Return to the elements: Gorintō

Recently I was reading a fascinating book I received as a gift, Ethnicity and the American Cemetery, edited by Richard E. Meyer. It’s a collection of academic essays on how ethnic groups in America express their values and worldviews through their cemeteries. (Very good, but a dense read.) A chapter on Japanese memorials introduced me to the Gorintō, or “five-ringed tower,” a tombstone whose shapes symbolize the five elements. (Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it.)

I think this is a wonderful concept and a beautiful reminder of how we will all return to the elements eventually.

I haven’t been so lucky as to see a Gorintō in my cemetery travels in the western United States. Most of the Japanese tombstones I have seen are columnar which seems to be somewhat more modern than the Gorintō. Most recently I saw this beautiful memorial in Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River, Oregon, in the “Japanese section,” a reminder of Oregon’s regrettable racist history. There are a few similarities to the shapes of the Gorintō but this one is distinctly different.

It’s also common to find “Japanese” concrete garden decorations that look like mini shrines, which seem to be a sort of modern, practical nod to the Gorintō.

Another nice element I saw in this section was small decorative granite incense burners, which protect the flame with carved stone doors. Another very nice touch.

I’ll be reading up more on Japanese funerary customs so I can better understand what I find in the “Japanese sections” of western cemeteries.

Japanese Cemeteries – The Traditions of Japanese Burial Sites

Gorintō on Wikipedia

Stump and Lamb explores personal growth and meaning via travels to pioneer cemeteries of the West.

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