A Temple on Wheels: Hearses in Japan

I’m not exactly proud of my reaction the first time I saw a hearse in Japan. I was going to a festival with friends. While we were waiting to cross the street at a stop-light, this black car with a shrine attached to the back went barreling by.

“Look, LOOK! A car carrying a Shrine! It’s probably going to the festival!” I shouted, grabbing my fiancé’s arm. “How cool!”

Ryosuke cleared his throat awkwardly. “Yeah, honey… that’s um… that’s a car for dead people.”

reikyusha 霊柩車 hearse Japan Buddhist shrine

He meant a hearse. It wasn’t a car carrying a shrine, going to a fun cherry-blossom viewing festival; it was hearse (霊柩車) carrying the ashes of a dead Japanese person, going to a funeral.

Big difference.

Japan has two types of hearses (霊柩車 / reikyusha): “Western” style and “Japanese style.”

Western Styles Hearses (reikyusha) in Japan

Western styled hearses are typically black station wagons with limited or no altercation. Japanese caskets are usually always smaller and less ornate than their American counterparts. Since the coffin is small enough to fit in a normal station wagon, foreign hearses are very difficult to spot on a crowded street. The most common foreign styles hearses are constructed from Nissan Stagea station wagons, Tokyota Celsior sedans, Nissan Cima sedans, Lincoln Town Cars, and Cadillac DeVille. Now you know.

In most instances, regardless of what type of hearse is used, bodies are cremated rather than being buried “whole.” The ashes are put in the family grave – typically spanning over several generations.

Cemetery in Sendai, Japan

Japanese styled hearses (reikyusha) in Japan

Japanese styled hearses, on the other hand, require the car to be extensively altered. Basically, they cut off the top of the back of the car and assemble an intricate, typically golden Japanese Buddhist temple or shrine.

The shrines are absolutely gorgeous.

Unlike the foreign hearse, there is no room for a coffin in the Japanese styled hearse. Japan relies on cremation; it is rare to hear about someone being buried “whole.” So if a zombie apocalypse hits the world, Japan is probably the safest place to be (assuming we are working with old-fashioned zombies that come to life out of the grave). Nearly all the dead are burned. The urn containing the ashes is put into a small opening at the top of the Japanese styled hearse and later put in the family grave.

A cemetery destroyed from the tsunami in Ishinomaki

A cemetery destroyed from the tsunami in Ishinomaki

When Ryosuke was 10, he went to his grandfather’s funeral. At the funeral, he remembers watching them put his grandfather’s body into an oven, burning it. After some time, attendants pulled the body out, and everyone had to use chopsticks to transfer the bones to a different container. The smell of burnt flesh continues to haunt him.

And then they put his ashes into a hearse similar to the one I saw, bringing us around in a full circle.

So next time you’re out in Tokyo and you see a neat black car with a giant shrine attached to the back, remember – that is not a shrine. It is a hearse.

reikyusha 霊柩車 hearse Japan Buddhist shrine

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