Sunday, May 20, 2012

Okinawan tombs

OK, this may seem like an odd topic for a blog post, but it's definitely part of the Okinawan culture so merits a posting.

Okinawans don't have a predominant religion, but really practice a form of ancestor worship that has been influenced by Taoism, Shintoism and Buddhism.  Most believe in respecting the relationship between the living and the dead and so their burial places, tombs, take on a great meaning for the family.

All around the island, tucked into the strangest of place (like next to homes, behind restaurants, across farmer's fields or perched on hillsides) you'll see tombs.  The perfect place, I've heard, is on a hillside overlooking water (hey, who wouldn't want to retire there?)

There are two predominant types: the distinctive "turtle-back tomb" which looks like the shape of a turtle's shell,

and the more modern gabled type.

Both types, made out of concrete, have a small rectangular door in front for entrance in and some type of a "porch" out front.  The tombs are meant to resemble houses, hence the courtyard, door and porch.  And like houses, they come in all sizes from the modest to the immense and all ages from the very old to the brand new.

Inside the tomb, the cremated remains of several generations of family members are stored in fancy urns that are carefully placed.  Since the tomb is for the family, it bears the family's name outside and makes a one-stop place for worshiping those who have passed.

I have heard that there are lots of etiquette rules surrounding these tombs, like you're not supposed to take pictures of them (broke that rule for the sake of this post...)

Every March or April, the Okinawans celebrate a holiday known as Shiimii which is like a memorial service for all the ancestors.  All the family members around the area gather on the "porch" of the tomb to offer prayers and ceremonial foods and then have a picnic and drink beer or awamori (like sake).  You'll see little cans of awamori, beer and flowers left on the porch for the ancestors!  Of course, one of those etiquette rules says it's a big no-no to disturb those offerings so there they sit until the cans rust out.

I've also read that you'll sometimes see a "mini" tomb sitting to the side of the main tomb.  This one is for the remains of a female family member that didn't get married.  In this patriarchal society, the women's remains are to be buried in the tomb of her husband's family so if she doesn't marry out, then she is laid to rest in this separate tomb.

See the little tomb in the middle of the pic?

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