A Japanese student describes how he was first led to Christ when he attended the funeral service of the daughter of Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930), one of Japan's leading Christian figures. At the end of the service, said the student,
Uchimura rose and said, "She had come of marrying age. If she had remained on earth, we would have had to worry about her wedding. But I believe that Jesus has called her to heaven as his bride. This is not her funeral; it is her wedding."
After the coffin had been lowered into the earth, it came time for surviving members of the family to throw earth on it. Uchimura took a handful of it and, raising it above his head, suddenly shouted banzai ("ten thousand cheers," the traditional word of triumph) in a shrill voice.
My whole body was shocked, as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt. I thought to myself, "This is no ordinary affair. Belief in Christianity is not simple; it is an absolute commitment." The impression driven home at that time first showed me the way to Christianity.
—John F. Howes. Uchimura Kanzo, Columbia University Master's Thesis, 1953, p. 106f. As seen in The Japan Christian Quarterly, Winter, 1972, p. 58.
A Series of Services
Christian funerals such as the memorable one for Uchimura's daughter are relatively rare in Japan. Roughly 10 percent of the nation's 125 million people are over sixty-five. And most of the aged still cling to the traditional Bud-dhist-Shintoist religion. When Christians do pass away, however, funeral services are triumphal and give opportunity to witness the good news to non-Christian family and friends.
The number and type of services held as part of a Christian funeral in Japan generally follow the Buddhist practices so dominant in the culture. Some of these services are simple, such as the "placing-body-in-coffin" service at which Scripture is read and prayer is offered by the pastor. There is also a pre-vigil service, and a funeral service prior to cremation, as well as a post-cremation service, when the ashes are placed in an urn. A week or two later there is a service to bury the ashes, and a year later, the family gathers again for a memorial service. The formulary of each service is carefully prescribed in the Reformed Church in Japan's liturgical guidebook.
No Room for Cemeteries
Cremation is the norm in Japan. Japanese law prohibits the burial of corpses, making exceptions only for foreign nationals whose families request burial. (Special cemeteries are designated for this purpose.)
Most Christians today in Japan, as well as in other areas of the world, have no objection to cremation. As Rev. Shojiro Ishii notes, "Cremation does not deny the biblical idea of 'dust to dust,' because bones and ashes when buried do finally return to dust." I wonder though what he would say about the increasingly popular practice in the Western world, as well as in Japan, of scattering ashes to the winds from mountains or airplanes, a practice which has its own peculiar symbolism.
Transforming Old Practices
When Christians attend the Buddhist funeral of a family member or friend, they must deal with the very real problem of remaining true to their beliefs in a non-Christian culture (less than half of 1 percent of Japan's 125 million people are Christian). For example, a focal point in a Buddhist funeral is an enlarged picture of the deceased placed atop the unadorned wooden casket before cremation takes place. Bowing and praying to this picture indicates agreement with the Buddhist belief that the spirit of the deceased is still hovering between two worlds and that the spirit must be pacified by prayer.
Japanese Christians placed in this awkward position must try to find a respectful way to avoid praying to the picture. Rev. Yasuo Sakakibara, pastor of the Oncho Christian Reformed Church in Tokyo, says, "When I attend a Buddhist funeral, I do not pray to the spirit of the deceased, but I bow and face the family and silently pray for their comfort and conversion."