By focusing on the reported experiences of bereaved Japanese people, this paper explores the continuing role of the ancestral tradition in contemporary responses to death and loss. In a culture that emphasises social conformity, it demonstrates the diverse and innovative ways individuals negotiated a shared tradition in a contemporary postmodern context in which a variety of cultural messages compete for attention. Traditional Buddhist mourning rituals that promote family and social solidarity now take their place alongside a medicalised system of dying, commercialised mourning, bereavement counselling and increasing emphasis on individualism and personal choice. Five categories of responses are identified to reflect the different ways the individuals concerned sought to reconcile social and familial obligations associated with traditional approaches with their need to find individual and personal meaning in their loss. Some participants felt obliged to conform to traditional forms from which they took little comfort, while others found them to be supportive and meaningful. Some took an improvisory approach, putting their own personal stamp on received wisdom. Others turned to alternative forms of support, either to supplement or replace traditional approaches. Their responses reflected the complex, dynamic, fluid and ambiguous relationship between the individual and their social and cultural resources, demonstrating the contribution of individuals to shaping culture.