blog.