Customs and Rituals

How do Shinto practitioners deal ritually with death and mourning?

According to a saying, “Shinto marries, Buddhism buries.” During the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) an imperial decree stipulated that only Buddhist priests should conduct funeral rites. Most cemeteries in Japan are connected to Buddhist temples rather than Shinto shrines. But there are exceptions to that general rule, and practitioners of Shinto have important beliefs and rituals concerning death and mourning. A major difference between Buddhist and Shinto practices is that Shinto rites never occur in shrines, for shrines are strictly dedicated to the kami.

Shinto tradition regards death as a form of evil and a serious source of pollution. Shinto belief and practice has been profoundly influenced by certain Confucian attitudes toward departed ancestors, and large numbers of Japanese still perform rites of ancestor veneration. Some Japanese families still follow the practice of enshrining a deceased person’s symbols in a “spirit house” (tama-ya), placed beneath the home’s (kamidana), seven weeks after a funeral. Some of Japan’s largest shrines are dedicated to memorializing the spirits of great human beings elevated to the status of kami. Grief (kibuku) is associated with a prescribed period during which the experience of death renders family members impure. The bereaved family should stay away from shrines and refrain from Shinto ritual generally during that interval. In pre-Buddhist times, the Japanese sometimes constructed monumental memorials to the dead. Historically, laypeople performed Shinto funeral rituals, with main participants wearing white. Today, Shinto rites, led by priests, occur in homes or funeral establishments. Some shrines continue to perform memorial rites for those who have died in battle.


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