Japanese Cemeteries, and a Brief Afterthought from Southeastern PEI

September 22, 2010

Twice each year, there are Japanese holidays, the remarkably similar sounding Shunbun No Hi (in the spring) and Shuubun No Hi (in the fall), for visiting the graves of departed loved ones. The family and friends of the deceased pay their respects graveside, and then retire to a nearby restaurant or bar for what might be the only two times of the year they get together. There, they will share anecdotes, finger foods, and alcohol, and catch up on the day-to-day stuff in one another’s lives since the last time they met.

This past Shunbun No Hi, I asked a friend how the burial site was chosen, and she told me that people were most often buried in the graveyard of the temple they routinely visited, or in some way supported, over the course of their lifetimes. She said that the families paid an up-front charge, and then a yearly maintenance fee. I had (and have) no particular intention to be buried in Japan, but I was curious nonetheless as to what this service might cost. As with most things, the answer was dependent upon the magnitude and the splendor of the rendering, but in broad terms, surprisingly expensive compared to what we euphemistically call “perpetual care” in North America. Also, it should be noted that there is quite a bit less square footage involved as well, considering that most Japanese are cremated.

“Wow,” I said, hovering on the cusp between impressed and appalled. “Who pays for all this?” She told me that the fees are typically paid by members of the immediate family, and that there is some seriously good karma attached to providing well for your late nearest and dearest; presumably if you are seen to be a strong supporter of family values, in death as well as in life, the ones left behind will treat your leftover bits and pieces accordingly when your time comes. “Here’s one thing I don’t get, though,” I said. “What happens when all of the relatives and friends who knew you personally die as well? Who pays to keep things up for your Great Grandaunt Tamako’s gravesite, for instance?” (I just made that last part up as a hypothetical; to my knowledge there is no Great Grandaunt Tamako in the family.)

“Oh, well, when there is nobody to keep on paying for the grave, then they dig you up and put you in a community grave in the back part of the cemetery,” my friend replied. “That way they make space for new people who die.” That’s a little bit unsettling at first, but it makes more sense the more you think about it, especially in a country where space is at a premium. All evidence suggests that thirty or forty years down the road you won’t mind being dug up and moved to the “condo” section of town; indeed, remarkably few complaints are lodged by the tenants who have been downsized. Your name gets engraved on a granite wall, so in case somewhere down the road you become belatedly and unexpectedly famous, your (potential) hordes of admirers can track you down. They can leave flowers, have their photos taken alongside your name on the granite wall, or if they are really committed to your afterlife well-being, they can spring for another individual plot.

As soon as one comes open.

A brief afterthought from southeastern PEI: here in the outlying provinces we have our own way of dealing with space issues, the head cemetery (see pic); I have not been able to get a straight answer as to where the remainder of the body(ies) may be found.