Three Stages of Death in Medieval Japan

As a writer of crime fiction, death plays a central part in my novels. Although I’m not morbid by nature (well, not entirely, anyway), I’ve always had an interest in cultural rituals of every kind, particularly those surrounding death, religion, and the afterlife.

16D25 Buddhist graveyard Kyoto

The rituals that accompanied death in Japan are no exception, particularly those that developed during the medieval age, when Buddhism and native Shinto beliefs existed side by side, with many (if not most) people recognizing both religious systems to some extent.

Buddhist rituals, in particular, recognize that death is a transition involving several stages.

Preliminary rituals, including purification and washing of the body, dressing the deceased in special garments (sometimes garments worn in life, and other times special ones reserved for death), and laying the corpse in a room or area separate from the living represent acknowledgment of the death and the individual’s passage from the world. Certain prayers or Buddhist chants might also accompany this stage of the process.

The second stage of ritual involves the funeral ceremony, which might have been simple or elaborate depending on a number of factors, including the gender, social rank, and financial status of the deceased. Whether the body was cremated or interred, and whether the funeral involved elaborate rituals or simple prayers, the funeral process placed the deceased outside the world of the living–spiritually as well as physically. For surviving family members, this phase of the process also involved the wearing of special garments, abstaining from certain work and foods, and withdrawal from certain social functions for a stated period (often determined by their relationship to the deceased).

16D25 pagoda

The final stage of the rituals surrounding a death affirmed the deceased’s new identity as an “ancestor.” This often included giving the deceased a new name (often a Buddhist name) and family members performing or arranging for certain rituals and prayers for an extended time–often far beyond the standard 49 days of “deep mourning” that followed death. In some cases, a stupa or pagoda might be built in memorial, or to act as a tomb.

16D25 stupa

As with many other rituals, medieval Japanese funerals often infused the rituals of several religious systems–Buddhism and Shinto being the two most common. Zen Buddhism arrived in Japan during the late eleventh or early twelfth century, bringing new rites for everything from birth to death–many based on Chinese Buddhist tradition, which was itself influenced by Daoism, Confucianism, and naive Chinese animist rituals.

Sometimes, people wanted “religious” funerals and elaborate rites even if they were not particularly religious during their lifetimes. This may have been for social reasons, or perhaps because pragmatic people took no chances with the afterlife–it’s too late to change your mind when you’re already there, and many people believed the rituals “couldn’t hurt” even if they didn’t help.

In order to make my books realistic, I’ve had to learn a lot about the way the different social classes reacted to, and ritualized, the death of a loved one in medieval Japan. In the months to come, I’ll be sharing some of those rituals–and some happier ones, as well. 

What do you think about rituals surrounding death? Do you see parallels to this three-stage process in the way more modern cultures deal with death?