Scattering Ashes of the Family Dead: Memorial Activity among the Bereaved in Contemporary Japan (1)

Article excerpt

Challenging the normative practice of interment, scattering ashes emerged as a new ritual in Japan during the 1990s. Both sensational and controversial, the practice has met with cries of protest and enthusiastic support. As an expression of their respect and affection, people in Japan are expected to venerate the family dead at a family altar and a family grave. Because maintaining the grave evokes the cherished notion of filial piety, some regard scattering ashes as a threat to memorial tradition. But the bereaved who scatter their kin's ashes continue to memorialize their kin by selectively altering certain aspects of memorial activity. They create personally significant ways to honor their loved ones. Scattering ashes, characterized by innovation and flexibility, has increased the range of memorial practices in Japan. (Japan, memorials, ritual change, ancestor worship)


Although scattering cremated ashes, or cremains, had been long considered illegal in postwar Japan, the number of people supporting the practice has increased since the establishment of a citizens' movement in 1991, the Grave-Free Promotion Society (GFPS). (2) In postwar Japan, the stem family (ie) a Buddhist-style altar (butsudan), and had a social contract with a Buddhist temple to venerate ancestors at a family grave. The GFPS has been promoting people's right to choose scattering ashes and thus has challenged mortuary convention. People's reactions to scattering have been mixed. Because establishing and maintaining a family grave easily conjures up a positive moral idea of filial piety, opponents view scattering as a denial of reverence for the ancestors. In particular, some Buddhist priests, funeral specialists, and gravestone-providers implicitly or explicitly depict scattering as an antifilial act showing little respect for ancestors. A 53-year-old priest of the Shingon Buddhist Sect, for example, attacked scattering: "Just throwing the ashes like unwanted objects is disrespectful" (Japan Times 2004). (3) As scattering is sometimes considered the denial of ceremonies for the family dead, this priest urges the Japanese to "preserve our unique culture for ceremonies and graves." Is scattering an antifilial denial of duty and respect for ancestors and custom? By drawing from traditional memorial acts as well as crafting their own, ash-scatterers create a personalized memorial activity. Rather than devaluing the deceased, ash-scatterers express their sense of fulfillment in having helped the deceased achieve a desired return to nature. Thus a 66-year-old woman declared, "My deceased husband must be resting peacefully at sea embraced by Mother Nature--to which he wanted to return." At issue with ash-scatterers is not the dismissal of memorial activity for the family dead, but rather their choice of meaningful methods.

For most postwar Japanese, death and ancestor rites have often been conducted as Buddhist rituals. Thirty years ago, Smith (1974:113) had already observed great variation in domestic observances of ancestral veneration and a waning influence of institutionalized Buddhism. Yet until recently, and even now to a considerable degree, "the series of memorial observances in the days and years following the funeral remains firmly in the hands of the priesthood and the temples" (Smith 1999:258). Despite the continuing involvement of Buddhist specialists in matters of death and memorial rites, since the 1990s, questioning the long-standing connections between Buddhism and mortuary and memorial ceremonies has increased. Various citizens' groups, often with obvious consumer concerns, have been established to consider such connections and to seek alternatives. Meeting consumers' demand, some funeral homes in urban areas now provide a nonreligious funeral as an alternative to a Buddhist one.

While anthropologists have accumulated studies of ancestor worship by addressing its importance in maintaining and reproducing jural ties, social order, and solidarity in kinship groups (e. …