Retailing religious rituals

Religious practices and symbols speak to people when they hope to hear something that touches their hearts
Retailing religious rituals

Published June 28, 2017 

In 2014, Yahoo Japan introduced "Yahoo Ending." Upon the death of a subscriber, his or her account and files will be deleted, and farewell messages prepared by the deceased will be sent to family and friends to inform them of the death and express final thoughts. The service also includes advice on preparing funerals and an arrangement with a funeral services company to provide cut-rate undertaking services.

Amazon Japan has gone a step further, selling funeral services on its website as obosan-bin (priest delivery). For as little as 35,000 yen (US$315) for a simple service in the home, customers can order a Buddhist priest who will come to conduct it. The website advertizes that the order "Usually ships within 1 to 3 weeks."

The most expensive package costs about US$585 and includes a second service at a cemetery and, in keeping with Buddhist practice, the bestowing of a posthumous name on the deceased. This compares with the average cost of a funeral of about $18,000 that includes casket, wake, funeral service and cremation. The on-line offering does not include anything beyond the priest's services, but since they are usually expensive, it is a big saving, especially for the traditional prayers that mark various death anniversaries.

For many people in Asia, religion is primarily a matter of traditional rituals rather than a spiritual or emotional attachment to a deity or set of beliefs. This may even be true of many who identify themselves as Christian, and not just in Asia.

In some Japanese Catholic families, attendance at Mass and involvement in a parish is the duty of the grandmother, who, as is frequently the case in Buddhist practice, represents the family in religious observance. When she dies, her daughter-in-law may take over the role of family representative.

That religion is customary ritual rather than faith accounts for the fact that Japanese will have a church-style wedding (though not usually in a church), a Shinto blessing for their newborn child and a Buddhist funeral without adhering to the teachings of any of those religions. In fact, 70 percent of Japanese consider themselves nonreligious, but many, if not most, still go through the ceremonies.

So, it is not surprising that entrepreneurs are finding ways to provide the rituals without requiring a commitment to a temple or any other sort of religious institution. They are providing what people want and do not expect anything in return except a credit card number for payment.

A similar thing is happening not just in Japan and even among Catholics. Catholics in India can now make use of a "rent-a-priest" service that has been available in other countries as well since it first started in the United States in 1992.

With a shortage of priests, and the available ones perhaps constrained by canon law, overworked or in not a few cases too lazy to respond to Catholics' requests for pastoral or sacramental service, men who were ordained but are no longer active in ministry provide spiritual and ritual ministry. Many of them have left active ministry in order to marry.

Some customers reportedly want pastoral visits to their shut-in parents, but cannot find priests or other pastoral workers able or willing to meet that need. Probably more who use such services are couples who plan to marry but find church law or custom an obstacle. Yet others are Catholics who have withdrawn from a particular parish because of disputes with clergy or fellow Christians. Perhaps most no longer have any relationship with the church, or only a shallow one, but for various nostalgic, cultural or family reasons want to have a "church wedding."

It is tempting to bemoan the commercialization of religious rituals and the trivialization of faith that underlies it.

However, there is some significance in the fact that people still tend to look to religious rituals when they wish to mark important points in their lives. Even if only residually, religious practices and symbols speak to people when they hope to hear something that touches their hearts. As a Buddhist scholar who taught at my seminary observed, even the most devoted communists never ask to be read to from Das Kapital on their deathbed.

Even though "priest rental" services are clearly meeting a need, we must present people with a clearer and more attractive picture of the faith foundation that underlies rituals so that they can get their needs met at an even deeper level.

Perhaps people see clergy of whatever religion as functionaries because we present ourselves as such. Unless and until we really become involved in "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties" of people before they need rituals, they will continue to settle for less than what they really need and deserve, less than what is really available to them.

Father William Grimm, MM, is the publisher of and is based in Tokyo.

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