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Choosing Ash Scattering

I read about the Grave-Free Promotion society in a major newspaper, cut out the article, and kept it for a long time. Let me see. . . . I think

I still have the article. [Mrs. Noda produced the article and handed it to me.] . . . But this was not the first time i thought about ash scattering. When i was younger, i read about a person whose ashes were scattered in the Ganges river. The story touched my heart. However, when i was talking with a friend and her husband about the story and my interest in ash scattering, the husband told me that something like that [scattering ashes in the Ganges river, an act that is associated with philosophical sophistication] is for an interi [educated person]. Then i forgot about it. Much later, i read the article on the GFPs and contacted the organization regarding membership. About a year after receiving the membership information, i joined the GFPs. . . . Once I had joined the organization, i had a chance to observe a collective scattering ceremony held at sea near tokyo and decided to have my scattering ceremony at sea.

I asked Mrs. Noda why having her ashes scattered at sea was attractive to her. She said she liked the idea of scattering at sea better than scattering on a mountain because no traces were left.

One might wonder why Mrs. Noda does not want to leave traces of herself behind, particularly because she does venerate ancestors at family graves that preserve the remains of the deceased—something some GFPs members do not do because they do not believe in the afterlife or in souls resting in graves. Mrs. Noda is not very religious, though like many other religiously uncommitted persons in contemporary Japan, she finds visiting graves socially meaningful. And most GFPs members routinely take part in Buddhist-style veneration practices at death and ancestor rites for their relatives, colleagues, or neighbors. Occasionally i met members who strictly avoided Buddhist-style ritual practices—for example, joining hands at an altar to venerate the deceased— but they still expressed their respect toward the deceased through a moment of silence or closing their eyes, for instance. Ritual occasions for the deceased thus are concerned with their performers' ties with the dead, and this line of thinking makes sense when considering Mrs. Noda's point that reciting mantras is like greeting the deceased as social rather than supernatural beings. In short, Mrs. Noda's caring for the family dead reveals her embeddedness in a web of family relations. Toward understanding why she wishes to leave no traces of herself after death, her own comments on others' graves give us some ideas. When Mrs. Noda and i visited the famous iwasaki family mansion in tokyo (the family that founded the Mitsubishi conglomerate), i told her that i had seen the family's grave in a cemetery in tokyo but noticed there were no flowers there. She responded: “well, that is a pity. If no one comes to a grave, it would be much better not to have one.” Later it occurred to me that perhaps she had selected ash scattering partly to avoid wondering whether her stepchildren would memorialize her at the family grave.

On another occasion, Mrs. Noda told me a story that revealed her thoughts on memorial care given to the deceased at a family grave. The story was about a friend's friend, an older woman who had passed away several months earlier. Her husband had already died a while before, and an urn containing his cremated remains was placed in his family's grave. When his wife passed away, however, her ashes were placed in her natal family's grave. Her marital family Had an excuse that the family grave was full, but it is a highly unlikely reason to turn down the ashes of a full-fledged family member. After all, the grave is a person's house after death. By using a lack of space as the reason to reject the wife's ashes, her marital family declared that she was not one of them. Mrs. Noda saw this message behind the excuse and said, “it is a pity that her ashes were not placed in the husband's family grave on the grounds that she had not had children.” When a husband dies after a short period of marriage, it is not unusual for his in-marrying bride, if childless, to “return” to her natal family. By giving up her marital family name, which is tied to her husband's family, and her consequent right to be buried in his family grave, she reassumes her membership in her natal family, thus gaining an opportunity to seek another marital partner. However, in the story told by Mrs. Noda, the husband's kin wrongfully rejected his wife's ashes, probably against her wishes. Because of her long marriage and by keeping her husband's name after his death, the woman was certainly entitled to be buried with him. Mrs. Noda said to me several times that the woman was pitiable, and i wondered if she was thinking about her own situation. Although she was also a childless older woman, her husband's family or stepchildren had not rejected the placement of her ashes in their family grave. Nevertheless, she might have thought that scattering ashes without trace would be better than interment with little ritual care, perhaps given reluctantly or resentfully by those left behind. Mrs. Noda did not want to be a burden. She clearly felt that depending on her stepchildren for memorial care would be an imposition. Her family situation had certainly shaped her choice of a different posthumous destination away from her husband, as well as the husband's parents, former wife, eldest son, and his wife.

Although old age in Japan is a time for dependency and Japanese people highly value interdependence, nonetheless overdependency is deeply feared (traphagan 2004). Mrs. Noda's preference to leave no traces, which will make her less dependent on others after her death, is consistent with her wishes to avoid overdependency in old age. She told me a story of her stepdaughter's husband's sister's co-resident mother-in-law. This woman loved to play gateball (gētobōru; a team-based ball game popular among the elderly in Japan). One day she came home after her practice and went to her room to take a nap. When her daughter-in-law went to call the mother-in-law to dinner, she was gone. Mrs. Noda said, “what a great ending—to die after having done something she loved to do. . . . I really want to die without causing a nuisance to others.”

Furthermore, when Mrs. Noda and i once visited a shinto shrine, she Washed her hands at a purification sink, proceeded to the shrine, threw a coin into the donation box, and joined her hands together with her eyes closed. Then she told me she made visits to shrines to wish for a shorter life. In preindustrial Japan, long life was a common wish made at shrines and temples, so Mrs. Noda's wish indicated Japan's postindustrial shift: now, longevity is taken for granted and strongly associated with long-term suffering and overdependence on family caregivers (Long 2005). In Japan's postindustrial context of dying, older persons routinely discuss and desire not being a burden on others. Such a longing is also expressed in the religious realm. There are Buddhist temples, known as sudden-death temples, that are supposed to grant people a swift death (Long 2005, 55; wöss 1993). These attract elderly visitors. Rather than a sign of depression or elder abuse, however, a petition for a sudden death among the elderly indicates a desire for self-sufficiency and concern for family caregivers.

Mrs. Noda had already made mortuary arrangements by herself, though prearranging mortuary ceremonies and obtaining a grave plot while one is still alive are not unusual in the mainstream society. She said to me, “i am not complicated. Soon after i observed a scattering ceremony conducted by the GFPs, i had a contract made for my own scattering ceremony. It's been paid for.” A funeral specialist with whom she contracted will take charge of her scattering ceremony. She continued: “i decided against having a funeral when i pass away. [as ash scattering is conducted in lieu of the interment of cremated remains, some GFPs members do choose to have a funeral.] Though my husband received a posthumous name from a Buddhist priest, i decided not to receive one.” A Buddhist priest commonly gives a posthumous name to the deceased as a sign of becoming a Buddhist disciple, though in contemporary Japan this practice does not necessarily indicate a personal commitment to Buddhism. The rank of a posthumous name and the scale of a funeral both reflect the socioeconomic standing of the deceased's family in a tightly knit community. However, among newer residents in urban centers like tokyo, some people do without them. It is certainly not unusual for GFPs members to skip a Buddhist funeral or do away with a posthumous name. The reasons for omitting these steps vary. Common explanations were “they are expensive”; “they are an empty formality”; “i do not want to make a Buddhist priest richer”; and “i am not religious.” the late 1990s and the 2000s saw open, lively debates in the media on the meanings and appropriateness of contemporary Buddhist funerals and other mortuary practices (e.g., the conferring of posthumous names, the interment of cremated remains in a family grave, and The performance of memorial rites) (see, for example, Covell 2008). In such a context of candid, critical discussions of mortuary practices, Mrs. Noda's plan for a simple scattering ceremony without a posthumous name hardly sounds revolutionary, particularly in an urban center.

Because the interment of cremated remains in a family grave continues to be the mainstream practice imbued with the cherished value of honoring ancestors, GFPs members' families do not always support their choice of ash scattering (Kawano 2010). Opposition from family members is not unusual and can cause serious friction. I asked Mrs. Noda, “what was the reaction of your stepchildren to your decision to have an ash-scattering ceremony?” She said she did not encounter any opposition from them:

When we got together to conduct a memorial anniversary ritual for my husband, i announced that i would have my ashes scattered at sea. There was a moment of silence. Then, my eldest son said

He understood and would scatter my ashes on a famous mountain in my hometown. So i quickly told him that one is not allowed to

Scatter ashes freely without the landowner's permission. [she laughs.] My stepson did not oppose my choice or complain; he remained calm—the way a man should. My stepdaughter was surprised, as she had never heard of ash scattering. My stepchildren are going to take care of my scattering ceremony [with a funeral specialist's help]. My granddaughter also told me that she would do it for me. Yet another grandchild was completely against scattering because not finding his grandmother in the family grave would make him sad when he visited. I was moved by his remark that he would miss me even though i am unrelated to him by blood.

I asked Mrs. Noda what she would have done if her stepson had been against ash scattering. She said with a smile, “i would probably have it done anyway!”

Mrs. Noda is hesitant to ask for help from her stepchildren partly because she wants to spare them strain, worry, or awkwardness. When she filled out the contract form with a funeral specialist, she wrote down her stepdaughter's name. She told me that she was concerned about making it awkward for her stepson, as it is customary for a son to take charge of a mortuary ceremony. She is attentive to her stepchildren's feelings, a position that seems to cause her stress at times. She tends not to consult them, and this is the case with both Mortuary and nonmortuary matters. For example, when she decided to go on the trip to Mongolia, she did not tell her stepchildren about it until a couple of days before her departure so that they would not worry. Another GFPs member commented on Mrs. Noda's maintaining distance (enryo suru) from her stepchildren: “it seems that her stepdaughter is a nice, warm person, and she might feel better if Mrs. Noda relied on her more often.”

Mrs. Noda's wish to minimize her dependence on her stepchildren, however, is not the only reason she chose ash scattering. The GFPs idea of rejoining nature after death is appealing to her. As noted, she takes walks regularly and enjoys the beauty of nature. While we were walking together in her neighborhood, she said to me, “i've seen a kingfisher here [a bright blue bird commonly found near water]. It is gorgeous! Some people try to feed kingfishers.” When we came to a point overlooking the ocean, she said, “a sunset from this spot is amazing. Sometimes you can even see Mount Fuji [the highest mountain in Japan, known for its beauty] from this park.” She was eager to share her impressions and observations. She continued: “i love to share my feelings when i see beautiful things, and i try to talk to strangers walking nearby. But they do not always respond with a similar level of excitement.”

Mrs. Noda told me that a good way to die would be to be walking around on a mountain, as she loves to do, and to pass away at one point during the walk. Leaves would pile up on her body, and later snow would cover her. She said, “that way, i would fertilize the surrounding nature. I always thought that kind of ending would be great. Yet, in reality, police officers would come, and it would create a scene if i pursued my ideal. I would not be able to have that kind of ending.”

Mrs. Noda's trip to Mongolia left a lasting impression on her. She had a chance to stay in a tent. Animal dung was used for heat, a method she thought was great, as it is not wasteful. She told me, “i saw dead animals in Mongolia and thought that it was a real shizensō [a natural mortuary rite].” Indeed, shizensō is the mortuary practice that the GFPs promotes; the group is against a mortuary practice that is destructive to nature. The organization is opposed to the building of large-scale cemeteries because they necessitate the cutting down of trees and the spreading of pesticide to keep the cemeteries neat. Interring cremated remains in a concrete underground structure is “unnatural,” as it prevents the remains from reverting to nature.

While the GFPs encourages people to have their cremated remains scattered on a mountain or at sea, members sometimes praise other “natural” mortuary practices such as burial, which also allow the remains to return To nature. Mrs. Noda's comment on the dead animals she saw in Mongolia addresses this ideal propagated by the GFPs: “i thought it was nice that the animals died and perished in nature or got eaten by other animals.” She continued: “when i take a walk, i often see ducks. They are cute. I say to them in my mind, 'someday we will be together again [in nature].' My ashes will be scattered at sea. The ducks might even drink the water containing my ashes.” Becoming part of nature after death is not discussed as an alienation from kin, though critics might hold such a view of ash scattering. Rather, to its supporters, a return to nature offers a comforting, aesthetically pleasing image of posthumous existence that is an alternative to the conventional idea of resting in peace in a family grave. The idea of returning to nature through ash scattering allows its supporters to construct new scripts of afterlives.

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