Is Aeon’s award-winning design an economical comfort or a blasphemy against your ancestors?

Japanese society occupies an interesting space where it comes to religion. While many people will assert they aren’t religious, there are aspects of spiritualism that touch everyday life, often deriving from a hybrid of Shinto and Buddhist teachings. This is especially obvious when it comes to honoring the dead. It’s not at all uncommon to find a butsudan (Buddhist shrine) in a Japanese home, where ihai, spirit tablets engraved with the names of deceased family members, are kept.

Since Japan has an aging population, more people require funeral services than ever. The cost of these services (the most expensive in the world) mean that fewer people are willing to pay for all the aspects of a traditional funeral, and many are looking for cost-effective options.

Cue retail giant Aeon’s recent ad for their own funeral services. It won the prestigious Mainichi Design Award and emphasizes the convenience and relatively cheap price of their funeral packages by showing an ihai tablet wrapped in clear wrap atop a foam tray, much like how you might see meat packaged.

The ad has drawn some less-than-positive attention since earning its award, though. Twitter user @curry_boz, a self-described Buddhist monk, had some choice words for the Mainichi Design board’s decision.

“What a tragedy that this is the recipient of the Mainichi Advertising Design Award. Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable, or even feel like a blasphemy has occurred? Did neither the designer of the ad, nor the judge of the competition, lack the ability to check themselves and stop before this happened?

His thread continued:

“Regarding the commercialization of funeral services:
The involvement of a funeral parlor is absolutely essential in both preparing for and managing the particulars of a funeral service, what with the administrative procedures that cover such tasks as cremation as well as the transportation from the hospital’s morgue. I won’t deny that, considering the capitalistic economy we live in, a certain level of competition is necessary in order to ensure a high quality of service. That is not the aspect I’m taking issue with.”

“Each funeral service has its own individual merit, and it is up to the providers themselves to discern that merit.
However, I really cannot condone the service provider’s personal perspective implied by taking an object of spiritual significance and then displaying it on a foam tray, wrapped in plastic. This action makes a decisive statement on the value of someone’s life.”

Plenty of users were eager to agree with him. Indeed, many announcements of the ad winning the award have already been quote-retweeted by users wondering “What is this world coming to?” or “This makes me uncomfortable.” Some replied to @curry_boz’s statements with:

“I’m in the graphic design industry, but my husband works at a temple. This really isn’t it. The designer must think of the ihai tablet as just a mere ‘object’, I suppose. It makes me sad.”

“The meaning is a bit unclear, with how they’ve packaged up something other than food into a food tray. You can’t eat a funeral service. I think that’s why it makes me uncomfortable. The impact is lost on me.”

“Whether from a Buddhist perspective or even just a religious one, I feel it’s so insulting I can hardly find the words.”

However, not everyone was so incensed. Many of the comments suggested he look at the problems in how Buddhist temples are handling funeral services before condemning Aeon’s advertising:

“Our values may be different, but I don’t really see it like “‘If you don’t register your ihai tablet properly, you just see it as a basic object! Blasphemy!’ After all, it’s not like anything is residing in that tablet. (If it had a Dharma name* engraved in it, then yeah, it would be blasphemous.) They’ve just compared Aeon’s funeral services to the side-dishes and groceries Aeon also sells. I think this ad is meant to make you think of funerals, which are considered expensive, as something familiar and close-to-home.”

[*Dharma names are the names granted to the deceased, which are then written onto their ihai tablet.]

“I completely disagree [with the idea that the ad is blasphemous]. When my grandfather died, monks were constantly begging me for more money. Some people only see funerals as an annoyance that drains their funds and ends with them getting ripped off. Honestly, it’s package ads like these ones that I’d like to see more of.”

“Perhaps people feel it’s asinine that we keep paying the same amount of money to temples for funerals that we did centuries ago. I’ve noticed a lot of monks nowadays live in fancy houses, drive flashy cars and eat out at expensive restaurants…”

The greatest divide seems to come from those who feel strongly about the ihai as a spiritual object and those who feel that temples and monks must adapt to the modern economic climate if they want to stay relevant. Making those adjustments is always going to draw ire from those who consider it untraditional, so this particular argument is bound to live on for a long, long time.

Source: Twitter/@curry_boz via Hachima Kikou
Top image: Pakutaso
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