New Life – and Death – From the Ruins of Japanese Death Rites

Ms Hannah Gould1

1The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia

Japanese death rites have radically transformed in recent decades, to become more personal, modest, and economical. With the collapse of the patrilineal household and the temple-parishioner system, the established model of a good death is no longer an achievable or attractive goal for many. But this model is more than an imaginary, and the death of modern death rites leaves concrete remains. Located in the ruins of a “vanishing” (Ivy 1995) – but not entirely vanished – socio-religious tradition, this paper considers the practical and affective burdens imposed by the material remnants of death rites, namely, tombstones, altars, and ash. Like other forms of sacred waste, disposal of such items is complicated for practical and moral reasons. Often, it demands the performance of special rites (供養 kuyō) like those performed for the (human) dead. But such disposal methods impose further burdens, and the bonds between moral persons linger on, generating disquiet. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Japanese funeral industry, I explore the generation of sacred waste as a multi-generational process of ruination (Navaro-Yashin 2009; Stoler 2013). I then describe strategies for dealing with waste and ponder the prospect of new life, or new deaths, emerging from the ruins.


Hannah Gould is a cultural anthropologist who researches death, disposal, and material religion, or, ‘the stuff of death and the death of stuff’. She is currently ARC Research Fellow with the DeathTech Research Team at The University of Melbourne.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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