The Problem of Death

The Problem of Death

A few weeks ago in Jinja Shinpō there was an article written by a priest raising the issue of how to respond to the death of someone closely involved in the activities of a jinja, specifically the question of the period of impurity.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, death is a major source of kegarë, impurity, in Shinto. Shinto funerals are never held at jinja, and if there is a death in your immediate family, you are supposed to cover your kamidana with a white cloth and leave it alone for fifty days, and also avoid visiting a jinja in that time. This is because a death close to you makes you impure as well. The priest comments in the article that some people avoid the jinja for a whole year, which causes problems if they were previously involved in organising matsuri.

The bigger problem he raised was the question of what to do about closer deaths. He gives two examples from his own experience. The jinja he serves at has a main annual matsuri, like all others. That festival begins at the house of one of the ujiko, the people who live in the area; reading between the lines, this responsibility rotates among the eligible people. One year, the man who was supposed to host the beginning of the matsuri died suddenly on the morning of the matsuri. Obviously, from a purely practical perspective someone else has to host the opening ceremonies — and that is what they did — but preparations would have been carried out at the house beforehand. How should that kegarë be handled?

The more immediate one concerned the sudden death of his wife, on New Year’s Eve. All the people at his jinja are close relatives, as is normal for local jinja, which means that they should, according to the normal rules, avoid participating in matsuri or visiting jinja for at least a couple of weeks. However, a jinja cannot be closed over New Year. Hatsumōdë, the first jinja visit of the New Year, is a very important custom in contemporary Japan, and many jinja get a large portion of the annual income in the first week of the year. Thus, closing the jinja would both deprive many people of the opportunity to perform a ritual that is important to them, thus failing in its role as a religious site, and have a serious financial impact on the family.

The article did not offer a solution, because this is a difficult religious problem. On the one hand, the kegarë associated with death is, historically, extremely important. Major matsuri have, historically, been postponed because of the death of someone close to the principals. On the other hand, when there is only one priest at a jinja, stopping everything when someone close to him dies would seriously disrupt all matsuri at the jinja, and that is also a major problem. It is not clear how best to address this problem, and, at present, the guidance from Jinja Honchō is inadequate. Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems that Jinja Honchō needs to deal with in the near future, so this is unlikely to be a high priority.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: