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Conducting a Buddhist Memorial Service (Englisch)

Hoji (a Buddhist service) referred originally to the teachings of the Buddha, and familiarization with the heart of the Buddha.  However, it later came to refer in general to a Buddhist ritual or ceremony, or a memorial service for the deceased.
In a memorial service, the chief mourner (seshu) gains merit through virtuous deeds like offering food, drink, and flowers to the Buddha, or chanting sutras. S/he then transfers this merit to his/her deceased family members and ancestors, making a prayer that all beings, including him/herself, attain the Buddhist Path.
As chief mourner, it is important that one understand the meaning and appropriate manners for the service so that it can be carried out earnestly.

Deciding the date for the service

The memorial service should be held on the anniversary of the day of death or on the eve of that day. However, if those days are inconvenient, a date prior to the anniversary of the day of death should be set.

When a date for the service has been decided upon, the chief mourner should immediately contact the temple s/he belongs to. The temple might have other services scheduled, so it is advisable to confirm a date with one’s temple at least one month in advance.

When multiple memorial services fall on the same year

If possible, memorial services should be held separately for each deceased person. However, anniversaries of the death of multiple persons—such as the seventh anniversary for one family member and the thirteenth anniversary for another—can fall on the same year.

In such a case, it is advisable to hold a joint service on the anniversary of the most recent day of death. In the above case, for example, the thirteenth anniversary service would be held on the day of the seventh anniversary service.

However, the anniversary service for the first year after death should be performed separately if possible, as the bereaved family is likely to be dealing with considerable sorrow over their loss. Taking this into account, it is advisable that no joint services be held until the third anniversary service.

Sending an invitation

When the memorial service is performed only among the immediate family of the deceased, invitations can be made over the telephone. However, when inviting others who were close to the deceased person, the preferable manner is to send a written invitation. There is no set form for this invitation, but below is an example:

Dear ________,
I am writing to announce that _____ (month) ____(day) is the __st/nd/th anniversary of the passing away of __________(the name or posthumous name of the deceased person).
On this occasion, we would like to hold a service to commemorate the __st/nd/th anniversary of the passing away of  ______(name)   on _________(the date of the Buddhist service) from ______(time) at _______temple.
Please join us in prayers for the deceased.
Sincerely yours,

___________________(the name of the chief mourner)

It is advisable to include directions to the venue and information about whether or not grave-tablet (sotoba) offerings are appropriate.

Dress and prayer beads

The preferable attire for the chief mourner is subdued semiformal. Participants are also asked to wear clothing suitable to the occasion, and prayer beads should be brought by all.

At the memorial service

When the service is held at a private home, the Buddhist altar should be adorned in the proper manner in advance. When preparations have been made, the chief mourner announces the name of the deceased person and the beginning of the service. After this, the mourners wait, hands together in prayer, for the entry of the priest. While the officiating priest is seated before the altar, participants should follow the priest and place their hands together when s/he does. Also, participants are requested to listen quietly while the priest chants.
Each aspect of the service has a special significance: The chanting expounds the teachings of the Buddha, the scent of the incense purifies the participants, and the smoke rising from the incense is said to deliver our thoughts and prayers to the deceased. In addition to purifying oneself and praying for the welfare of the deceased, it is important that one view the memorial service as an opportunity to come into contact with the heart of the Buddha and his teachings.
When the priest announces the time to offer incense, the incense burner can be either passed around or placed at the altar, each person going to the front to burn incense. After the final chanting and sermon by the priest, the service is officially concluded.
The chief mourner should then announce the end of the service and say a few words of thanks to the participants for their contribution to the service and to the deceased.
As the procedure for the service may differ according to the customs of that locality, one should check on such details with one’s temple in advance.

Recommended words for use on the special envelope

At funeral and memorial services in Japan, it is a custom to give a money offering in a special envelope. Certain expressions are often written on this envelope.
Some common expressions are listed below.

Pronunciation Usage and meaning

Goreizen
Used for a money offering placed on the altar at a funeral service
Gobutsuzen
Used for a money offering placed on the altar at a Buddhist memorial service
Okoden
Used for a money offering in the place of incense at a funeral service
Okoden
The word, while made up of slightly different characters, is equivalent to Okoden
Okogeryo
Used for a money offering in the place of incense or flowers at a funeral service
Osonae
Used for an offering of flowers, sweets, or fruit at a funeral service
Okumotsuryo
Used for a money offering in the place of offerings of flowers, sweets, or fruit
Kiku-ichirin
Used for a small money offering. Literally means “single chrysanthemum”
Kokorozashi
Used for a money offering given as token of gratitude for taking care of a funeral service or the tsuya (the eve of the funeral service)
Ofuse
Used for a money offering given as a token of gratitude to a priest or temple at the time of a funeral or memorial service
Gohorei
The word is equivalent to Ofuse