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The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan

Karen M. Gerhart

Publication Year: 2009

This study is the first in the English language to explore the ways medieval Japanese sought to overcome their sense of powerlessness over death. By attending to both religious practice and ritual objects used in funerals in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it seeks to provide a new understanding of the relationship between the two. Karen Gerhart looks at how these special objects and rituals functioned by analyzing case studies culled from written records, diaries, and illustrated handscrolls, and by examining surviving funerary structures and painted and sculpted images.

The work is divided into two parts, beginning with compelling depictions of funerary and memorial rites of several members of the aristocracy and military elite. The second part addresses the material culture of death and analyzes objects meant to sequester the dead from the living: screens, shrouds, coffins, carriages, wooden fences. This is followed by an examination of implements (banners, canopies, censers, musical instruments, offering vessels) used in memorial rituals. The final chapter discusses the various types of and uses for portraits of the deceased, focusing on the manner of their display, the patrons who commissioned them, and the types of rituals performed in front of them. Gerhart delineates the distinction between objects created for a single funeral—and meant for use in close proximity to the body, such as coffins—and those, such as banners, intended for use in multiple funerals and other Buddhist services.

Richly detailed and generously illustrated, Gerhart introduces a new perspective on objects typically either overlooked by scholars or valued primarily for their artistic qualities. By placing them in the context of ritual, visual, and material culture, she reveals how rituals and ritual objects together helped to comfort the living and improve the deceased’s situation in the afterlife as well as to guide and cement societal norms of class and gender. Not only does her book make a significant contribution in the impressive amount of new information that it introduces, it also makes an important theoretical contribution as well in its interweaving of the interests and approaches of the art historian and the historian of religion. By directly engaging and challenging methodologies relevant to ritual studies, material culture, and art history, it changes once and for all our way of thinking about the visual and religious culture of premodern Japan.

45 illus., 11 in color

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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p. v-v


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

As a first attempt to reexamine the way we look at, talk about, and write about ritual objects, my study is indebted to many people who helped make this book possible. For the financial support that created time for research and writing, I am grateful to the University of Pittsburgh Faculty of Arts and Sciences ...

Note to the Reader

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-12

Death is an event of cataclysmic separation. The deceased, once appropriately disposed of, cannot be seen, touched, conversed with. So we use rituals and ritual objects to help bridge the gulf, suture the wound to the collective body of family and of community, and overcome a sense of powerlessness in the face ...

The Rituals of Death

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Chapter 1. Death in the Fourteenth Century

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pp. 15-49

Many societies in far-flung parts of the ancient world developed surprisingly similar ideas about death and how best to deal with it. For example, archaeological evidence from ancient Etruria (ca. 500 BCE), which included tomb goods such as vessels for cooking, toilet articles, and armor, suggests that the Etruscans believed ...

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Chapter 2. Funerals in the Fifteenth Century

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pp. 50-79

By the first half of the fifteenth century, changes had been made to the basic structure of the funeral that resulted in the codification of key rituals, or at least parts of them. The most extensive evidence of that systematization can be seen in the descriptions of the lying-in-state period of the corpse and of the ...

The Material Culture of Death

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Chapter 3. Objects of Separation and Containment

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pp. 83-112

In medieval Japan an astounding variety of forms and materials were used to enclose the body after death so as to separate the dead from the living. Few have been preserved, for the obvious reason that they were generally buried, burned, or otherwise destroyed. Fortunately, some basic knowledge about what materials ...

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Chapter 4. Ritual Implements for Funerals and Memorials

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pp. 113-146

The implements that accompanied Japanese funeral rituals and death memorials are still plentiful; they were produced by workshops to be durable and to perform particular functions. Bronze candleholders and many other intriguing appurtenances of religious practices are housed today in major museums. The ...

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Chapter 5. Portraits of the Deceased

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pp. 147-177

The common view of a portrait is that it represents a specific individual, either historical or legendary. A portrait, however, is that and more.1 The making of portraits in the West has been described as “a response to the natural human tendency to think about oneself, of oneself in relation to others, and of others ...


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pp. 178-217

List of Japanese Words

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pp. 219-229


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pp. 231-248


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pp. 249-259

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Image Plates

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Plates follow pg 100.

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837556
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832612

Publication Year: 2009