Navigating Grief Bon Odori Ritual

Borrowing Rituals: Bon Odori

Grief Rituals Offer Comfort

After a death, we all engage in rituals or customs to symbolize the loss, provide comfort to the living and honor the one who died. For most Americans, the ritual is the “traditional” memorial / funeral service held just days after the death of a loved one: viewing, service, procession to the graveside and burial ceremony. The details will depend on the mourner’s religious protocol, personal and historic traditions and even the deceased’s pre-arranged wishes.

Once this short ceremony is concluded, as a society we tend to say, “that’s it, get back to your life now.” We have a silent code that one year, on the outside, is long enough for anyone to mourn, and perhaps inside we tolerate a shorter period than that. Consider the fact that the average time off from work for bereavement is a mere three days. Yet, we know that grief is inherently longer than a calendar predicts and varies from person to person. Our rituals tend to share this conclusion.

As a nation, America does recognize collective mourning on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Yet, America is made up of many cultures and religions which influence the rituals of death within our borders. In many communities, organizations conduct annual events which bring both cultural and religious traditions, often including their ritual beliefs about the afterlife, to the larger community. Depending on the ethnic or religious make-up of your region, you may be aware of Day of the Dead, (Mexico), All Soul’s Day (Pueblo/Native American), the Celtic origin of Halloween (United States) and Bon Odori (Japan). As well, many religions and cultures have ways to memorialize the anniversary date of individual deaths such as the observation of Yahrzeit in Judaism and  Sraddha in Hinduism. The adopted customs of burial and mourning in any given family, including for how long and when, may be a collection of both religious and ethnic rituals.

Japanese Community Bon Odori

Annually each summer, usually August, throughout the United States, Japanese cultural organizations, often in conjunction with Buddhist churches, host Obon festivals, a religious observance which includes the traditional Bon Odori dance. This event has been particularly prominent in Hawaii, where it spread to the mainland in the 1930s. Today the Obon festival is often a showcase of Japanese food and culture while sharing the traditional dance and ritual of remembrance.

Bon Odori is a circle dance “celebrated as a reminder of the gratitude one should feel toward one’s ancestors… The Bon dance tradition is said to have started in the later years of the Muromachi period as a public entertainment. In the course of time, the original religious meaning has faded, and the dance has become associated with summer.” The dance has variances based geographically within Japan, as some dances include the use of  fans, whereas others do not. Music also may vary according to location, although included in every region.

Regardless, you can be sure drumming, dancing, and food is plentiful at an Obon celebration.  The activities represent an altar offering to the ancestors which call the departed souls to the families. In the evening, as light fades, paper boats are constructed with messages and placed in a body of water with a lantern to carry away the souls of the departed. When people of all nations come together and share in the quiet moment and universal experience of loss, along with the gratitude for life,  there is healing.

Rituals Together or Alone?

Many of us engage in annual rituals related to death. Funeral Homes, grief support organizations and hospices often provide a ceremony to honor the past year’s deceased on Memorial Day, and certainly include rituals in serving families during the immediate time surrounding a death. In addition, there may be occasions such as a balloon release or a community event like Bon Odori. On a personal level, many families or individuals visit the graveside, set a place at the dinner table or light a candle on the anniversary of the death, or on their loved one’s birthday.

Community rituals are one way of giving a public forum to grief and loss. This permission is an acknowledgment that life is a gift, and loss is permanent as we know it. The traditions included in burial, services, and remembrance are found in the history of all cultures and religions in every part of the world. They are variations on a theme as we prepare the deceased for the best send off to the afterlife. The rituals provide us hope in our desire to be reunited again.

Your Rituals

Rituals are comfort. Some are very individual, some are for the entire village. They reinforce our beliefs, and help us remember we are not alone.

We learn from each other. What do you do routinely that comforts you as you remember and honor your loved one? How long have you carried on this ritual? What traditions in your community have you found helpful, or have borrowed from a culture or religion different than your own? Do you think public mourning and ceremonies are beneficial? How long should someone have these rituals?

4 replies
  1. aiki
    aiki says:

    Bon Odori was one of my favorite childhood memories.
    For children, the death seemed unknown, but by participating in such events, we were able to feel close to our ancestors.

    You have such a beautiful site. Thank you.

  2. Joan Hitchens
    Joan Hitchens says:

    You are welcome, Aiki!

    I was not able to attend the ceremony this year but when I saw the banners announcing its upcoming date in August, I could hear the drums and feel the celebration in my heart. Bon Odori is a beautiful and comforting event.

    ~Joan, SFH

  3. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    This is a lovely idea, I love the lanterns and boats with messages. I am going to try to do something similar with my family-

    Thanks for the beautiful site Joan, I read here often and there is something very peaceful and calming here.

    • Joan Hitchens
      Joan Hitchens says:

      Thank you Wendy. After a long year of sharing my own grief reflection journey you have reminded me how important it is for me to get back here to the ongoing task of ritual and storytelling after loss. This is just one of the ways of not forgetting but remembering with love. So glad you’ve taken the time to read and respond.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.