THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF DEATH IN MEDIEVAL JAPAN . By Karen M. Gerhart . Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press , 2009 . Pp . xii + 258 ; plates. $39.00 .
This study examines funeral manuals, courtier diaries, and illustrated handscroll biographies of noted Buddhist monks to investigate funeral and memorial ritual among Japanese elites in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Drawing insights from art history, material culture, and ritual studies, Gerhart adopts an innovative focus on ritual implements, which—not being classified as “art”—have largely escaped scholarly notice. Such implements, she argues, were not mere visual enhancements to ritual but integral to its structure and performance. She considers objects for sequestering the dead, such as screens, shrouds, coffins, and burial and crematory enclosures; Buddhist ritual implements such as canopies, censers, banners, and offering vessels; and portraits of the deceased hung at funerals and memorial services. This volume adds substantially to recent scholarship on the gradual adoption in medieval and early modern Japan of Chan (Zen)‐style monastic funerals introduced from China. Gerhart illuminates key aspects of this process, showing, for example, how Zen monks displaced yinyang masters in determining the schedule of funerary events for Kyoto elites and how the deceased's portrait and memorial tablet, as supports for the dead person's spirit, assumed an increasingly central place in mortuary rites. This study raises important questions about pollution concerns, changing concepts of the afterlife, and family religion, and a brief conclusion summarizing some of these broader implications would have underscored the significance of Gerhart's findings. Her study otherwise provides rich material for readers interested in medieval Japanese religious culture and Buddhist death practices.