Accepted Papers:

Trees of conjugal remembrance: kinship, mourning and death in Japanese tree-burial  


Sebastien Boret Penmellen (Tohoku University)

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper examines how the interrelationships between changing kinship patterns and novel funeral practices provide widows and widowers in Japan with new sense of agency and responsibility over the mourning, celebration and immortalisation of their departed spouses and conjugal relationships.

Paper long abstract:

In Japan, the conventional way of death is the ancestral grave system accompanied by Buddhist mortuary rituals. This system places emphasis on the identity and continuity of a household upon which the individual identity of the deceased is dependent and anonymised within a body of ancestors. In contrast to the ancestral grave, a proliferation of new non-ancestral funerals has taken place since the 1990s. One of the most innovative ways of celebrating death is tree burials (jumokusou). In jumokusou, the customary ancestral tombstone is replaced by a tree of remembrance and the graveyards become vast woodlands. Amid socio-demographic changes (birth-rate and marriage declines and the ageing of the society), the growing popularity of tree burials and other non-ancestral graves interrelate with a growing sense of uncertainty regarding the sustainability of family lines and their graves. Among tree burial subscribers, these renouncers of the ancestral grave system are frequently widows and widowers who purchase a grave for their departed spouse and themselves. Drawing on intensive research with a tree burial community, this paper unravels the social tensions around the trees of remembrance where widows and widowers grieve and memorialise their conjugal relationships while negotiating the expectations of family members, society and the dead. I argue that widows and widowers become conscious agents or ‘authors’ of the memorialisation of their conjugal relationships. In other words, the surviving spouse stands at the intersection of both society’s and the (deceased) individual’s response to death.

Panel W085
Mourning, intimacy and the special character of the conjugal relationship