When Death Falls Apart: Making and Unmaking the Necromaterial Traditions of Contemporary Japan (Paperback)

When Death Falls Apart: Making and Unmaking the Necromaterial Traditions of Contemporary Japan By Hannah Gould Cover Image

When Death Falls Apart: Making and Unmaking the Necromaterial Traditions of Contemporary Japan (Paperback)


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Through an ethnographic study inside Japan’s Buddhist goods industry, this book establishes a method for understanding change in death ritual through attention to the dynamic lifecourse of necromaterials.
Deep in the Fukuyama mountainside, “the grave of the graves” (o-haka no haka) houses acres of unwanted headstones—the material remains of Japan’s discarded death rites. In the past, the Japanese dead became venerated ancestors through sustained ritual offerings at graves and at butsudan, Buddhist altars installed inside the home. But in twenty-first-century Japan, this intergenerational system of care is rapidly collapsing.

In noisy carpentry studios, flashy funeral-goods showrooms, neglected cemeteries, and cramped kitchens where women prepare memorial feasts, Hannah Gould analyzes the lifecycle of butsudan, illuminating how they are made, circulate through religious and funerary economies, mediate intimate exchanges between the living and the dead, and—as the population ages, families disperse, and fewer homes have space for large lacquer cabinets—eventually fall into disuse. What happens, she asks, when a funerary technology becomes obsolete? And what will take its place? Gould examines new products better suited to urban apartments: miniature urns and sleek altars inspired by Scandinavian design, even reliquary jewelry. She visits an automated columbarium and considers new ritual practices that embrace impermanence. At an industry expo, she takes on the role of “demonstration corpse.” Throughout, Gould invites us to rethink memorialization and describes a distinct form of Japanese necrosociality, one based on material exchanges that seek to both nurture the dead and disentangle them from the world of the living.
Hannah Gould is Melbourne Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the School of Social and Political Sciences and member of the DeathTech Research Team at The University of Melbourne. She is President of the Australian Death Studies Society and co-editor of Aromas of Asia.
Product Details ISBN: 9780226829012
ISBN-10: 0226829014
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: December 11th, 2023
Pages: 208
Language: English
“From graves for abandoned gravestones to the craft and care by which workers tend to butsudan still today, this book is an electrifying read. Ethnographically intimate, analytically astute, and refreshingly clear, When Death Falls Apart brilliantly tracks both the challenges and attachments to necro-care as once practiced and getting recrafted today.”
— Anne Allison, author of Being Dead Otherwise

When Death Falls Apart is well-crafted and thoughtful, and it significantly advances scholarship on death studies. At the same time, Gould’s excellent study is a model for rich anthropological description of particular people, places, and objects that challenge the reader to think about other places, other deaths, and other bodies.”
— S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, author of A History of Religion in 5½ Objects