Japanese Cenotaphs

By the time Chiyokichi Natsuhara established himself in this country with a wife and family of his own, his parents had passed away back in Japan. Realizing that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to offer prayers at their graveside to honor their spirits, Chiyokichi erected a stone to their memory in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.  It’s prominently located in what is today the Natsuhara family plot at the front of the cemetery’s original Japanese section.

Such a memorial, erected at a place other than the burial location of the remains, is called a cenotaph. When erected in cemeteries, cenotaphs can be virtually indistinguishable from actual gravesites, often causing confusion as to who exactly is buried in the cemetery. Despite the potential for confounding future generations, cenotaphs are not uncommon in American cemeteries; they seem to be especially popular in cemeteries that served Japanese American communities in the early part of the last century.

It seems odd that practicing Buddhists would be inclined to erect these monuments. Their death and burial rituals are focused on releasing the deceased person’s spirit from the corporeal body and physical plane of existence. Unlike Christians of that earlier era, Buddhists had no expectation that the dead would literally rise again at a final judgment. On the contrary, they practiced cremation—even though it was considered both an exotic and suspect practice by their white neighbors—to destroy the body and encourage the spirit to depart the physical realm.  Cremation was such a strongly ingrained part of Japanese culture, that even Issei Japanese who converted to Christianity would usually still follow traditional cremation practices.

The assignment of a “kaimyo” at death is an extension of this Buddhist outlook. The “kaimyo”—a sort of posthumous name that the person would be known by in the afterlife—was assigned by the priest at the time of a Buddhist’s death. The belief was that the spirit would be continually drawn back to the physical realm as the surviving friends and family inevitably invoked the name that served that person during their physical life. By changing the name to a new, unfamiliar name at death, this unintended nagging of the dead was cleverly avoided, allowing the departed spirit to more fully separate from its former, physical existence.

After death, the deceased was honored with prayers—prayers often transported to the person in the spiritual plane on the ephemeral smoke of burning incense. Prayers to the ancestors were frequently offered at home alters specifically maintained for this purpose.

With this emphasis on the spiritual rather than physical existence, it might seem odd that cemeteries and tombstones played even a nominally important role in the lives and deaths of early Japanese immigrants, yet they certainly did. In addition to home alters, prayers would be offered in the public venue of the cemetery, especially during community events such as Obon Odori festivals.  Likewise, a public monument recording the deceased person’s name, kiamyo, and date of entry into the spirit realm (in other words, the date of death), was an important remembrance, not just for the family, but for the community at large. And while these monuments usually served to mark the burial place (or, in the case of Buddhists, inurnment place) of the physical remains, that function was actually incidental. The main emphasis was on establishing a place of both private and public remembrance of the deceased person’s time on earth.

As a result, erecting a tombstone in a local cemetery to serve as a memorial and ad hoc alter for offering prayers and burning incense was an important feature of Japanese burial practices, even when the loved one’s cremated remains were not present. Cenotaphs were erected in the Auburn cemetery for precisely this reason. After the local Japanese community was displaced due to the internment of World War II, many families erected cenotaphs in cemeteries in the communities they gravitated to at the war’s end.

Most people are well aware, as they search cemetery records for traces of their family history, that the absence of a tombstone does not necessarily mean that there is no body there. What we also have to remember is that, just because there is a tombstone present, one cannot necessarily conclude that it marks a burial location.