Kotsuage: The Japanese Cremation Ritual Explained

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Japan has a culture based on ritual. It is through ritual that Japanese people feel closer to nature, their ancestors, and their cultural history. These rituals aren’t limited to life, but also expand into death.

One of the most misunderstood Japanese funeral rituals is kotsuage. This is a cremation ritual with ties to both Buddhism and Shintoism, both common, intertwined belief systems in Japan. Funerals in Japan are no simple affair. There are over 20 procedures included throughout the service and cremation. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

What exactly is kotsuage, and how does it fit into the Japanese cremation tradition? In this guide, we’ll explain how kotsuage works and why this practice is still a strong part of the Japanese funeral tradition today. 

What is Kotsuage?

For outsiders, the concept of kotsuage might sound both heartbreaking and morbid. It’s important to keep in mind the Japanese attitude toward death. In Japan, people are very accepting and open about death. Ancestors are seen as protectors of the family, and the spiritual world is never far away. As such, this is simply another ritual to bring families together after the loss of a loved one. 

Kotsuage is when the family gathers after the creation of a loved one to pick up the bones. When a body is cremated, fragments of the bone remain in the ash. In the west, these fragments are removed by the crematorium. Only the ashes are returned to the family. 

In Japan, the practice of kotsuage allows the family to be a part of this process. They remove the bones with a special pair of long chopsticks. It’s also common for the bone fragments to be passed from chopsticks to chopsticks amongst family members. 

It’s important for the family to pay attention closely during this process. First, the family witnesses the deceased being put into the crematorium chamber. They might use this time to say final goodbyes. When they return later, the remains have cooled. The family picks through the fragments starting at the feet and moving upwards. 

The ashes and bones are placed into the urn starting with the feet so that the body is feet-down in the urn, like a natural human stance. Once this process is complete, the urn stays within the family’s shrine for anywhere from 30 to 50 days depending on the region of Japan. From there, it’s taken to a graveyard.

ยป MORE: When someone dies, they leave a life behind. This checklist takes you through the next steps.

 

How Did Kotsuage Come About?

Kotsuage, like most of Japan’s traditions, has a long history within Japan. Kotsuage came about through the combination of Shinto and Buddhist practices. The native religion in Japan is Shinto. This is a collection of rituals and ways of doing things that have been passed down thousands of years. 

Buddhist funeral rites came from outside of Japan. These traditions merged in the 1600s when all Japanese people were required to register with a local Buddhist temple. Still, Shinto and Buddhist traditions still exist together. While a Buddhist priest is usually used in Japanese funerals, many of these rituals still reflect the long Shinto tradition. 

To this day, kotsuage is still used in many Japanese funerals. However, there are many special beliefs and local customs that change the way this ritual looks for different families. For the families that choose to do a kotsuage ritual after the death of a loved one, this is a way to connect with traditions from their ancestors of the past. 

What Exactly Happens During a Kotsuage Ritual? 

As mentioned above, there are many regional differences in kotsuage rituals from around the globe. Each family and local area has its own unique customs that might affect how they take part in this bone collecting ritual. 

However, this short list below helps you understand what exactly happens during this part of the funeral process. From there, it’s up to the individual family. 

Cremation

First, it’s important to remember that this is a ritual related to cremation. It exists as part of the elaborate funeral service, but it’s usually only open to close family to attend. The family stays to witness the body going into the crematorium, though they usually leave during this process. Though it might feel morbid, this is a highly emotional process for families. It’s a chance to say any final goodbyes before the next part of this funeral ceremony. 

Cremation has a strong role in Buddhism. In this culture, cremation is the way to free the spirit from the body. It facilitates the journey to the next world. It’s a physical and symbolic transition into the next phase of existence. 

Chopsticks

The family uses a special pair of chopsticks to sift through the bones of the deceased. This pair of chopsticks is not a perfect match. 

They’re made of different woods to symbolize the separation between the world of the dead and the world of the living. It’s a metaphor for the coming together of these two worlds for this sacred practice. 

The family members use these chopsticks to collect the ash and bone. For larger pieces of bones, it might take two sets of chopsticks or more to support them on their journey to the urn. It’s a breach of social etiquette to pass food between different sets of chopsticks, but an exception is made for this ritual.

Bone size

In western culture, bones are reduced into fine ash during cremation. Any bones or foreign objects that aren’t reduced to ash are removed. This process is handled by the professionals at the crematorium, and the family only receives the ashes in an urn or bag at the end of the process. 

Contrary to this, cremated bones are not reduced in size in Japan. They’re left large intentionally to strengthen the ritual nature of this practice. As such, some bones are quite large. A professional assists the family at the beginning of the kotsuage process, giving them an introduction to the bones in different sections of the remains. Then, the family is left to complete this process. 

Specific bones

Not all bones are created equal. While care is given throughout the entire kotsuage process, some bones have greater significance than others. The most important bone is the thyroid bone in the neck. This bone in the neck resembles the shape of a seated Buddha, having a lot of significance within the tradition. This bone is also a symbol of the connection between the brain and the body. 

Parents often encourage younger children to assist with this process as a way to bring good luck. By collecting bones from the head, for example, this is a way to encourage intelligence. This applies to the entire body. 

Urns

The ashes and bones are transferred to an urn or multiple urns. While in the west most families only use one urn, it’s common for multiple urns to be used in Japan. This is because it’s important for these ashes to rest up to 50 days at the family’s shrine before they’re brought to the cemetery. 

Because some families have multiple shrines, multiple urns are common. The ashes are distributed evenly amongst them, and they’ll go to different shines within the family.

Ash and Bone: The Japanese Ritual of Kotsuage

Buddhist and Shinto funeral rites have survived in Japanese culture for thousands of years. Today, they’re a way for Japanese people to feel connected with their ancestors and community. Though it might sound grotesque to outsiders, this is a highly personal process for families. Through kotsuage or the sifting of the bones, families have an opportunity to pay final respects to the deceased. 

Like all things in Japan, this is a symbolic practice. The living come face-to-face with the remains of the dead. In a culture where family is so essential to the community, it’s no surprise that family members are the ones who ensure the deceased reach their final resting place. 

Though these family members are dead, the relationship is seen as living on. Kotsuage is just one part of this transition from a living person to a spiritual ancestor. The dead still have a strong presence in the lives of Japanese families, and this is just one of the many examples of that. 


Sources

  1. Sakashita, Jay. “Cremation And Death Rituals.” MidWeek. 2 July 2014. MidWeek.com
  2. Wiren, Alan. “Japanese Funerals: Sunset in the Rising Sun.” Japan Visitor. JapanVisitor.com.

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