The role of the zenchishiki or deathbed attendant emerged in early medieval Japan as a distinct area of ritual specialization. Securing in the services of a religious guide who would assist one at the end was a crucial preparatory measure for maximizing one’s chances of a good death. Instructions for deathbed practice detail the responsibilities of these attendants, including nursing and encouraging the terminally ill, interpreting their visions, dispelling demonic hindrances, leading the chanting central to deathbed practice, and chanting on behalf of the dying should they fall unconscious. Courtier diaries and official records offer clues to the identity of monks who served in this capacity. Deathbed attendants tended to be, not official monks (kansō) holding clerical rank but semi-reclusive, ascetic monks (tonseisō) whose status “outside” both lay society and formal temple administration enabled them to manage death pollution and claim special expertise over the liminal realm of dying.
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