Cremation And Death Rituals

Memorial tablet for the author's grandfather Richard Okagawa PHOTO FROM JAY SAKASHITA

Memorial tablet for the author’s grandfather Richard Okagawa

This column is a counterpart to the May 28 article on burial.

It takes about two hours to cremate a body. Of course, this is dependent on the size of the body (a child’s body usually takes only an hour) and the level of heat used. At most crematoriums, the cremation chamber temperature is set between 1400 and 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many of my students were unaware of this when I asked the class to guess the degree of heat necessary to properly cremate a body. One student blurted out, “400 degrees!”

Good guess, but the crematoriums are not baking brownies.

Another student asked, “Why not set the temperature to 5000 degrees and be over with it?”

There are two reasons why this isn’t done: Too high heat and the arms of the deceased will rise in the chamber or the body may curl upward like a fish on a grill. Such a sight would disturb family members. More importantly, cremation at such high heat causes the bones to crumble into ashes.

What’s wrong with this? In a number of cultures influenced by Buddhism, part of the funeral customs involves the collection of bone fragments of the cremated deceased.

In Japan, this bone-picking ritual is called kotsuage. After the body is cremated, family members pick up the bone fragments with mismatched chopsticks and pass them to each other before placing the bone fragments in an urn (feet first, so that the deceased will not be stored upside down). The mismatched chopsticks symbolize the separation between the world of the living and the dead.

The last piece of bone placed in the urn is the nodobotoke, or Adam’s apple, because it resembles the shape of a Buddha sitting in meditation. This bone is carefully packed into the top of the urn, just under a piece of skull.

In order to perform this ceremony, then, care must be taken to cremate the body at the right temperature. Too low heat and the bones will be left too large to fit in the urn. Too high and only ashes will remain. Because of traditions surrounding this bone-picking ritual, it is considered a breach of social etiquette to pass food directly from chopstick to chopstick, or to use mismatched chopsticks.

Though death rituals and their meanings vary greatly in Buddhist cultures, cremation is commonly practiced as a means to free the spirit of the deceased from attachment to this world and facilitate its journey to the next. The characteristic chanting by Buddhist priests at funerals, often unintelligible to listeners, is meant to ready the spirit of the deceased for the other world. The spirit of the deceased is transformed through symbolic ordination, sutra chanting and other rites designed to help the dead attain repose or enlightenment.

In some ways, the Buddhist funeral is only the start of a journey that helps the spirit of the deceased transition from immediate family member to the realm of the ancestors. A series of memorial rites follow days, weeks and even years after the cremation and funeral to assist in this transition.

One of the most important of these rites is the 49th day memorial service. A common belief in many forms of Buddhism is the notion that it takes 49 days for the spirit of the deceased to leave this world and journey to the next. The 49th day memorial service completes the transformation of the dead from a spirit who is prayed for to an ancestor who is prayed to. (In many cultures and religions, the number seven symbolizes completion/perfection; 49 is simply seven times seven.)

In some cultures, a new spiritual name is given to the deceased as a symbol of this change in status. The new name may be written on a memorial tablet and kept at the home altar or placed in the temple, where offerings and prayers are dedicated to the deceased.

Cremation and the accompanying death rituals keep the dead alive. By creating and regulating relationships between the living and the dead, death rituals and memorial rites keep the spirit of the deceased apart from the world of the living and yet a part of the lives of the living.

People may die, but relationships go on. The rites communicate meanings and memories of loved ones, allowing our relationships with the deceased to continue. And as long as the dead still have a presence in our lives, death does not kill completely.