TOKYO, Aug 24 (Reuters) - A 23-year-old undertaker won a contest at Japan's biggest funeral expo on Thursday that tested ancient skills in the ritual dressing of the dead.
"I practiced every day to prepare for this competition," said a smiling Rino Terai after her win over three other finalists.
"I took videos and made improvements by asking myself, does this look beautiful? Am I treating the deceased kindly?"
Japan's Shinto religion believes that the soul is impure shortly after death and the process of dressing a body - usually in front of close relatives only - purifies the deceased spirit before it is sent off to the "other world."
Japan's aging society has increased demand for undertakers with special skills, said Kimura Kouki, head of the Okuribito Academy.
"There are about 2,000 undertakers whose expertise is in dressing the deceased, but their skills vary a lot," he said.
"I wanted this competition to be a way to spur undertakers to improve their skills."
The four contestants dressed live human volunteers laying on mattresses arranged on a stage. They were observed by three judges as funeral music gently played in the background.
The four were judged on the grace of their movements and their ability to dress the body without revealing too much bare skin.
"The movement of their hands were really beautiful," Akane Matsuda said after watching the competition. (Reporting by Megumi Lim, editing by Darren Schuettler and Nick Macfie)