My partner used to get packages of vegetables from his mother’s vegetable patch in the summer, rice from the family rice fields (long since loaned out to other farmers) after harvest time in the fall. Up until his fisherman father died a few years back he used packages of dried fish too. Little by little the care packages have dwindled away except for one item that is growing: bottles of detergent.
The Buddhist funeral culture of Japan is a complex gnarly institution, an event timeline that traditionally runs 100 days from from death, wake, cremation, funeral, 35 day ceremony, and finally 100 days. Up until the 1970s it was common for Buddhist funerals to last 5 days outside of the cities. There is also the wider society net of give and take: Koden, the monetary offering to the bereaved family. Koden comes with a running scale, friends and neighbors offer less, relations and immediate in-laws offer more. Koden helps offset the cost of a Japanese Buddhist funeral which could be very expensive. To wit the grandfather’s funeral.
When the grandfather died, the family temple (Shingon) resident priest was unavailable because he was in jail. He had lost both parents at a young age and was indulged by the community and his older sister. With no sense of responsibility in life, and too much free time on his hands he took to drink and drank so heavily that he developed adult onset diabetes in college, along with a mahjong habit. When he got back to Sado and took up the temple duties he had more free time to drink and play mahjong. One early drunk morning, driving back to the temple, he hit and killed a pedestrian, and so went to jail. And because he was in jail, the other Shingon priests in Sado didn’t want anything to do with him, publicly that is, and refused to take over the funeral duties to tamp down any bad gossip.
So the family had no choice but to call Koyasan mother ship and have 2 high priests come to Sado. Instead of taking using the plane tickets that had been arranged they traveled first class train and ferry. The also brought 2 assistants to help change their robes…without telling the family. They also stayed at the most expensive hotel in Sado using hired taxis refusing the pre-arranged hotel and family transportation. All of this quickly added up to more than 2 million yen for three days of work. By the 2nd day they were too drunk to chant properly. The grandmother, not one to mince words, called them a disgrace and dismissed them, refusing to pay for the 3rd day, in front of all the very surprised guests.
Whoever said that Japanese can’t speak their mind is full of BS, or hasn’t been to Sado. So much for the high priests of Koyasan. This sense of ingrained passed down entitlement is why the Japanese Buddhist priesthood is not well liked in everyday Japanese society. Tolerated, but not well liked. After all, somebody has to take care of the family grave. As for the bereaved family, the Koden fortunately covered all the outrageous expenses.
The Koden crowd gets a generous meal, sushi, beer, sake, etc., and a gift to take home with them as a thank you for coming and paying respects…and helping with the costs. The gift is usually a package deal arranged by the funeral ceremony operator, ‘here is our catalog of funeral gift options, please choose one.’ Sometimes it is food or gift towels, in Sado these days the default gift is detergent because…well because it’s practical.
My partner’s mother is 84. Going to funerals of family relations, departed neighbors and friends of her generation is an increasingly common activity. She has way too much death detergent on her hands and sends it on to her son. Even so our collection of death detergent is not long for this world. The mother will pass on of course but so will the institution of the often, usually for the wrong reasons, maligned Funeral Buddhism.
The tragedy of ‘Funeral Buddhism’ isn’t that it’s a business network of priests, temples, funeral service companies, caterers, crematoriums and cemeteries that keep a lot of people employed and money flowing, I mean if somebody can make money off my dead body in return for a healthy local economy and a respectful sendoff, I say fine. No, the tragedy is that younger generations have inherited gutted social institutions that don’t help them make the best of things because priests and parents didn’t teach them the proper value of things. They were too busy making money.
My partner’s grandmother was the last generation who knew how, and more importantly why the social institutions worked the way they did and how to teach them. But even she saw the writing on the wall. “Life and culture isn’t about convenience, they’re a pain in ass but don’t bother mindlessly following them, keep only what’s important and has meaning to you.”
This was the generation of neighborhood grandmothers who would gather at every household for a funeral, to prepare, to cook, to clean, to help. No need for funeral parlors or banquet halls. But with smaller families and the decline of younger people staying in Sado that started big time with the 1973 oil shock, it became harder and harder to maintain and the neighborhood grandmother funeral brigade decided to disband in mid-1980s. At that point everybody started using funeral business companies that took care of everything from funeral hall to banquet hall for a higher price.
The funeral business is a cosy relationship between Buddhist temples and local funeral businesses. In Sado for example the local JA runs the funeral business side but the smarter temples rent out funeral/banquet halls that they own to JA…and get a bigger slice of the business. In Tokyo recently this cozy relationship had been upended when the Chinese financier who owns Laox Holdings, bought up 70% of the Tokyo area funeral/crematorium business, and promptly slapped on aggressive ‘fuel surcharges’ and such. Buddhist priests are paying close attention to these developments but the writing is on the wall.
Younger generations don’t have the connection to Buddhist temples their parents did because priests haven’t been doing their job. To them Buddhist funerals are just another gutted social institution, and an expensive one at that, but at least they’ll have bottles of death detergent to do the washing.
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