- Nature’s Embrace: Japan’s Aging Urbanites and New Death Rites
Death and dying are universal human experiences, yet the ways in which human beings interpret, cope with, and ritualize death are varied and ever shifting. Careful analysis of social and cultural constructions of death and death rituals, therefore, tells us a great deal about life in a particular society at a particular moment in time. Satsuki Kawano, in her close examination of new death rites among contemporary urban Japanese, untangles a multitude of social, cultural, and economic changes in Japan to show how new mortuary practices, especially the scattering of ashes, reflect the complexity of Japanese families in transition.
At the center of Kawano’s analysis is a Tokyo-based organization called the Grave-Free Promotion Society (Sōsō no Jiyū o Susumeru Kai; GFPS). Founded in 1991, it is a citizens’ movement that promotes the scattering of ashes as an alternative to the commonly practiced interment in family graves. GFPS is run by a small group of paid staff and supported by a larger group of volunteers, who answer phone inquiries about ash scattering, prepare and mail newsletters to the society’s expanding membership, and, most important, organize ash-scattering ceremonies in various locations.
Kawano conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork as a GFPS volunteer, stuffing mailings, helping organize annual meetings, and attending multiple ash-scattering rituals. She also interviewed Yasuda Mutsuhiko, founder and president of GFPS, as well as 20 GFPS members. She provides a detailed depiction of the activities of the organization which prides itself in being a “citizens’ movement,” with no religious or ideological affiliation. [End Page 498] Aside from some social distinctions based on age and gender, and the recognition of seniority among the directors who conduct ash-scattering ceremonies, she finds the interaction among the society’s staff and volunteers to be more collaborative and less hierarchical than in other Japanese organizations, such as major corporations.
Ash scattering, though gaining social recognition, is still an unconventional way of memorializing the deceased, and some bereaving families feel ambivalent about it. It is often the case that the emotional aspects of dealing with death are expressed in the practical aspects of ash scattering as families begin to prepare for the ceremony. Particularly revealing is the process of pulverizing the remains prior to the scattering ceremony. It is common practice at Japanese crematories to not reduce the cremated body literally to ashes but to keep some bone pieces intact, because of the custom for the bereaved to “pick up the bones” with ceremonial chopsticks and place them in the urn. The GFPS asks the bereaved to pulverize the remains as much as possible before scattering, primarily for aesthetic reasons. This turns out to be a major challenge for many, who at first perceive it as destruction and violation of the remains. In the end, however, the process of agreeing to this act, as well as performing the act of pulverizing, becomes a transformative experience through which the bereaved come to terms with the loss and truly understand the significance of ash scattering as a way of cherishing the deceased’s individuality.
Ceremonial directors play a key role every step of the way in guiding the bereaved through the process of ash scattering and, in doing so, they embody three philosophical cornerstones of GFPS. First, GFPS makes no money from ash-scattering ceremonies, despite taking considerable time and care to organize and conduct them; ceremonial directors also serve strictly as volunteers and receive no financial compensation. Second, while the ceremonial style varies from one director to another, all ash-scattering ceremonies are conducted in a calm, simple manner, without a great deal of the decorum typical of commercialized funerals. This noncommercial and civic nature of the GFPS appeals to those who find distasteful and impersonal the overt commodification of death rituals by paid funeral services. Finally, the role of nature as “the eternal benevolent force that nurtures the dead” (p. 71) also appeals to...