Pregnancy loss, though rarely talked about publically, affects parents across the globe. Miscarriage, stillbirth, and pregnancy loss are more common than many people realize, and the pain and grief from these types of loss are very real. To put things in perspective, between 10 and 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.
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Many families create their own ways to honor these losses. From a miscarriage memorial to memory boxes, these small practices validate grief and help families find peace. In Japan, there is a unique custom around pregnancy loss intended to soothe parents through this time. Known as Mizuko Kuyō, this memorial service is a Buddhist ceremony for those who experience a miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion.
What’s behind this Buddhist ritual, and why is it spreading in popularity to other parts of the globe? In our society, pregnancy loss is something often kept behind closed doors. Mizuko Kuyō brings this grief into the light of day, offering a new form of ritual and togetherness to honor the lives and memories lost—no matter how small.
What is Mizuko Kuyo?
The Japanese word “mizuko” translates to “water child.” This is a Japanese term used exclusively in reference to a lost baby or infant, usually from an abortion, stillbirth, or miscarriage. These water children aren’t fully a part of this world, yet their parent’s grief is still very real.
Today, Mizuko Kuyō describes the practice of holding a memorial service for pregnancy loss. The reason behind this ritual is to comfort the soul of the deceased infant while also healing parental grief.
Some believe this is also a required practice to put the soul at rest, preventing the child from returning as a ghost. Because there are mixed, complicated feelings associated with pregnancy loss, the Mizuko Kuyō ritual helps families find peace when they need it the most.
Mizuko Kuyō is a relatively new tradition rooted in Japanese culture and society. Though abortion has been legal in Japan since 1949, the birth control pill was not legalized until 1999. Because of the lack of reliable birth control, many Japanese women had as many as 8 abortions during their lifetime.
Over the past century, many Buddhists have taken an open-minded view of abortion. Though they believe life begins at conception, they believe in bodily autonomy. As long as each person approaches the decision compassionately and carefully, the choice belongs solely to the pregnant person.
Women in Japan looked for a way to address the grief they experienced from having abortions. In the 1970s, Buddhist priests created Mizuko Kuyō to offer these women acknowledgment and peace.
Today, this ritual offers compassion and kindness to families after any type of pregnancy loss. Though these originally began in Japan out of necessity, they quickly spread across the globe as a way to honor those going through this unique pain.
What happens during the ceremony?
While the ceremony varies by temple, the process is relatively the same for each Mizuko Kuyō ceremony. To start, families choose a token to represent their loss. This is usually a statue that symbolizes different belief systems. In traditional Buddhist temples, these statues are of Buddha and Jizo. Jizo is the Buddhist deity seen as the protector of aborted, miscarried, and stillborn children.
There might be additional figures in more progressive Buddhist temples, such as the statue of Mary or Jesus from Christianity. These ceremonies are open to families of all religious backgrounds, not just Buddhists. The figures represent compassion itself, and there are so many different forms this compassion takes.
Next, a priest guides the families in preparing a token for the statue. This is also seen as an offering to the deceased child. The most common offering is a red cloth bib or bonnet that the figure wears.
The priest then leads a chant in honor of Jizo, the protector of born and unborn infants. Additional elements might include the lighting of incense, writing the infant’s names on paper, and sharing prayers.
After the ceremony, the offerings are left in the temple’s prayer room for a full month while the priests continue to pray. The temples usually move them to the garden after the month ends—a permanent reminder or miscarriage keepsake in honor of the little lost life. These miscarriage ornaments rest in the garden for years to come, standing like headstones for the lives that never were.
Mizuko Kuyō is similar to other Buddhist funeral traditions, and is commonly practiced across Asia in countries such as China and Thailand.
In Buddhist funerals, it’s also traditional to make offerings to the dead. Common offerings include flowers, candles, incense, and fruit. Images of Buddha are used to show that the deceased is in good hands.
Ultimately, Buddhism is a belief system rooted in suffering. Suffering is at the heart of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. These truths are:
- Life has inevitable suffering
- There is a cause to our suffering
- There is an end to suffering
- The end to suffering is contained in the eightfold path
In other words, suffering is part of how humans interact with the world. Though pregnancy loss, abortion, and stillbirth are enormously painful, they are a part of life. This pain can be overcome through ritual.
How to Participate in Mizuko Kuyo
You don’t need to travel to Japan to participate in Mizuko Kuyō. These ceremonies are held across the globe at Buddhist temples, and many can be found in the United States. In a society that shies away from expressing grief publicly, Mizuko Kuyō encourages families to experience their suffering so they can find real peace.
Are you interested in participating in Mizuko Kuyō? Here’s how and everything you need to know:
Step 1: Find a Buddhist temple near you
To start, you need to find a Buddhist temple near you. Not all Buddhist temples offer Mizuko Kuyō, and these ceremonies aren’t practiced daily. Many temples only offer Mizuko Kuyō once a month or a few times a year.
The best time to learn about your local Buddhist temple schedule is to call or visit yourself. The priests can answer any questions you have about specific rituals.
Step 2: Learn the temple rules
Before you visit your local Buddhist temple for Mizuko Kuyō, learn the temple’s rules. If you’re not familiar with Buddhist practices, you might not recognize the dos and don’ts of the temple. The more familiar you are with what to do, the more prepared you’ll be to fully immerse yourself in the experience.
Keep in mind these important etiquette points below:
- Remove your shoes at the entrance
- Remote any hats
- Greet the Buddha within the temple with a small bow
- Don’t take photos
- Don’t wear short pants or sleeveless shirts
- Be mindful of other worshipers
- Don’t point
- Don’t turn your back to the Buddha
It’s also common practice to leave a small donation when entering the temple. Priests usually lead services and rituals for the public free of charge, and a donation is an appropriate form of thanks.
Step 3: Bring your grief
Last but not least, attend the mizuko kuyō prepared to feel your grief while also celebrating life. These ceremonies are an opportunity to connect with others who experienced loss and to find peace of your own.
Most of the ceremony is led by Buddhist priests, so there isn’t much to prepare for the ritual. As long as you bring an open mind and a willingness to be present, you’ll benefit from this unique practice.
Finding Peace After Pregnancy Loss
The Japanese ritual Mizuko Kuyō was created to help parents through all different types of pregnancy loss, particularly abortion, in a time when birth control wasn’t readily available.
This ritual is still very much relevant today and now includes miscarriage and stillbirth. In a society where grief is held inwards, Mizuko Kuyō helps grief to step into the open.
Participating in Mizuko Kuyō is an incredibly moving experience. Not only does it show just how many families experience some form of pregnancy loss, but it also gives a voice to a grief that’s impossible to express.
Sharing with those who understand your pain is often one of the best ways to heal. The collective grief and loss in Mizuko Kuyō give families the space they need to heal.
- “Adopting a Buddhist Ritual to Mourn Miscarriage, Abortion.” NPR: All Things Considered. 15 August 2015. NPR.org.
- “Buddhism and abortion.” BBC Religions: Abortion. 23 November 2009. BBC.co.uk.
- “Buddhism: An Introduction.” PBS: Buddhism. PBS.org.
- Goss, Erica. “Mizuko Kuyo: Japan’s Powerful Pregnancy Loss Ritual.” Modern Loss. Modernloss.com.
- “Miscarriage Statistics.” March of Dimes. MarchofDimes.org.