“Who will care for me when I am dead?” Ancestors, homeless spirits, and new afterlives in low-fertility Japan

Kawano, Satsuki GND

A growing number of older people in Japan lack reliable future caretakers for their family grave. By performing numerous memorial rites and maintaining their family grave, the bereaved typically transform the family dead into benevolent ancestors. However, what will happen to those whose ashes are not interred in a family grave? In this article, I examine one alternative to the family grave system – the scattering of ashes conducted by a citizen-based group called the Grave-Free Promotion Society of Japan (Sōsō no jiyū o susumeru kai). Contrary to the common assumption that it is usually childless people who decide on ash scattering, a number of the Society’s members in fact have adult children. What are the views of people who have adopted the scattering of ashes as a way of disposing of their own remains? Given that a grave remains a symbolic locus of familial continuity, the scattering of ashes seems to challenge the cherished ideas of filial piety and respect toward ancestors. By “returning to nature” through ash scattering and joining a benevolent force larger than their small family, older urbanites seek self-sufficiency in the postmortem world and attempt to lighten the ritual burden of their survivors regarding the maintenance of their family graves.