What happens when people pass away in Okinawa?

There is something called a gan, which is similar to a red palanquin. In the past, when someone died there was a custom that their coffin would be placed in the gan and carried to their gravesite. These gan were collapsible and there would be one per village, or one per group of small villages that would be shared. The gan would be assembled every time a funeral was held.

When the gan first started towards the gravesite, it went in a western direction. The coffin itself is very heavy, but once the palanquin was picked up, you weren’t able to put it down. Leaving the village was akin to leaving the “shima” or homeland, a time for parting. In order to allow time for the deceased to part with the village, the palanquin would be carried around the village one time. Only once they had completed that cycle would they be allowed to set the palanquin down. They would then place some sake on the palanquin and offer up their prayers. Following this, the head palanquin carrier would lead the gan to the gravesite.

Upon arriving at the gravesite, each coffin would be buried in their respective graves, and a few years later the remains would be removed and cleaned. These remains would then be carefully placed in a jar on a miniature shrine. The shrine would be adorned with ornate ornamentation. Even if someone lived in a thatched roof house during their life, they should be allowed a “tile roof” in their afterlife.

Lately, cremation has become more commonplace, and the gan is rarely used. There are still certain villages who have carefully preserved the gan. As a continuation of this culture, even if the body is cremated, once the ashes have been settled in the urn, they are removed and purified in sake. This is a similar process of washing remains that ties to the gan tradition.

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