The Japanese Funeral
Death, fundamentally, is the same everywhere. It is how each culture deals with it that is different.
The following is a description of a Japanese funeral as recently experienced by me and the days leading up to it.
The call comes as we are on our way home from shopping. My father-in-law’s brother has passed away. My father in-law needs someone to drive him and my mother-in-law (for they no longer feel they can drive at night) to his brother’s house thirty minutes away to discuss things with rest of the family. The plan is for my wife to drive them there and for me to pick them up when they finish (spread the workload).
I am napping (stayed up late scoping the night before). My wife arrives home at eight.
My phone rings at eight-thirty. The meeting has lasted shorter than we had expected. Please come pick us up. My wife should have waited.
I hop into the car. It is raining but not enough to wet the skin. I have not been there at night since relatives in Japan rarely get together for anything, least of all at night.
I find the house after one mis-turn. I ring the doorbell and enter.
“Konbanwa. (Good evening.)”
I should not have said that. In times of mourning the usual greetings are not spoken.
They come out and look me as if I am a stranger. That is not unusual. It has happened to me before. They ask me to come in. The car had stopped in the middle of the road. I return to the house and go in (or ‘go up’ as the Japanese language demands) after I park it.
A few words are exchanged with my wife’s relatives and I make straight for the Buddhist altar. My Uncle-in-law (or rather his body) is laid in front of it his face covered with a white cloth as protocol requires.
He was still alive perhaps four hours before at the hospice where he had been for over a year. But now “he” is at home being said goodbye to by family members.
I light incense, say prayers for him (Namu Amida Butsu), ring the altar bell and bow. I suddenly feel embarrassed that I had put on old worn socks. Should have known better for it is custom to remove one’s shoes at the entrance of a house.
I move to the living room to talk with my cousin, with whom I had not seen in almost a year. My in-laws get ready to go. I say my condolences avoiding greetings this time.
Dressed in dark colours again I fell embarrassed but this time for putting on light, not dark, coloured shoes. How careless of me not to have taken care of what I wear.
My Auntie in-law needs to be driven home as well. She lives not ten minutes from us but we have seen her all but maybe five times in my fourteen years living in Japan (relatives in Japan rarely get together for anything).
They praise me for my knowledge of the roads even at night. People in the countryside rarely go out at night. And if they it is never far. She invites my family to come to her house sometime. I accept but wondered if I shall ever take up the offer.
My father-in-law brings over a plan of action for us. My wife would go to the wake on Tuesday. I would only attend the funeral on Wednesday. The kids go to school. Talk it over with your wife.
My wife says she was too busy to go to the wake. She will go to the funeral. The kids are as planned (they are not immediate family so no need to go).
Tuesday, afternoon and evening.
The in-laws have gone to the wake. I pick up the kids. Feed them. Bathe them. My wife comes home later than usual. She has to cover her work for next day’s absence.
The kids leave for school at the usual time. My wife does work (graduation is in a week so she is at her busiest). She will go to the funeral at nine. I will leave for the funeral at ten, all according to the revised plan.
My wife does not get her work done. She gets dressed to find her stockings are all laddered. I should have bought and kept a spare pair in case. She finally finds a thicker winter pair of stockings in the back of the drawers which is better anyway. She is in all black head-to-toe. She has her transparent Buddhist prayer beads. I find and put aside my larger black beads for when I leave.
Meanwhile I prepare money. In Japan money is donated to cover the cost of funerals. My wife and I give about one-hundred US dollars as advised by my father-in-law. Half of that will be returned to us in the form of lunch and Buddhist offerings like incense.
My in-laws leave just after nine. My wife drives them. My plans are revised so that I arrive at ten-fifteen (I am supposed to eat before the funeral).
I dress in my funeral suit. I wear my ring but not my watch. Put the prayer beads in my jacket pocket. I leave five minutes earlier than planned.
The priest, the director and the neighbours
The funeral was held at home which is unusual in this day and age. The funeral is presided over by a priest of a local temple. But there is also a funeral director and his assistants who make sure the people are sitting in the right places and the service runs smoothly. The neighbours also help out by collecting the donations.
I was asked to help out at one of our neighbour’s funeral about six months ago. It was my first time. (I doubt many foreigners have done this, which is why I am blogging about it.) I sat at the reception thanking people for coming, receiving their donations, returning the customary thank you gifts, then pass the money over to a bookkeeper, another neighbour. In this way we helped out at various tasks around the funeral.
This time, as a member of the family of the deceased I had no work but only to focus on mourning the death of my uncle-in-law. I sat at the back behind my wife because I am not related by blood to him whatsoever. But I did not sit on the side where even more distant relatives where because my children are related to him by blood.
In Japan it is customary to sit on cushions and not chairs, which are a recent import from Western culture. On top of that one sits on cushions with straight folded legs (in Japanese, seiza) rather than crossing them. This is not only painful for foreigners who never sit in this way but also the Japanese who have gotten used to chairs. And men can cross their legs if they choose to do so but not women though they can sit sideways with semi folded legs (for modesty and refinement reasons). After about 30 minutes I had to change to a cross legged position after seeing a relative unfold his legs, much to my relief in more ways than one.
There are different denominations in Buddhism just like there are different denominations in Christianity. My uncle-in-law belonged to the Jodo Shin denomination founded by Shinran, a Japanese priest from the 13th century. It’s central teaching is tariki which roughly translates to ‘other-powered’. Most other denominations of Buddhism believe in jiriki or ‘self-powered’-ness, where one strives for one’s own enlightenment (salvation). Through the power of repeating the incantation of the phrase ‘Namu Amida Butsu’ one can invoke the power of Amida Buddha who will save you through calling to him.
This phrase was cropped several times during the hour-long service.
And incense offerings were made by all.
A note on death
When the service ended we put flowers not on the coffin but in the coffin. My uncle-in-law had lost a lot of weight at the end of his life. Old age had worked on him.
Old age is one of the five signs of seen by the Buddha. The signs are birth, sickness, old age, death and enlightenment. The last being the way to deal with the first four. Death is not such a fearful thing in Buddhism. It is only one of the things that life (or birth) entails.
Most were dry-eyed until the end when we placed flowers over and beside his lifeless body into the coffin. The tears were more of sadness rather than of grief. We can never meet again but it is not the dramatic end of all things. In this sense the Japanese are far more realistic about death than the West and by extension, Christianity.
The coffin was carried to the hearse. Some went to crematorium. Others dispersed. I went home to be there when the kids return.
I did not go to this cremation but I had gone to one the previous year. There we said farewell to the deceased, a distant relative, before he was put into the crematorium furnace.
Next, we sat down in a guest room and ate lunch.
As a Westerner this seems almost surreal, or else cold and calculated. But that is what is done in Japan. They had announced that the cremation process will take about an hour. So we waited.
The ritual (kotsu hiroi)
When time came we went into a room where the remains of the cremation — the ashes and the bones— brought out from the furnace and laid out on a table. The director explained how the bones are to be stacked into the funeral urn using funeral chopsticks. Family members helped by the director then began placing bones, in ceremonial silence, into the urn in order of largest pieces first, save the skull cap. Guests were then invited to help until every piece and every bit of ash was then placed into the urn. The skull cap was then placed on top before the urn was sealed.
With the ceremony over, a few words of thanks were given before the urn and the certification of death were obsequiously handed over to the nearest next of kin to the deceased.
The mourning period
Over the next year and years on certain designated days (relating to the number 7) the immediate family will gather to remember him. This happens in all households.
‘Life goes on,’ as we say in English, but do we really understand what this phrase means? The funeral and all that we do, in my opinion, are not at all for the dead, but for those living.