Natasha Mikles is a philosophy lecturer at Texas State University. This essay was first published in The Conversation.
Space for burying the deceased is becoming increasingly scarce as the world’s population grows. Many cities in the United States, as well as many other countries across the world, are already short on burial land.
Simultaneously, many countries are modifying burial practices, modifying how cemeteries run, and even dismantling historic cemeteries to make room for the living. The government of Singapore, for example, has forcibly removed family tombs in favor of columbariums, facilities that may contain cremated urns. In the city-state, grave places can only be used for 15 years before the bones are incinerated and the site is repurposed for another burial.
Gravesites are among the most costly real estate per square foot in Hong Kong, and the government has enlisted the help of pop artists and other celebrities to promote cremation over burial.
As a scholar who studies Buddhist burial rites and afterlife narratives, I’m fascinated by the creative answers seen in some Buddhist majority countries, as well as the difficulties that arise when environmental concerns collide with religious beliefs.
Burial of trees is a common practice.
Public officials in Japan have been concerned about a lack of suitable burial space in metropolitan areas since the 1970s. They offered several innovative alternatives, including cemeteries in far-flung resort towns where families could plan a vacation around a visit for traditional graveside rituals, as well as chartered bus tours to remote locations to bury loved ones. The Grave-Free Promotion Society, a non-profit social organization, began actively advocating for the spreading of human ashes in 1990.
Since 1999, the Shunji temple in northern Japan has attempted to offer a more inventive answer to the dilemma by using Jumokus, or “tree burials,” as a means of dealing with the situation. Families place cremated remains in the ground and plant a tree over the ashes to mark the cemetery in these burials.
In a region where there was already small woods, the Shunji parent temple established a smaller temple known as Chishin. Buddhist monks perform annual ceremonies for the deceased in a small park away from the big stone markers of traditional Japanese gravesites.
Families can still visit their loved ones and perform their religious rituals at the gravesite, unlike the Grave-Free Promotion Society’s promotion of cremated remains scattering, which leaves the family without the specialized ceremonial space required for traditional Confucian and Buddhist rites.
While many families who choose tree funerals are not Buddhists or affiliated with a Buddhist temple, the tradition reflects Japanese Buddhism’s greater commitment to environmental stewardship.
Japanese Buddhism has historically been distinctive among Buddhist traditions for its attention on the environment, possibly influenced by Shinto ideas in gods residing in the natural world.
Whereas early Indian Buddhist philosophy viewed plants as nonsentient and hence outside of the reincarnation cycle, Japanese Buddhism views flora as a living component of the reincarnation cycle that must be protected.
As a result, Japanese Buddhist institutions now frequently position the issue of humanity’s impact on the environment as a religious issue. Tree burials, according to the head of the Shunji temple, are part of a uniquely Buddhist dedication to environmental preservation.
Transformations in society
Tree burials have become so popular in Japan that it has inspired other temples and public cemeteries to follow suit, with some offering burial sites beneath individual trees and others offering spaces in a columbarium that surrounds a single tree.
In his 2016 book, scholar Sébastian Penmellen Boret claims that these tree burials mirror greater changes in Japanese society. Buddhism’s influence on Japanese society waned after WWII, as hundreds of new religious movements arose. Furthermore, the growing tendency toward urbanization weakened the traditional relationships that existed between families and the local temples that housed and cared for their ancestors’ gravesites.
Tree burials are also less expensive than traditional funerary rituals, which is a crucial factor for many Japanese families who are trying to sustain many generations. Because Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, children without siblings often struggle to assist ailing or deceased parents and grandparents.
Traditional ceremonies are causing concern.
This decision has sparked a lot of debate. Religious and cultural cultures in East Asia believe that visiting the deceased for various afterlife ceremonies requires a physical venue. According to Confucian custom, it is the child’s job to care for their deceased parents, grandparents, and other ancestors by making ritual meals and other offerings.
Japanese Buddhists will visit family graves and give food and drink offerings for their ancestors during the Obon festival, which is held in the middle of August. They believe that the deceased visit the human realm during this time. These ancestral gifts, known as “ohigan,” are made biannually at the spring and fall equinoxes.
Furthermore, several Buddhist temples have expressed worry that tree burials are irreversibly severing their social and economic ties to the surrounding people. Japanese Buddhist temples have had a monopoly on ancestor burial grounds since the establishment of the Danka system in the 17th century. In exchange for annual payments, they performed a variety of graveside rites for families to guarantee their loved ones had a pleasant rebirth.
Funeral customs in the United States
Tree burials are still a minority practice in Japan, although there is evidence that their popularity is rapidly expanding. Tree burials in Japan, on the other hand, reflect current trends in American burial practices.
Unlike in the past, when grave sites were supposed to be permanent, most cemeteries today offer burial leases for up to 100 years, with shorter leases being both usual and encouraged. Consumers are becoming sceptical of the accouterments of the conventional American burial, such as the public viewing of an embalmed body, a casket that communicates social standing, and a huge stone commemorating one’s grave, as seen by the pioneering work of mortician Caitlin Doughty and others.
Part of this is probably due to sociological statistics showing the collapse of conventional religious institutions and the emergence of alternative spiritualities at the same time. Above important, such initiatives toward new burial customs demonstrate the intrinsic adaptability of religious rites and spiritual practices as they evolve to address new environmental and societal constraints.