Mourning the loss of a loved one is a very personal expression. Each individual demonstrates grief in a unique way, often indicative of the relationship that was shared with the deceased and family.

Japan blends two strong spiritual traditions into personal life. The Shinto religion tends to emphasize the positive characteristics of life: weddings, birthdays, careers and children. The Buddhist religion guides the Japanese people through the struggles of life: suffering, evil in the world, and death. Over 85% of the funerals and mourning practices in Japan are conducted with strong Buddhist tradition.

The Shinto faith has influenced the harsher side of mourning and death. Japanese mourning is a slow process that people experience together. The first response to tragedy and death is to take care of the immediate details and needs in a practical and efficient manner. After the needs are met, family and friends together can process the loss of a loved one. Shinto periods of mourning rely on rituals and traditions of the past to provide the proper pathway to guide someone through the difficult days of mourning and grief.

Types of Services: Visitation, Funeral & Burial

The traditions and customs of the Shinto faith lend themselves to rituals that guide both the spirit of the deceased and the surviving mourners through this transition of life. There are at least twenty steps in the Shinto funeral process which take the body from preparation through the placement of the ashes of the body in their final resting place. Each step focuses on purification, preparing the spirit for the journey to the spirit world and cleansing the mourner from the weight of death and grief.

The twenty steps are detailed in the article “Shinto Funeral & Burial Customs” but some of the steps are focused specifically on the periods of mourning in Shinto.


The kichu-fuda is a mourning custom which lasts one day. The wake itself, where family and friends is called tsuya, which literally means “the passing of the night.” The wake is held as soon after the death as is possible. During this time intense grief may be expressed and friends gather to offer support to the family. Mourners wear only black clothing from head to toe. Men will wear black suits with a white shirt and black tie. Women wear either black dresses or kimonos.

A priest leads the ceremonial activities of the day, which may vary from sect to sect, but often includes chanting, singing and prayers. The family will also perform other rituals during this time of mourning.

One tradition held during kichu-fuda is the koden, which is a gift of money given to the immediate family from friends and relatives to help with the costs of the funeral and to honor the deceased. The amount given will be dependent upon the relationship shared with the deceased and the financial circumstance of the guest.

Guests are seated with the closest relatives and immediate family seated in the front. The priest leads in chanting as the family members each offer incense three times at the urn in front of the deceased. The guests will perform the same ritual in urns at other locations behind the family members’ seats. The wake ends once this entire process is completed.

Many of the religion’s sects embrace the tradition of giving a gift to each of the guests in attendance. The closest relatives and friends often stay and keep vigil with the deceased overnight in the same room.

Funeral Service

The funeral service itself is called the kokubetsu-shiki and is held on the day following the wake. Most of the rituals are the same as those performed during the wake. Incense, prayers and chanting are offered, led by the local priest.

During this time the priest will give the deceased a new name that will be used in the afterlife. This ceremony is called Tengoku. Tradition holds that the new name prevents the spirit of the deceased from returning if his name is called. The length and grandeur of the new name is dependent upon the virtue and character of the life of the deceased and the dedication and contributions of the family to the religion.

At the close of the ceremony, friends and family may place flowers in the casket around the head and shoulders of the body before the casket is sealed. Some sects will also decorate the hearse with flowers and adornments. In some regions, the tradition is for the guests at the funeral service to nail the coffin shut using a stone.

After the Cremation

After the funeral service, the mourners go back to the deceased’s house to share a meal and to perform some rituals of purification. Each person will throw salt over his shoulder on the property to ward off evil spirits. Some sects will have the walkways and sidewalks leading to the front door sprinkled with salt for the mourners to walk on.

The family of the deceased will be in a period of mourning for 49 days after the funeral. Once a week they will visit the grave to place fresh flowers and to burn incense. On the 3rd, 7th and 49th days they will have a short memorial service at the site, led by the Shinto priest. During these 49 days, the family cannot participate in any form of celebration or entertainment.


Visiting the graves in Shinto tradition is both an obligation and a privilege for family and friends. Japanese graves and cemeteries are different than those in western cultures. After the cremation, some ashes of the deceased are given to the closest family members to be kept in family shrines in the home. The remaining ashes and bone pieces are placed in an urn and taken to the cemetery.

Most Japanese graves are family graves consisting of a stone monument. The stone has places set aside for flowers, incense, water in front of the monument, and a chamber underneath for the ashes. The front of the stone has etchings of the family name and the members of the family. Often the names of living family members will be carved as well, with their names being listed in red.

These tombstones or monuments can be very elaborate. The grave areas are maintained by the family as a demonstration of respect. The Shinto faith emphasizes the importance of ancestors and family. Maintenance of the grave and regular visitation reveres the deceased and tangibly expresses commitment to the religion.

Fresh flowers are brought to the grave each week, unless circumstances absolutely prevent it. Friends can show honor and respect by assisting the family. Any visitor to the grave will bring incense and burn it during the moments spent at the site. Prayers and reflections not only express grief and mourning, but demonstrate respect for the deceased and the family.

Comforting the Bereaved

Friends and family can comfort the bereaved by participating in the funeral process, especially by attending the wake, the funeral service and the ceremonies at the home following the cremation. A presence at these events is a concrete way of showing the family that they are cared for and that the memory of the deceased is held in high esteem.

If attendance at these events is not possible, sympathy cards or notes can express condolences for the loss and regret for not being able to attend the services. Flowers or gift baskets sent to the home are gestures that are always appreciated.

Visiting the home of the family following the funeral is an appropriate way to offer comfort and support. Words of hope and encouragement make the bereaved feel that their loved one is remembered.