So, I am standing over the skeletal remains of my Japanese mother-in-law contemplating which bone to pick from the ashes of her cremated body using chopsticks not unlike those used for cooking a good stir fry. It’s the weirdest feeling. The bones are ashen and light, and feel like pumice – spongy. Her skull rests idly as we members of her immediate family pass her bones between us with the chopsticks, and all deposit at least one part of her skeleton into a jar placed in the centre of the cremation table. This is why, in Japan, it is extremely impolite to share food between two pairs of chopsticks. When almost all her bones have been placed into the jar, the funeral director matter of factly grinds the bones as if preparing sesame seeds for dinner. He points to some teeth, explains what they are, puts them in the Jar— crunch, crunch—shows us her melted spectacles places them in the jar— crunch, crunch—and so on, until only her skull and dust is left on the Cremation Table. The jar is moved to a stainless steel trolley, and the director, wearing white gloves all the while, picks up her skull and places it upon the crushed bones in the Jar. The cranium juts ominously above the rim and I get a sinking feeling as I realize what happens next.
The lid is balanced on the protruding skull and the director gently takes each of the deceased’s children’s hands, places them on the lid, and then quickly pushes down.
There is a crack and crunch, not much unlike stepping on a large cockroach, and my stomach does a move very much like a convoluted yoga pose that shouldn’t be attempted at my level.
That was unexpected, the crushing the skull into the jar bit, not the gymnastics in my stomach.
The jar is sealed, placed in an ornate box, and we are suddenly outside walking to the car, another family already waiting for their skeletal buffet to arrive, and being herded into the room behind us like cattle.
Death is big business in Japan and steeped in silent controversy. Japanese funerals are among the most expensive in the world. Family members are often completely unaware of the cost incurred and “shopping” around for prices is deemed insincere and insulting to the recently deceased. In most cases, the bill is only presented after the ceremony—and it’s pricey. The average Japanese funeral can cost between ten and thirty thousand US dollars or more, and that usually does not include the priest’s fees, or the wake.
I have never experienced anything quite as profoundly visceral as the Japanese funeral for a loved one. The depth and breadth of Japanese culture, when revealed, is truly astounding and life altering, and as with most things Japanese, both complex and brutally commercialized.
We got The Dreaded Call while hanging out at my place. Two words in I knew something big had happened and we sat in a kind of stunned silence after we hung up the phone.
My mother-in-law, who lived alone, had been found dead in her Sendai home several months after no one had heard from her. She had had a habit of disappearing for a few days here and there, sometimes even for a week or two but this time it appears as if she just lay down to die and froze in the infamous cold up there.
The word suicide was never once uttered, but it hung in the air like frosty breath.
When we arrived at her house, we were led inside and ushered to our knees in front of a closed coffin with her remains inside.
It was exquisite.
The coffin, resting on knee high trestles, was draped in an ornate and rich purple and gold fabric and on either side an explosion of flower bouquets blew to the ceiling. It formed an opulent makeshift shrine, and took up nearly a quarter of the room. There was a large color photograph of her from better days, her mischievous grin and twinkling eyes greeting us all, and in front of her a plate of fresh food lay along with various objects she had loved when alive.
Before the shrine stood a small table with an incense urn, a box of incense sticks and a metal prayer bowl. We were instructed to light an incense stick, stand it upright in the ash in the urn (this is why, in Japan, it is extremely impolite to stand your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice for any reason), strike the bowl once and say a prayer for her.
And then, as the Japanese do on any occasion, we had a huge lunch, the bowl singing periodically as new mourners arrived and the plates of food piled nearly as high as the flowers. Family and friends sat around and reminisced quietly about her life, laughed and cried at anecdotes and nostalgia. When it was dark, everyone left and we went to my father-in-law’s house to rest and prepare for the next day.
The following morning, a priest dressed in full regalia swished in through the very same patio doors her body had been found next to. We all knelt in solemn rows behind him as he sang a sutra, and when he was finished the purple and gold cloth was whisked quietly aside and the coffin was brought to rest on the ground in front of us. Assistants from the funeral home gently stepped forward, pulled the lid away from the coffin and we found ourselves staring into the cold, gentle face of death.
Giving time and space to those who needed to grieve, each was given a chance to step forward and spend a few, final moments with her body.
With all emotions washed and tended to we were ushered to gather around the coffin, and as we did so the priest slowly began to cover her face with snow white chrysanthemums, inviting us to participate, and she disappeared from view like a grey duckling under a swan’s wing.
The funeral assistants then asked for any personal belongings she may have wanted to keep, and a few things like her glasses and other daily personal items were placed inside the coffin before the lid was replaced and the funeral director started solemnly nailing it shut with powerful, deliberate strokes from an extraordinarily ornate golden hammer.
With each blow, an eternity resounded in my chest, out beat my heart, and left me breathless.
At this I was completely astounded, I had not expected to be in the same room when they did this, but when it came to the final nail of the coffin I tensed in disbelief. The funeral director graciously proffered the hammer to the eldest son who stepped forward and started hitting in the final nail, just enough for it to take the wood but not all the way in. Then, to my amazement, I realized each one of us was to file past the coffin and take one knock at the nail with the ornate hammer until everyone present had driven it in, sealing her in forever.
We had all made the bowl sing in her memory. We had all seen her grimacing in death. We had watched her drift into peace under a carpet of white flowers and had seen the coffin being closed and sealed and now we had made damn sure she wasn’t coming back out.
The finality of it—the inescapable brutality—was liberating.
I can only contrast it with memories of my own grandmother’s catholic funeral. She died of cancer and it had torn away any remnants of her beauty and dignity. Hers was not an open casket. I have a vague recollection of an ornate box draped with flowers being wheeled up a windy aisle in an echoing church, reverberating eulogies lost in time. The remoteness of her death, along with the fact that none of us younger children had been allowed to see her in hospital for the last few weeks of her illness pushed her disappearance from this life into the abstract, the unreal.
On some level she never really died for me, she remains just out of reach and inaccessible, frustratingly so – just sleeping you know?
In the West we do ourselves a great disservice with these euphemisms; the long sleep; going to another place; and the many others we baste onto the essential horror of dying, greasing the terrible pill to make it easier to swallow. They imply that in some way the person who has died still has tendency of the living, is still doing something.
There is no such space in the Japanese ceremony for this empty solace.
The dearly departed is dead, you help to confirm that, even place a flower of your own over their frozen eyes and pallid cheeks. You bury them yourself, physically as well as symbolically and it is ultimately a very peaceful and relinquishing experience.
It’s this fusion of both the physical and the symbolic that is so powerful.
It’s so far beyond any previous experience of death I have experienced in the West.
My father died while I was traveling overseas and his ashes were kept in a box until my return some years later where we threw them into the sea on his favorite beach, but there was no finality like that of the Japanese funeral—he was not those ashes.
But, in Japan there is no doubt about the connection, no abstraction. The body is there, you see that it no longer has life and then you see it go into the furnace and wait the 30 odd minutes for the damn thing to burn while trying to eat another huge lunch.
It doesn’t answer any big questions like where she is now, or what happens after we die, and it most certainly doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend, but what it does do is allow us to come to terms with the reality that whomever lit up that particular life, and animated that mischievous grin, is resolutely not here anymore.
We all drove the final nail into the coffin, and until we ourselves die, death doesn’t get more visceral than that.