This evening I attended a talk at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on Japanese Tree-Burials. This is new form of burial in Japan, and one that differs quite considerably from the traditional death rituals there. In a typical Buddhist death rites in Japan, the ashes of the dead are stored in a large family grave made from stone and stand among thousands of other such graves in a designated cemetery . But in the new rite of Tree-Burial, which was created by a Zen Buddhist monk, forests serve as cemeteries with each burial spot marked by a tree for each person’s ashes. The talk was given by Dr Sébastien Penmellen Boret, an anthropologist who has worked with communities involved in Tree-Burial, to launch his new book on the subject, Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death which can be purchased from Routledge here.
Dr Boret explained that part of the appeal of Tree-Burial is that it is eco-friendly. In purchasing a tree and space in the forest, families are supporting the maintenance of Japan’s woodlands and re-introducing species that have may have died out in the area. Another reason that Japanese may choose Tree-Burial over the traditional family grave is that, in having their ashes buried at the roots of a tree, it provides a sense of reincarnation and re-birth as the tree grows and continues to live. What’s very interesting is that at the Tree-Burial ground where Dr Boret was based, a communal memorial service would be held for all the departed resting there at O-bon (the Japanese festival of the dead) at which priests of Buddhism, Christianity and Shinto would all be present.
Although Tree-Burial is of Buddhist origins (like most of Japan’s funeral culture), one cannot deny that there is a very Shinto aspect to having one’s remains buried by a tree so one’s essence is somehow preserved in the tree, let alone the respect for nature that is embodied in the practice. But I actually think that this link between Buddhism and the nature-worshipping aspects of Shinto is not a new thing at all when it comes to funeral rites. One of my favourite places in Japan is Oku-no-in at Mt Koya, a mountain complex of temples of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Oku-no-in is a very sacred temple as it is the resting place of Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and it’s set in an immense forest filled with over 200,000 graves. It should be noted that Shingon is perhaps the Buddhist sect with the most links to Shinto – this excellent article on Green Shinto explains more.
The idea of using graves to conserve forests reminded me of another form preservation in Japan – that of kofun tombs. Kofun are megalithic, keyhole-shaped burial mounds that are scattered all over the country. They are of great historical and cultural significance, but they are threatened by the same thing that threatens the forests – development of the land and urbanisation.
To help protect the kofun tombs, one proposal has been to use them as modern cemeteries for the Japanese of today – in effect, putting them to the same use that they served hundreds of years ago. Not even the most ruthless development company really wants to incur the wrath of locals by desecrating their family graves, so putting graves on kofun helps to protect them from being demolished.
I find it very affirming indeed that the culture of death can be used to preserve our most precious treasures in life. As so many Pagans believe, it reinforces the idea of the cyclical nature of life and death, and shows us that even in grief, we can construct something positive for ourselves, society and nature.