A Buddhist monk walks past a communal grave site at a temple in Tokyo. (Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)
Catholic funerals in Japan frequently include a custom borrowed from traditional Buddhist rites. Mourners approach the coffin of the deceased and, taking a pinch of incense between their thumb and index finger, they raise it to forehead level as a gesture of respect and then place the incense on burning charcoal. This is repeated for a total of three times. (An alternate practice, especially among Protestants, is for mourners to each place a flower on a table in front of the coffin.)
I once asked a Catholic friend if it was customary to say any particular prayer while performing the triple ritual with incense.
He answered, "Some people say, 'In the name of the Father ... and of the Son ... and of the Holy Spirit.' Others say, 'Lord, have mercy ... Christ, have mercy ... Lord, have mercy.' But most of us just say, 'One ... Two ... Three.'"
According to a report in The Japan Times, in December a funeral home will open in Ueda city in Nagano Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, that will introduce changes in the traditional pattern. A minor change will replace the charcoal incense burner with an electronic one. The bigger change will be that mourners can offer their respects from inside their automobiles, like people placing orders at a fast-food restaurant with drive-through service.
Mourners will be able to pull up to a window where, instead of a condolence book, they can sign their name on a touch-screen and present condolence money, a custom that helps defer funeral expenses. The electronic incense burner will also be at the window.
The rationale for the drive-through service is that Japan's aging population makes it necessary. Nationwide, the percentage of people age 65 and over is already a quarter of the population. In Nagano, it is 30 percent and climbing.
That aging has a double impact on funerals. The number of funerals is increasing, and is expected to exceed 1.5 million per year by 2025. In fact, the increase in funerals combined with a shortage of Buddhist priests has recently prompted one company to program a robot to perform funeral rites, chanting sutras and performing rituals.
At the same time, many mourners who want to attend funerals are themselves elderly and too feeble to take the trouble to dress in formal wear, travel to the venue and stay for a service. There may also be emotional and practical limits to the number of funerals any one individual can attend in a given period.
The drive-through is meant to answer their need. They can still pay their respects to the deceased and offer condolences to the bereaved rather than stay at home, as they might otherwise have to do. And people who might otherwise have to take a couple of hours out of their day to transport a parent or grandparent to a funeral need not give up those hours.
But, there are other possible effects of this innovation. Younger people who for social more than filial or emotional reasons want to or need to pay respects will be able to do so without taking time off from work, driving by during their lunch break, for example. Since they need not dress for the funeral, mourners might easily combine a stop at the drive-through window with other errands, like shopping, or, in the case of seniors, a medical appointment.
There are, of course, negative aspects to this innovation. While it answers the needs and convenience of those who will drive in, what has it to offer the bereaved families of the deceased? While they can watch the window on monitors, will that be enough for them? Probably not.
In times of bereavement, people need contact with flesh-and-blood others, not video images. Technology cannot replace embarrassed murmured condolences, tears or deep bows (no handshakes, hugs or wailing in Japan). What can be done to ensure that while meeting the needs of "outsiders" the needs of those "inside" the experience of loss through death are not overlooked?
Aging societies worldwide demand creative responses. Most will be only partial solutions and may bring along new problems. Societies must explore various solutions, while realizing that the inadequacies of the new responses will require finding yet further new responses.
The church in Japan and elsewhere faces the same situation of an aging population, both lay and clerical, and the practical problems that come with that situation. While churches are not going to install drive-by windows or ordained robots, we must examine our pastoral practices. That means more than looking at funerals.
Aside from hand-wringing and bemoaning our aging and shrinking congregations, is the church in Japan and elsewhere reexamining its projects, programs and priorities to deal with reality?
As the saying goes, "Not so much."
Parishes run kindergartens, but where are the day care centers for seniors? There are religion classes for kids, but where are programs for the spiritual development of the elderly?
These matters cannot be dealt with as easily as one, two, three, but failure to deal with them will lead to zero.
Father William Grimm, MM, is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.