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Shinto Funerals (Sosai): Traditions, Beliefs & What to Expect

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Shinto is the oldest religion in Japan, dating back to prehistoric times. Over the years, Buddhism overshadowed Shinto beliefs. Today, over 3.4 million people consider Shinto their sole religion. This belief system blends Buddhist traditions with old teachings, and these practices have passed down through generations.

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One of these practices is funeral traditions. At a Japanese funeral, you’re likely to encounter both Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. These complementary religions share many similarities, but there are still specifics of Shinto funerals that you should be aware of.

Shinto funerals are known as Sosai in Japanese. In this guide, we’ll dive deep into the traditions, beliefs, and what to expect at this type of funeral. 

Shinto Views of Death and Dying

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. As such, there is a focus on nature and the cycle of life. One of the main beliefs is that everything and everyone has spiritual energy known as kami. Mountains, trees, animals, people, and so on all have kami. Certain places and things have greater energy than others. 

For Shinto followers, death is a reminder that life is short. It’s a push towards living life more fully. Those who pass away are highly respected, and it’s not appropriate to mourn deceased family members intensely outside of funeral occasions. 

The kami in everyone releases at the time of death. The spirit moves to another world. This isn’t the same as heaven or hell. It’s simply another place that’s neither a paradise or a punishment. It’s a world of spirits, and these ancestral spirits guard over their descendants. 

Traditions for a Shinto Funeral

Shinto funerals look similar to Buddhist funerals. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see shared elements of both since most people in Japan practice aspects of both religions. Here’s what to expect at a funeral in Japan. 

Order of service

Like much of Japanese traditions, order is very important in Shinto funerals. Each step is carefully taken by family members after someone dies. Preparation is key according to centuries-old protocols. In Shintoism, there are over 20 procedures that cover the entire mourning period. 

First, there are steps taken immediately after the death of a loved one. These aren’t a part of the 20 procedures, but they’re still essential. They are:

  • At the time of death: Immediately after the death of a loved one, family members cover the Shinto shrine in the home. The covering of the shrine keeps other spirits of the dead out. In addition, the family decorates a small table with flowers, incense, and candles next to the deceased where they rest on the bed. 
  • Informal notice: After the family leaves the body to rest at home, informal notice is given to civil authorities and other close family members. 
  • Funeral planning: The oldest son is the one who plans funeral arrangements. If there are no sons, the oldest male relative takes charge. The funeral is held quickly. The only exception is if the family has to travel a far distance. 

After the family completes these steps above, it’s time for the 20 Shinto steps. These prepare the spirit to head to the spirit world, and the practices focus on purification. Here is an overview:

  • Steps 1-4: The first step is to wash the lips of the deceased. This is symbolic of giving the body its final taste of water. Next, the family washes the entire body. Third, multiple family members announce the death to the spirit world through prayer at the family’s shrine. Finally, close family place offerings by the deceased with the head up on a pillow. 
  • Steps 5-8: The next step is to put the body in the coffin. Family brings food offerings twice a day until the body is buried, and this is usually the favorite meal of the deceased. Step 7 is the announcement of the return of the spirit to the local shrine. In modern times, this is often done through a phone call. Finally, there’s another purification ceremony with a local priest who cleans the gravesite. 
  • Steps 9-12: The priest also purifies himself for the funeral through both prayer and washing. The 10th step is the wake, and mourners gather to say their condolences to the family. Next, the priest transfers the spirits body with a wooden tablet and prayer. Step number 12 is the giving of a meal or snacks to the family and mourners to prevent the contamination of death. 
  • Steps 13-16: Finally, we’ve arrived at the funeral service. This is the sosai, as said before, and the priest purifies the space before the funeral. The priest also gives a eulogy in honor of the deceased, and there’s a farewell ceremony. Mourners walk past the deceased and say final goodbyes. Finally, the family prepares the coffin for travel to the gravesite.
  • Steps 17-20: Priests and the family cleanse the space after the funeral. Now it’s time for the grave service. The family gathers at the grave or crematorium. The body is cremated, and the remains go into a vase. The family buries some of these ashes in the grave, and others return home. 

Prayers

Prayer is a large part of the 20 steps outlined above. Both the family and the Shinto priest give prayers as a way to soothe the spirit of the deceased and purify the process. However, there is no specific prayer for the dead. 

In the Shinto belief, certain words have stronger meanings and spiritual power if used as part of a prayer. The most common prayers used during funerals and ceremonies are known as Norito. These are incantations directly given to a kami. In this case, they’re directed to the family and to the spirit of the deceased. 

Songs and hymns

During some aspects of the 20 procedures above, funeral music might be present. Some families choose to include musicians in the funeral service, and this would be gagaku music. This refers to a specific type of Japanese music played at the Imperial court. 

These types of songs are highly traditional, and that’s why it’s appropriate for special occasions. Because the Japanese Imperial family has ties to Shinto gods and goddesses, this music makes sense for funerals. 

Location

Unlike in other religions where funerals are at the place of worship, Shinto funerals are not allowed on shrine grounds. Because death is seen as impure, funerals take place in private homes, funeral halls, or community buildings. 

Some shrines purchase building adjacent to the place of worship that isn’t on the same grounds. 

Shinto Burial Customs

The vast majority of Japanese people are cremated. In the Shinto faith, it’s very important that the family treats these ashes according to ritual and protocol. Once the body is cremated, the family picks bones out of the ash remains with chopsticks. These larger remains go into an urn. This is a meticulous process. 

The family buries most of the ashes in a graveyard. Though the headstones are large, only ash remains underneath the earth. Any bones or remaining ashes stay above-ground in a mausoleum or in the family’s home. 

Shinto Mourning Rituals and Honoring the Dead

Losing a loved one is difficult in any tradition. While the primary focus after a family death is to take care of practical funeral arrangements and the cost of the funeral, it’s followed by a reflective period of mourning. 

After the funeral and burial, the family and friends return to the deceased’s house to share a meal. People sit together side by side to ward off evil spirits, and the family comes together in this time of need. 

The mourning period for close family lasts a total of 49 days after the funeral. During this time, they place fresh funeral flowers on the grave, burn incense, and pray. All of these actions show the family that the deceased is at rest. 

Japanese Funerals: Shinto Beliefs and Mourning

Japanese funerals closely resemble the culture. They’re practiced and orderly, following each traditional step in perfect coordination. While the Shinto funeral process might seem lengthy and complicated to outsiders, these beliefs bring peace and comfort to the family of the deceased when they need it most. Death is something that’s out of everyone’s control. Shinto practices restore order to a time of mourning.

Learning about funeral traditions from around the world not only prepares us to be more globally aware, but it introduces us to new ideas. From the kami spirit of everyday objects and people to the ancestral ties that bind us together, there’s a lot to respect about Shintoism.

Funeral practices might vary around the world, but death is the great equalizer that connects us all. Everyone just looks for their own way to understand change and mortality. 


Sources

  1. Kenney, Elizabeth. “Shinto Mortuary Rites in Contemporary Japan.” Cahlers d’Extreme-Asie. 1996. Persee.fr
  2. “Religions of the World.” City University of New York: Philosophy of Religion. Section 7. Cuny.edu.
  3. “Shinto Worship.” BBC. 16 October 2009. BBC.co.uk
  4. “What Are Kami?” BBC. 4 October 2009. BBC.co.uk

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