Matt Kamen examines Japanese funerals in the real world.
In the world of Corpse Princess, mystically powered monks are able to form contracts with recently-deceased girls, empowering them to fight off Shikabane – restless spirits of the dead whose unfulfilled last wishes corrupt them into rampaging monsters. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen in reality but monks really do play an important role in mourning rituals.
Japan is a mostly secular society – elements from both Shintoism and Buddhism factor heavily into daily life but few people actively practise either in a Western sense. Religion in any walk of life is largely ceremonial rather than theological — many Japanese weddings employ a typical western ‘white wedding’ style, for example, but fewer than 1% of the populace are Christian.
For funerals, the vast majority opt for traditional Buddhist ceremonies. This is why characters such as Keisei in Corpse Princess are presented as Buddhist monks with a sideline in supernatural combat – the imagery already fits with what Japanese viewers associate with last rites and the realms of the living and dead.
Buddhist funeral ceremonies can extend over 49 days. Immediately after death, the corpse is washed and kept on dry ice, while any orifices – ears, nostrils, etc – are packed with cotton wool. It is then placed in a coffin, with women dressed in kimonos and men in black suits or, less commonly nowadays, a male kimono. The kimono will be tied right-side over left, the opposite of the way they are worn in life.
On the day of the wake, the family of the deceased dress in black – a western formality that has overtaken the formerly traditional white funeral wear – and accept gift donations from other mourners. Buddhist sutras are chanted by the monk to bless the departed spirit and help it on its way to the afterlife. The funeral itself is usually the following day, and sees the deceased adorned with flowers and taken away for cremation. Before this, a new posthumous name is given to the deceased, which is said to help prevent the return or manipulation of their spirit.
After cremation, family members use chopsticks to carefully place bone fragments in an urn, working foot to head so their loved one is ‘upright’ even when in bits. The remains are then taken to the family home where incense is burned and prayers are said. When the spirit is believed to have moved on, the remains are then placed in a graveyard, with a monument for surviving family to visit.
If nothing else, the role of the Buddhist monk in the proceedings certainly opens up more creative fictional endeavours, as in Corpse Princess – somehow, the idea of the local vicar fighting the undead over here doesn’t hold quite the same appeal….
Corpse Princess 2 is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment. It has more guns in it than the average Japanese funeral. For a more realistic view of life in a Japanese undertakers, we recommend the live-action movie Departures.