Latest Reviews of “Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death”

Latest Reviews of “Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death”

1) H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online, Mark McGuire — see below

2) Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford (JASO) by D. A. Mullins — see below

McGuire on Boret, ‘Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death’

Sébastien Penmellen Boret
Mark McGuire
Sébastien Penmellen Boret. Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death. New York: Routledge, 2014. 240 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-51706-5.

Reviewed by Mark McGuire (John Abbott College)
Published on H-Shukyo (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Jessica Starling

Easing the Burden of Death, One Tree Burial at a Time

If you’re poor, you cannot die in Japan.

The Japanese family has exploded.[1]

In an age when the average cost to establish an ancestral grave in Tokyo[2] exceeds annual income levels; marriage and children seem out of reach or too burdensome to many; doubts arise about spending the hereafter in a “creepy” ancestral grave with a husband or mother-in-law one never much cared for; and mistrust of the business-oriented funeral practices of Buddhist priests and cemetery directors reigns, diversification and individualization of burial practices have become increasingly common in contemporary Japan.

In Japanese Tree Burial, Sébastien Penmellen Boret focuses upon the ecologically sound, cost-effective, and pragmatic strategy of burying cremated remains beneath trees in rehabilitated forest cemeteries. But as we learn in the introduction, this innovative method is but one among many new death and burial practices undertaken in contemporary Japan. Other practices developed by Buddhist priests and private cemetery directors include common ossuaries, multistory “condo type” cemeteries, women’s-only graves, double graves, the scattering of ashes, and “eternal graves” where the unmarried or childless and “ancestral grave renouncers” contract ritual services previously carried out by descendants.

Boret’s carefully researched and sensitively rendered ethnography reveals how certain fundamental values related to death, kinship, ecology, and post-mortem ritual care are undergoing a gradual process of transformation in Japanese culture. These changes, according to the author, arise in part from already well-documented socioeconomic and demographic shifts in Japan and other industrialized nations: declining and/or delayed marriage and birth rates, a rapidly aging society, and a widespread perception of the elderly as a burden (chapter 3). Less well known and understood, however, and therefore one of Penmellen Boret’s chief empirical and analytical contributions, are the implications such transformations have for decisions about where, how, by whom, with and without whom Japanese choose to be buried in the present age.

Another significant contribution is Boret’s analysis of the new awareness and perceptions of environmental concerns (poorly managed monocultural timber plantations and the resulting loss of biodiversity and degradation by “invasive” species) that also motivate certain individuals to seek burial for themselves and their loved ones beneath trees in forest cemeteries (chapter 2). In doing so, Tree Burial subscribers have joined a new community, created in 1999 by Zen Buddhist priest Chisaka Genpo, engaged in rehabilitating and nourishing fragile forest ecosystems (chapter 4). Subscribers’ contributions include their on-site labor during seasonal workshops and annual collective memorial services, and nutrients from their decaying remains after they die (chapters 4 and 5). Thus, according to the new motto espoused by the founder and subscribers of Tree Burial (“the dead reborn as flowers”), the deceased’s ashes and bones are regarded not as relics to be preserved in urns and concrete in an ancestral grave, but instead as gifts for the regeneration of Japan’s forested mountain landscapes (chapter 6). I return to this notion of cremated ashes becoming nutrients for the next cycle of life below.

Boret makes a convincing case that Tree Burial helps transform the socioeconomic and affective burden associated with the ritual care and maintenance of ancestral graves (“social immortality”) into an ecological legacy for surviving family members, fellow Tree Burial subscribers, and the Japanese nation as a whole (“ecological immortality”) (chapter 7). He also provides helpful cross-cultural, historical and, to a lesser extent, regional context for understanding the development and evolution of Tree Burial in Japan and abroad (chapter 1).

Contracting burial services and forging “intentional bonds”[3] with fellow subscribers (as compared to traditional kinship bonds) provides peace of mind that someone will assist with burial, post-mortem memorialization, and ritual care when descendants are either unavailable or unwilling. Feelings of solidarity are cultivated while socializing at an art exhibition sponsored by an eternal grave society or while creating a walking path during a Tree Burial community work session. In so doing, one avoids becoming a “wandering spirit” caught between the worlds of the living and dead whose untended, decrepit graves carry the social stigma of a failed household.

Such activities also appear to be a lot of fun, with opportunities for friendship, sampling local agricultural products, soaking in hot springs, and sharing views on aging, death, loss, and the afterlife. Although new practices such as Tree Burial can be said to depart in significant ways from the requirements of the ancestral grave system, they also resonate and conform with certain existing values, practices, and social norms for those who cannot fulfill or who outright reject these filial obligations. According to Penmellen Boret, of the 600 or so individuals buried in two nondenominational Tree Burial sites in northern Iwate prefecture, for example, over half requested Buddhist memorial services. This despite the fact that all graves carry only individuals’ secular names, rather than a Buddhist posthumous name or the family name only, as is the norm in ancestral graves. Similarly, regular memorial rites are carried out as in ancestral graves, but they are undertaken collectively by all living Tree Burial subscribers, and do not take place during the typical summer festival of the dead. Tree Burial thereby prevents the need (or relieves the burden) of having one’s descendants carry out such posthumous ritual care on an ongoing basis.

It should be noted, as Boret explains in several vivid passages, that Tree Burial is far from the mainstream. In fact, the practice is subject to rebuke and contestation by local residents and distant observers who may have learned about it from electronic or print media. Founder Chisaka had to abandon initial plans to establish Tree Burial sites in two communities where residents opposed them. It also appears that few Tree Burial subscribers discuss their burial plans with acquaintances, friends, and in some cases, even their families in order to avoid disagreements and conflict. In rare cases, descendants have even ignored a loved one’s final wishes and relocated their remains from a Tree Burial site to a traditional ancestral grave.

Boret’s monograph stands out for bringing an ecological focus to the study of evolving death and burial practices and changing notions of the afterlife among Tree Burial subscribers and Japanese society more broadly. Researchers in the social sciences and humanities, area studies and religious studies scholars, and advanced undergraduate and graduate students in these fields will find Penmellen Boret’s assessment interesting and valuable. With few exceptions, his descriptions are satisfyingly thick, his manner of argumentation is rigorous, and his knowledge of and engagement with the relevant Western-language sources is solid.

His portrayal of his own implication in Tree Burial activities and interactions with co-participants is illuminating and nongratuitous. His self-reflexive, multisited fieldwork approach enabled excellent access to co-participants’ inner lives. In a number of passages I was struck by the dexterity with which Boret, an Oxford-based male scholar of French ancestry with only a few years’ of Japanese-language study, created a mutual spirit of camaraderie and common purpose among a group composed of a majority of elderly Japanese widows and their middle-aged daughters. I might have liked to learn more details about his strategies for doing so, perhaps in an elaborated methodology section or sustained reflection upon the role of gender in his research and the decision to employ a self-reflexive methodology.

In a memorable and moving preface, Penmellen Boret reveals his own recent brush with death (a cancer diagnosis during his graduate studies) and how the experience opened him up to take seriously social and cultural notions of death, bereavement, and memorialization. Another noteworthy aspect of his fieldwork approach was that Boret supplemented encounters in the field in rural Iwate prefecture with follow-up social visits in Tokyo, where most Tree Burial subscribers he met lived. Such multisited research and discussion of his and co-participants’ intertwined subjectivities recalls similar self-reflexive “cosmopolitan” ethnographies such as Sarah Strauss’s Positioning Yoga (2004) and Ruth Behar’s Vulnerable Observer (1996).

In Boret’s case, opportunities to socialize with Tree Burial subscribers after formal interviews and Tree Burial events became possible through a lively postal correspondence. In letters and small gifts he exchanged with Tree Burial subscribers, photographs of nature, poetry, and personal reflections deepened their relationships and the author’s understanding of why subscribers chose Tree Burial and what this unorthodox decision signaled in their personal and social lives. I was struck by the generosity and intimacy generated by Boret’s research activities and admired his skill in gathering a broad range of source materials, including subscribers’ written reflections upon the loss of loved ones, poetry inspired by such experiences, and even eulogies given at loved ones’ memorial services. At times I wondered about Boret’s informed consent practices and under what circumstances individuals would agree to share such materials for publication. Given that he attended several families’ funerals and interacted with participants in their spouses’ and their own future final resting places, it stands to reason that a high degree of trust became possible.

Before concluding this review, I would like to raise a delicate question that arose while I reflected upon the apparent ecological nature of Tree Burial and the notion of “the dead being reborn as flowers.” In short, can it truly be said that burying cremated remains nourishes the soil, plants, trees, and various other living organisms? Are we to take this claim at face value or understand it in a metaphorical or symbolic sense? In other chapters the author provides extensive technical and scientific explanations regarding the adverse environmental impacts of the cremation process, including the release of vaporized mercury and dioxin into the air. He similarly describes the complex process of rehabilitating former timber plantation forests with reference to the expertise of the Tree Burial priest, staff forester, members of an environmental research group from Tokyo University, and other researchers in the field. For this reason I expected a similar rigorous engagement with and justification for this claim about cremated remains becoming fertilizer for the next cycle of life.

Certainly, the rehabilitation of monocultural timber plantations by the priest and Tree Burial community have clear and convincing ecological, social, and economic benefits. But from what I understand (and I am by no means a forensic biologist or soil scientist), burying cremated remains in large quantities can raise the pH and sodium levels of the soil to such a degree that it can become toxic to plants, trees, and various microorganisms. Cremated remains do not readily decompose and remain largely intact for many years, if not decades. While reading the sixth chapter, in which the priest and subscribers discuss their notions of ecological immortality and nourishing the next cycle of life, I wondered whether any fellow research participants or the author ever considered these issues. Is such skepticism warranted in the case of Tree Burial in northern Japan? Is reliable research data available?

Giving one’s cremated remains to nourish the next cycle of life is a noble gesture. But I could not help but wonder if that is what actually happens. Reading Tree Burial offered the opportunity to reflect upon this and a number of other fundamental questions many of us ponder on a regular basis in our professional and personal lives. By examining innovative forms of burial and the embedded and sometimes competing and contradictory notions of the self, death, the natural world, and the world beyond, Penmellen Boret shows that innovative burial practices in contemporary Japan reveal and contribute to important transformations in Japanese society as a whole. I trust that Tree Burial will find a wide and appreciative audience.


[1]. Statements by research participant who brought Boret’s attention to the plight of Japanese who lacked sufficient financial resources to pay for funeral and burial costs and significant changes to the Japanese family over the past 150 years arising from socioeconomic and demographic shifts.

[2]. Ten million yen (approximately US$80,000 as of July 30, 2015 ) according to the author, 90.

[3]. Mark Rowe, “Grave Changes: Scattering Ashes in Contemporary Japan,” Japanese Religious Studies 30, nos. 1-2 (2003): 85-118. Boret adopts Rowe’s term to describe bonds formed by Tree Burial subscribers

Printable Version:

Citation: Mark McGuire. Review of Boret, Sébastien Penmellen, Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death. H-Shukyo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2015.

Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford (JASO), JULIEN DUGNOILLE 

SÉBASTIEN PENMELLEN BORET, Japanese tree burial: ecology, kinship, and the culture of death, London and New York: Routledge 2014, xvii, 219 pp.

Boret’s book offers a clear and well-documented account of ‘tree burial’, defined as ‘concealing a corpse inside a tree or beneath its roots’ (p. 4), a practice which has emerged in Japan over the last sixteen years. The author’s core argument is that, while there has been a decline in ancestor worship in Japan since the 1970s, new forms of burial and ancestor worship such as tree burial are not so much a rejection of Japanese ancestral rites and tradition as a symptom of the desire to liberalize and innovate what the author calls ‘ways of death’ in Japan today. In particular, tree burial provides the Japanese with an ecologically sustainable alternative to cremation and grave burial, as well as a way to avoid the exorbitant expenses associated with funeral practices in Japan today (e.g. the author quotes a figure of no less than £70,000 as the average price for a typical grave in Tokyo as of 2010).

In Chapters 1 and 6, the author claims that the growing interest in tree burial in Japan and elsewhere (this is far from being a uniquely Japanese practice, having started in the UK in 1993, i.e. six years before Japan) is inscribed in the transnational desire to live on after death through the perpetuation of the life cycle. Chapter 6 particularly puts forward Davies’ concept of ‘ecological immortality’ in which one conceives of a corpse’s elements as a way to re- generate other forms of life through burial. Chapter 2 successfully explores the correlations between Japan’s environmental crises and changes in the ways in which the Japanese dispose of the dead. This is an important chapter, as the author shows that, in Japan today, individual action may come to undermine cultural norms and tradition if it needs to produce new social paradigms and new acceptable praxis. This is reminiscent of other forms of civil disobedience in East Asia today, particularly in Japan, Korea and China. In Japan, public demonstration of dissatisfaction was hardly observable between the 1970s and the early 2010s, but online protests have increased recently following the 2011 earthquake in the Tōhoku region, which Boret, interestingly enough, identifies as the ‘land of tree burial’. In Chapter 3, the author argues that tree burial is a symptom not so much of the rejection of traditional discourses and values associated with Japanese kinship and household inheritance (the widely discussed ie system), but rather of diversification in the ideology and practice of personalization and self- representation. Chapter 4 proposes the following thesis: in tree burial and other non-ancestral burial practices, the dead-to-be, the living and the dead all negotiate and celebrate social and family relationships at the grave. As such, the author argues, novel ‘ways of death’ in Japan show an increase in the perception of burial as a collective process of memorialization. In Chapter 5 the author argues that, by practising tree burial, the Japanese take care of the environment, thus contributing to (life) continuity and to the well-being of the Japanese people as a whole. A specific section on the intrusion of foreign species in tree cemeteries is particularly interesting as it suggests that these new practices are not necessarily being undertaken by ecologically minded citizens. Indeed, by bringing foreign species of trees to the places where they wish to be buried or to bury their relatives, people are blighting the eco- system of the environment that is hosting the remains of their dead.

While this is a very well-written and well-documented monograph, the author is unsuccessful in avoiding what has been widely recognized in philosophy and social anthropology as an epistemological pitfall, namely treating life, death, nature and society as autonomous entities. As such, the author uses a conceptual framework that is somewhat dated. For instance, instead of engaging with current anthropological debates about the trans-species cosmologies and intersubjective experiences that arose after the ontological and (more relevant to this discussion) trans-species turns, he proposes to approach Japan’s decline in ancestor worship practices and its increase in alternative burial practices as a symptom of his participants’ desire to ‘re-appropriate’ nature and death. This presupposes that his participants perceive life, society, nature and death as autonomous entities. As such, the reader might prefer the author’s engagement with his participants’ discourse about continuity, a discourse that, in my experience, often arises among East Asian participants when they engage in discussions about life and cosmological responsibilities. The monograph reads as though the author tried artificially to combine his participants’ discourses about environmental cosmology with his own inclination to conceive of death, life, nature and society as independent processes capable of ‘re-uniting’ through novel ecological configurations. It is possible that, when the author mentions the ‘re-appropriation’ of nature and death, he means to engage with current debates about what Eduardo Kohn has recently called the ‘anthropology of life’, which urges anthropologists to start approaching living and non-living entities as fluid environments that inform and transform each other through intersubjective experience. However, the conspicuous lack of reference to these debates indicates that this might not be the case.

Nonetheless, this is a very informative monograph which makes for an enjoyable read. The personal experiences of the author with death are particularly gripping and give an emotional depth to his ethnography from beginning to end.


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