Accepted Paper:

Innovating tree-people relationships in Japanese tree burial  


Sebastien Boret Penmellen (Tohoku University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how contemporary ecological ethics and discourses provide cultural innovators with the opportunity to change the relationships between trees and people within contemporary Japanese society.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines how tree symbolisms and cultures animate the social relationships among the members of an ecological form of dealing with human remains in Japan, namely Tree-Burial. Established in 1999 by the priest of a Buddhist temple, Tree-Burial consists in the disposal of human remains directly into the earth of a forest. Instead of the conventional gravestone, a tree is planted on the burial spot and marks the grave. In addition to providing a cemetery for its subscribers, Tree-Burial is a means of contributing to the rehabilitation of forestland critically damaged by post-war governmental policies and the domestic timber industry. In order to restore the biodiversity and biocapital of such impoverished timber plantations owned by the temple, Tree-Burial subscribers are encouraged to renew their relationships with nature during forestry chores, ecology lectures and other experiences with/in nature. In this paper, I consider three levels of relationships developed in the Tree-Burial community: people-tree, tree-tree, and people-people. Firstly, I discuss the relationships between the tree marking the grave and the subscriber(s). Secondly, I analyse people's discourses about the relationships between trees and other non-human livings within Tree-Burial cemeteries and woodlands (social forests). Thirdly, this paper discusses the new ties developed among subscribers through their shared discourses and practices of nature (ecological bonds). This paper concludes that Tree-Burial is as much about the socialisation of trees and forests through a death practice as it is about the collective representations of new ecological bonds between people and trees.

Panel P17
"By leaves we live": the vital politics and poetics of the tree