Death Care Disarranged: Buddhism, memory and the afterlife of human remains in contemporary Japan

Key information

5:00 PM to 7:00 PM
Virtual Event

About this event

Dr Paulina Kolata (University of Chester)


How can people morally avoid becoming waste? What are the afterlives of human remains? How are the dead taken care of in ageing communities or in those on the fringes of social structures? How does a person continue to belong in death when traditional kinship networks are no longer guarantors of this belonging? Living alone or dying alone isolated from one’s community due to illness and social/infrastructural disconnect is not uncommon in contemporary Japan. As migration, neoliberal social policies and commercial developments of the end-of-life and after-life care continue to drastically transform how ageing and death are experienced, Buddhist actors (many of whom are elderly) are faced with a necessity (or a choice) to develop various proactive approaches to their own and others’ afterlives. In this paper, through the prism of the practice of storing ashes in nōkotsudō facilities, I explore the cost of dying in an ageing Buddhist community and the challenges that the duties of caring for others pose in contexts where significantly more people grow older and live alone, and where heightened anxieties about social and family fragmentation pose a threat to community-based elder and death care. By drawing on three different case studies of urban and rural communities where nōkotsudō facilities have been created at a local temple, I look at different socio-economic circumstances that led to development of the facilities and how people are approaching their and others’ death in a pro-active way. In doing so, I explore psychological and economic circumstances surrounding these choices to discuss people’s creative responses to the uncertain futures of the dead in their depopulating neighbourhoods. Equally, I pay careful attention to the economic factors associated with the practice and comment on the institutional fragility of Buddhist institutions today and their uncertain economic futures. The paper is ethnographically informed and based on 15 months of fieldwork in rural and urban Japan in 2016-2017 and 2019.

Speaker Biography

Dr Paulina Kolata is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at University of Chester and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. She holds a PhD in Japanese Studies from the University of Manchester. In her work, she investigates ethnographically religious change and crisis response, demographic disruption, materiality, death and memorialisation rituals, religious waste-making, as well as religion and economy. Her doctoral work investigated how people continue and fail to belong in crisis in Buddhist temple communities in depopulating Japan. She is currently working on a book manuscript based on her doctoral work titled Doing belonging in troubled times (The University of Hawai’i Press).


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Organiser: SOAS Japan Research Centre

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