Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion and has a presence in the modern Japanese civilization. Even more, many Japanese Buddhist sects add elements of Shinto beliefs and rituals to their practices. Shinto funeral customs are not written down, but are traditions that have been handed down through the centuries.

Proper preparation for a Shinto funeral takes meticulous planning and execution as there are twenty specific ritual commands to be followed. The Shinto religious tradition insists that the ceremony be carried out in an exact manner. Families are not allowed to deviate by adding a personal touch.

Once the Death Occurs

Almost nine out of ten Japanese funerals are conducted as a blend of Buddhist and Shinto traditions, a practice that both religions would see as complementary. Most homes maintain a Buddhist altar and a Shinto shrine. When death occurs, the altar and shrine are closed and covered to keep the spirits of the dead out. A small table, decorated with simple flowers, incense and a candle is placed next to the bed of the deceased.

While formal notifications of the death occur during the twenty steps of the funeral preparation, informal notice is given to civil authorities and the closest of family members. Typically Japanese Shinto followers have not participated in organ donation. Regulations restricted the donations to only be permitted from those whose donor was declared brain dead and with prior written consent of the donor and the approval of the donor’s family. Some areas are working now to significantly relax the laws.

Funeral arrangements are typically made by the eldest son, or oldest male relative. It is expected for the funeral to be held as quickly as possible. Exceptions are made if relatives have to travel a distance to participate in the services. An ancient tradition honoring the six-day lunar cycle often discourages funerals from being held on the second day of the cycle. All other days are generally considered acceptable.

Funeral Preparation

The rituals that are involved in the twenty steps of funeral preparation are followed in order to ready the spirit of the deceased for the spirit world. A process of purification is necessary for the spirit to be able to move into the spirit world. The home of the mourners must also be purified to remove the contamination of death.

Steps One through Four

The first step in the funeral preparation is “matsugo no mizu,” the washing of the lips. A close relative wets the lips of the deceased, giving the body its last taste of water. This is to be performed as close to the time of death as is possible. The “yukan” is the second step and this literally means the washing of the corpse. Several family members may be involved in this practical and ceremonial washing. The third step is the announcement of the death, called “kiyu hokoku.” The family announces the death to the spirit world through prayer and memorialization at the family shrine. “Makura naoshi no gi” is the fourth step. The phrase literally means “pillow decorations” and the ritual involves placing the deceased in such a way that the head is propped up on a pillow, facing north. Offerings of food are to be made to the gods at this time. A sword or knife is placed by the side of the deceased.

Steps Five through Eight

The placement of the body of the deceased in a coffin is the fifth step, called “nokan no gi.” Step six is “kyuzen nikku,” or daily food offerings to the deceased. These food offerings are to be made twice a day until the body is given its final resting place. Traditionally the favorite meals of the deceased are prepared. The next step, number seven, is the announcement of the return of the spirit to the local shrine. This process is called “ubusuna jinja ni kiyu hokokuh” and can be made by a simple phone call to the shrine. The eighth step, “bosho batsujo no gi,” is the earth purification ceremony. The priests from the local shrine will purify the ground to be used for the grave site with water and prayer.

Steps Nine through Twelve

The ninth step is called “kessai” and is when the priest purifies himself in preparation for the funeral. This normally occurs through ceremonial washings and prayer. “Tsuya sai” is the tenth step and is considered the wake. Mourners gather to express condolences to the family and present their offerings to the gods, the shrine and sometimes, the family. At this time the priests offer prayers for the deceased’s spirit and prayers of thanksgiving and comfort for the mourners. The eleventh step is called “senrei sai” and literally means the transfer of the spirit. The priest transfers the deceased’s spirit from the body into a wooden tablet. The tablet is held over the body of the deceased while the priest offers ceremonial prayers. The twelfth step is called “settai” a word for refreshments. Food that has been prepared at a different location to prevent the contamination of death is served to the mourners. This food may be anything from a light snack to a substantial meal.

Steps Thirteen through Sixteen

Step thirteen is the actual funeral service and is called “shinsosai.” The room where the funeral will be held is purified, prayers and offerings are made to the gods, and eulogies honoring the deceased are given by the priests. The fourteenth step is “kokobetsu shiki,” the farewell ceremony. Mourners leave the funeral by walking, single file, past the deceased. The mourner is to say final goodbyes to the deceased, and offer prayers and word condolences to the family. “Hakkyu sai no gi” is the departure of the coffin and is performed in step fifteen. The coffin is prepared for travel to the grave site. A sword is placed on the coffin and banners are placed around it so that the deceased becomes aware that it is time to move on. The actual funeral procession that transports the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium is “soretsu” and is the sixteenth step.

Steps Seventeen through Twenty

The home where the funeral ceremony has taken place is purified in step seventeen, called “hakkyu-go batsujo nogi.” Priests and relatives work together to make offerings and prayers to cleanse the house after the body is removed. The funeral altar is removed and a new altar is set up inside the house. “Maisosai” is the eighteenth step and is the offering of burial rites. Family and close friends will gather at either the grave site or crematorium with the body. Offerings are made on behalf of the deceased and are placed with the coffin. Prayers are led by the priests. Step nineteen is called “kotsuage” and literally means the picking up of the bones. Bones are removed from the crematorium ash and are placed in a vase. The final step is called “kika sai” and means coming home. Ashes that are not buried are brought to the home and placed in the family shrine. The bereaved offers thanks to the people who have participated in the funeral. Prayers and offerings are given on behalf of the deceased.

Final Resting State

The bodies of all but the most elite Japanese are cremated. The Shinto tradition is very concerned with what happens to the ashes. Any bones that are left in any form are to be picked out of the ash material with chopsticks. One family member picks them out and passes them to another family member who in turn places them inside an urn.

Some of the pure ash material is given to family and close friends for enclosure in the family shrine. The remaining ashes are put in the urn with the bones and are to be kept within an above-ground mausoleum.