Due to the lack of space for burials, “tree burials” in Japan are growing in popularity.


As the world’s population continues to grow, the space to put the dead to rest is limited. In the United States, some of the largest cities are already running low on burial grounds, as are many other countries around the world.

At the same time, many nations are transforming funeral rituals, changing the functioning of cemeteries, and even destroying historic cemeteries to reclaim land for the living.

In Singapore, for example, the government forcibly demolished family graves in favor of columbaria, structures that can hold the urns of the cremated. The city-state’s burial spaces can only be used for a period of 15 years, after which the remains are cremated and the space is used for another burial.

In Hong Kong, graves are among the most expensive real estate assets per square foot, and the government has hired pop stars and other celebrities to promote cremation rather than physical burial.

As an academic who studies Buddhist funeral rituals and stories about the afterlife, what interests me are the innovative responses in some predominantly Buddhist nations and the tensions that result from confronting environmental needs with religious beliefs.

Practice of burial of trees

As early as the 1970s, Japanese officials were concerned about the lack of adequate burial space in urban areas. They came up with a variety of innovative solutions, ranging from cemeteries in remote resort towns where families could organize vacations around a visit to traditional tomb rituals, to charter bus trips to rural areas to bury their loved ones. relatives.

Beginning in 1990, the Grave-Free Promotion Society, a voluntary social organization, publicly advocated for the scattering of human ashes.

Since 1999, the Shōunji temple in northern Japan has tried to offer a more innovative solution to this crisis through the Jumokusō, or “tree burials”. In these burials, families place the cremated remains in the ground and a tree is planted on the ashes to mark the burial place.

Parent Shōunji Temple opened a smaller temple site known as Chishōin in an area where there was already a small forest. Here, in a small park, sheltered from large traditional Japanese tombstones, Buddhist priests perform annual rituals for the deceased.

Families can also visit loved ones and perform their own religious rituals at the site, unlike the scattering of cremated remains promoted by the Grave-Free Promotion Society, which leaves the family without the specific ritual space required for traditional rituals. Confucian and Buddhist. .

While many families who choose to bury trees do not explicitly identify as Buddhists or associate with a Buddhist temple, the practice reflects Japanese Buddhism’s broader interest in environmental responsibility.

Perhaps influenced by Shinto beliefs about the gods living in the natural world, Japanese Buddhism has historically been unique among Buddhist traditions for its emphasis on the environmental world.

While early Indian Buddhist thought viewed plants as non-sensitive and therefore outside the reincarnation cycle, Japanese Buddhism views flora as a living component of the reincarnation cycle and, therefore, necessary to protect.

As a result, Japanese Buddhist institutions today often present the challenge of humanity’s impact on the environment as a specifically religious concern. The head of the Shōunji temple described the tree burials as part of a unique Buddhist commitment to preserve the natural environment.

Social transformations

The idea of ​​tree burials proved so popular in Japan that other temples and public cemeteries emulated the model, some offering burial spaces under individual trees and others spaces in a columbarium. that surrounds a single tree.

Researcher Sébastian Penmellen Boret writes in his 2016 book that these tree burials reflect larger transformations in Japanese society.

After World War II, Buddhism’s influence on Japanese society waned as hundreds of new religious movements flourished. In addition, a growing trend towards urbanization has undermined the bonds that traditionally existed between families and local temples, which housed and guarded their ancestral tombs.

Tree burials are also much cheaper than traditional burial practices, which is an important consideration for many Japanese who struggle to support multiple generations.

Japan’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world, so children often struggle without siblings to support their sick and deceased parents and grandparents.

Concern about traditional ceremonies

This decision was not without controversy. Religious and cultural communities across East Asia argue that physical space is needed to visit the deceased for various afterlife rituals.

Confucian traditions hold that it is the child’s responsibility to care for his or her deceased parents, grandparents, and other ancestors through ritual offerings of food and other items.

During the Obon Festival, usually held in mid-August, Japanese Buddhists will visit family graves and make offerings of food and drink to their ancestors, as they believe the deceased are visiting the human world during this time. These offerings to the ancestors are repeated twice a year at the spring and fall equinoxes, called “ohigan”.

Additionally, some Buddhist temples have expressed concern that tree burials are irrevocably undermining their social and economic ties with local communities.

Since the establishment of the Danka system in the 17th century, Japanese Buddhist temples have traditionally held a monopoly on ancestral burial sites. They have performed a variety of funeral services for families to ensure a good rebirth for their loved one in exchange for annual donations.

American funeral traditions

Tree burials are still a minority practice in Japan, but there is evidence that they are rapidly gaining popularity. Japanese tree burials, however, reflect trends occurring in burial practices in the United States.

While in the past graves were considered to be in perpetuity, today most cemeteries offer burial leases for up to 100 years, with shorter leases both common and encouraged.

As the pioneering work of funeral director Caitlin Doughty and others illustrates, consumers are increasingly taking a skeptical look at traditional American funeral paraphernalia, including the public display of an embalmed body, a coffin indicating social status and a large stone marking his grave.

This no doubt partly reflects sociological data indicating both the decline of traditional religious institutions and the rise of alternative spiritualities.

Above all, however, such efforts towards new forms of burial represent the fundamental versatility of religious rituals and spiritual practices as they transform to cope with new environmental and social factors. Natasha Mikles, Texas State University / The Conversation (CC)