Are “Tree Burials” the Graves of Japan’s Dreams?

IGNITION Staff
Sep 10, 2015 · 8 min read

Popular new style of funeral resonates with Japanese who “want to return to nature when I die”

by Taketo Sekiguchi

Japanese people usually describe themselves as unreligious, but most of us have a very definite image of what our final resting place will look like. In Japan, almost everyone’s ashes are laid to rest below a vertical, rectangular stone pillar.

Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The history of these graves stretches back nearly 1,000 years, and originally derives from Buddhist teachings. The first gravesites in Japan were large, roof-shaped mounds restricted to the upper classes, but in the Edo era Buddhist temples in every region began building community cemeteries, and common people suddenly became able to have graves built for themselves. It was with this change that the simple, four-cornered pillar became the standard Japanese grave.

In 1948, shortly after World War II, a new law dictated that all deceased Japanese be cremated, and that their ashes be interred in cemeteries registered with their prefectural governments. As the postwar economy improved, family graves gradually became the norm, and rows of pristine granite pillars, polished to a brilliant shine, became an iconic image of life and death in Japan. During the “Obon” season in mid-August, millions of workers in Japanese cities return to their hometowns, where they visit family gravesites to pay their respects to their ancestors.

Today, however, lifestyles and values across all areas of Japanese societies are becoming more diverse, and graves and burial laws are no exception. As birthrates have continued to decline and the population has continued to age, the continuous managerial responsibilities that come with Japanese family graves have become increasingly difficult to maintain. In response, a new trend known as “tree burial” has begun attracting attention.

Burial in the forest, Return to the earth

The concept originated in the wooded areas of Northern Europe, where clans have built graves in deep forests for centuries. The largest and best-known forest grave is Skogskyrkogården in Sweden, which has been designated a World Heritage Site.

More recently, in England, back-to-nature and conservation movements have led more and more people to value the idea of a “natural death.” In 1991, a Natural Death Centre was established in Winchester, and over fifty “Natural Burial Grounds” were established throughout England. In addition, the “green burial” movement has begun attracting notice in the United States; and in Asia, the South Korean government recently implemented a law designed to systematize nature burials.

In Japan, the Chishoin Temple in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, was the first temple to conduct tree burials. In 1999, the chief priest of the temple designated a plot of land in the adjoining mountains as a burial site and began conducting funerals there. The new Chishoin cemetery would contain no man-made objects of any kind — no gravestones, no urns — and buried human ashes in a simple hole that had been dug in the ground. The priest then planted a small flowering tree that blended nicely into the surrounding scenery.

Chishoin officials point out that the market for traditional stone graves requires huge excavation operations in mountains around Japan, which causes major environmental damage. By conducting burials designed to protect the environment, Chishoin returns the departed to the natural world, of which they were always merely one part.

Japanese Buddhism teaches that humans become buddhas when they pass away. Through tree burial, Chishoin officials explain, “these buddhas are reborn as flowers.”

According to the temple’s administrative office, tree burials have increased at a pace of about one hundred per year, and today over 2,300 people are interred in the ground. The temple has received requests for formal consultations and visits to the ground from around Japan. “Our primary goal is protecting the local forest. Within Japan, there is no other temple that performs such a thorough ‘return to nature.’”

Municipal cemeteries save cost and space

In 2005, a private cemetery in Machida, Tokyo started performing “sakura burials,” symbolized by the planting of cherry blossom trees. In 2008, Memorial Green, a city park in Yokohama, formally set aside a section of its grounds for tree burials; and in 2012, a section the Kodaira city cemetery in Tokyo did the same. Both stories were reported widely.

Meanwhile, in Nagakute — a town in Aichi Prefecture that has shown significant population growth in recent years — a new municipal cemetery has been dedicated for use later this year. One area, in a section that will complete the first phase of construction this September, will be used for tree burials.

Ashes from 1,000 people will be buried in the ground and covered with grass and soil. Flowers, shrubbery, and a single symbolic tree will then be planted above them. A flower altar will be placed next to the tree, where visitors can clap their hands to pray for the happiness of those in the next world. Bereaved families will pay a one-time interment fee of ¥15,000; no maintenance fees will be required after that, and the city will handle all upkeep on the cemetery.

Nagakute plans to solicit applications beginning in December, but according to one city representative, “we have already received more than enough inquiries from within and outside the city. Tree burials are still relatively new, so we make a point of answering questions to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Modern tree burial site recently completed at Myoenji Temple, Ibaraki Prefecture. Courtesy of Mitsuko ANN Honda

Likewise, in Ishioka, IbarakiPrefecture, the Myoenji Temple completed work this summer on a “modern” tree burial site, in which the symbol tree is enclosed in a semicircular concrete wall. Locker-shaped crypts have been built into the wall to allow visitors to pay respects to their relatives’ ashes until the thirty-third anniversary of their death, at which point ashes will be placed in a collective grave beneath the tree.

Small crypts, enclosed in the Myoenji site’s curved concrete wall. Courtesy of Mitsuko ANN Honda

Myoenji is a Buddhist temple, but the cemetery is open to all people regardless of religion or nationality, and a special section has been set aside for pets. “We wanted to create a calming space where people would not be separated according to their different beliefs or ways of life,” says chief priest Chihiro Doi. This vision has been made a reality by architect Ben Matsuno.

“Ending Park,” an informational site specializing in Japanese funerals and cemeteries, estimates that there are currently around fifty cemeteries performing tree burials in Japan. However, the sites editors also note that “construction has been increasing so rapidly this year that we really can’t give an exact prediction.”

The tree burial trend is driven by “the naturalistic impulse of many people who want to ‘return to nature when I die,’ as well as the lack of any assume managerial responsibilities associated with tree burial.” This is the opinion of Haruyo Inoue, a professor at Toyo University and chairman of Ending Center, the authorized NPO that conducted the first sakura burials.

“The trend is perfectly adapted to the increasing nuclearization of Japanese families,” Inoue says. “Its other merits include the beautiful, space-efficient scenery of the burial spaces, and the fact that they do not involve the cost of a gravestone.”

According to Inoue, naturalistically inclined burial laws already allow for the scattering of ashes, which doesn’t involve building a gravestone. In response to claims that tree burials are technically illegal, many burial sites have received recognition as official cemeteries, where ashes are interred in the ground. As a result, even local governments have an easy time getting approval. At the same time, Inoue claims, tree burials may help alleviate soil shortages; and since individual graves are likely to become harder and harder to manage as the Japanese population continues aging, tree burials may help prevent issues of “grave overflow.”

Concerns about “image-conscious burial”

“Today, different forms of burial are coming into practice every day, so people need to take special care and make sure the funeral they’re getting matches the image they have of it,” Inoue suggests. “Some countries, like South Korea, legally regulate tree burials as ‘nature burials.’ In Japan, with tree burials increasing so quickly, now may be a good time to clarify the exact definition.”

Two years ago, Mutsumi Yokota, a researcher at the All-Japan Cemetery Association, conducted a survey of “cemeteries referred to as ‘tree-burial spaces.’” Yokota now shares Inoue’s misgivings about what he calls the “image consciousness” driving these new burials.

“We have places that are just planting a tree next to a stone grave and calling it a tree burial — there are a lot of hazy practices that don’t add up legally. If we can’t agree on what a ‘tree burial’ is, legal problems related to the management of the graves will keep multiplying until they become unsolvable. It think the media just wanted to make a ‘boom’ of this, but it’s all become much too vague.”

According to Yokota, the current number of designated cemeteries in Japan is around 800,000, and new-style sites such as tree burial grounds still account for only a small part of that.

However, as change keeps moving forward, Japanese people will have more and more options about where and how they want to be buried. As I sit writing this article, even I find myself daydreaming, playfully, about which sort of burial expresses my personality.

(translation: Michael Craig)


Originally published at ignition.co.


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