The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan

The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan

Karen M. Gerhart
Copyright Date: 2009
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  • Book Info
    The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan
    Book Description:

    This study is the first in the English language to explore the ways medieval Japanese sought to overcome their sense of powerlessness over death. By attending to both religious practice and ritual objects used in funerals in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it seeks to provide a new understanding of the relationship between the two. Karen Gerhart looks at how these special objects and rituals functioned by analyzing case studies culled from written records, diaries, and illustrated handscrolls, and by examining surviving funerary structures and painted and sculpted images.

    The work is divided into two parts, beginning with compelling depictions of funerary and memorial rites of several members of the aristocracy and military elite. The second part addresses the material culture of death and analyzes objects meant to sequester the dead from the living: screens, shrouds, coffins, carriages, wooden fences. This is followed by an examination of implements (banners, canopies, censers, musical instruments, offering vessels) used in memorial rituals. The final chapter discusses the various types of and uses for portraits of the deceased, focusing on the manner of their display, the patrons who commissioned them, and the types of rituals performed in front of them. Gerhart delineates the distinction between objects created for a single funeral-and meant for use in close proximity to the body, such as coffins-and those, such as banners, intended for use in multiple funerals and other Buddhist services.

    Richly detailed and generously illustrated, Gerhart introduces a new perspective on objects typically either overlooked by scholars or valued primarily for their artistic qualities. By placing them in the context of ritual, visual, and material culture, she reveals how rituals and ritual objects together helped to comfort the living and improve the deceased's situation in the afterlife as well as to guide and cement societal norms of class and gender. Not only does her book make a significant contribution in the impressive amount of new information that it introduces, it also makes an important theoretical contribution as well in its interweaving of the interests and approaches of the art historian and the historian of religion. By directly engaging and challenging methodologies relevant to ritual studies, material culture, and art history, it changes once and for all our way of thinking about the visual and religious culture of premodern Japan.

    45 illus., 11 in color

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3755-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-12)

    Death is an event of cataclysmic separation. The deceased, once appropriately disposed of, cannot be seen, touched, conversed with. So we use rituals and ritual objects to help bridge the gulf, suture the wound to the collective body of family and of community, and overcome a sense of powerlessness in the face of death. This study looks at the way these special objects functioned in Japanese death rituals of the early medieval period. The first half examines case studies, culled from written records, that illustrate how elite members of Japanese society negotiated the boundary between the living and the dead...

  7. The Rituals of Death
      (pp. 15-49)

      Many societies in far-flung parts of the ancient world developed surprisingly similar ideas about death and how best to deal with it. For example, archaeological evidence from ancient Etruria (ca. 500 BCE), which included tomb goods such as vessels for cooking, toilet articles, and armor, suggests that the Etruscans believed in a life beyond the grave that closely resembled their lives on earth. Likewise, writings by the Chinese Confucian scholar Xunzi (ca. 310–215 BCE) record that the living made preparations for the deceased as if the latter were still alive, and elite burials contained similarly useful objects for the...

      (pp. 50-80)

      By the first half of the fifteenth century, changes had been made to the basic structure of the funeral that resulted in the codification of key rituals, or at least parts of them. The most extensive evidence of that systematization can be seen in the descriptions of the lying-in-state period of the corpse and of the cremation. Nonetheless, although the four funerals discussed in this chapter contain new components borrowed from Chinese Chan Buddhist funeral traditions, we still find ample evidence of a powerful residual tradition of earlier Japanese funerary practices.

      Surprisingly vivid details about the process of the lying-in-state...

  8. The Material Culture of Death
      (pp. 83-112)

      In medieval Japan an astounding variety of forms and materials were used to enclose the body after death so as to separate the dead from the living. Few have been preserved, for the obvious reason that they were generally buried, burned, or otherwise destroyed. Fortunately, some basic knowledge about what materials were used can be reconstructed from funeral manuals and records in medieval diaries of the funerals of elite members of society. What some of these objects looked like can be seen in illustrated handscrolls of the same period. This chapter examines the series of containers and enclosures—including clothing...

    • Plates
      (pp. None)
      (pp. 113-146)

      The implements that accompanied Japanese funeral rituals and death memorials are still plentiful; they were produced by workshops to be durable and to perform particular functions. Bronze candleholders and many other intriguing appurtenances of religious practices are housed today in major museums. The usual label identifies an implement by type but says little or nothing about its religious function. Extracted from their original contexts, religious paraphernalia in a museum cannot reveal where or how they were once used, let alone the meanings they had held for participants in religious rituals. Until recently, modern scholarship has added little to the information...

      (pp. 147-178)

      The common view of a portrait is that it represents a specific individual, either historical or legendary. A portrait, however, is that and more.¹ The making of portraits in the West has been described as “a response to the natural human tendency to think about oneself, of oneself in relation to others, and of others in apparent relation to themselves and to others,” which suggests that the development of Western portraiture has been driven by concepts of the self and the individual.² This statement applies mainly to the modern period of portraiture. Historically, portraiture in the West was also meant...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 179-218)
    (pp. 219-230)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-248)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 249-259)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 260-261)