Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Rite to Die

It was dark and still when I walked to Mr. M's house, but that meant I could entertain myself with the beating of my own heart. His family homestead is less than 100 yards from mine, but it seemed like one of the longest walks in my life. You see, Mr. M's mother had died, and it was the night of the meeting to decide what everyone in the neighborhood was to do.

Until then, I had always managed to weasel my way out of those. My father-in-law was always content to do it himself, partly to help reinforce his position as a pillar of the community and partly to reassure his (bloated) ego knowing that he was much better informed about the subject than me. The fact of my being an ignorant foreigner also led mother-in-law to come to my defense on those occasions when father-in-law tried to pop off. Unfortunately, with mom-in-law still in the hospital, dad-in-law going to visit her every day, and a traditional rule that only men of the family are supposed to participate (i.e. no help from the wife), that left me with no other options. I had to do it.

You have to understand; funerals in Japan are large, elaborate affairs that span several days, and the whole neighborhood is involved. Every household is supposed to contribute one or more members (not to mention cash) to help out.

Emphasize the supposed to. You see, I've found that support and participation are endangered species in this neighborhood.

I had attended the memorial service of a few funerals, but I had little exposure to the event as a whole save the one occasion that I participated at the reception desk at one. That didn't even qualify as the icing on the cake. I basically entered Mr. M's house knowing not and knowing that I knew not, i.e. I was a child in need of being taught.

The familiar faces of the menfolk of the neighborhood were there and showing obvious surprise at my presence. After we had each offered a prayer, incense, and a money offering at the (fortunately closed) casket, we sat in a circle, were served tea, and began the meeting in earnest.

The very first role to be filled was clearly the most important one, that of rokushaku (陸尺 or 六尺), for which there is no direct English translation. The first set of Chinese characters literally mean "land measure". The second, which are less common in funerals but far more common in general use, translate as "quarterstaff", or at least a pole of about 180cm length. In archaic Japanese, both sets of characters mean the same thing with regard to the role. Basically, the rokushaku serve as gravediggers, pallbearers, acolytes, and a whole lot of other things. They more or less carry the rite through in the service of the priest. They also prepare the materials used. It's an intimidating task, and few really know the ropes. (In fact, few Japanese I know, even at my school, even know what the word means.) Because of that, the job tends to fall to the same group every time.

Every time but this time, anyway. Two of the regular members immediately bowed out for uncertain reasons. That left both the neighborhood committee and Mr. M's family with a serious dilemma. You see, while dad-in-law is a chronic workaholic, the other men of the neighborhood are far less motivated. Actually, I've found them to be quite apathetic and uncooperative. Needless to say, when the chairman tried to find someone else to fill the spots, no one was forthcoming. The chairman asked everyone with increasing desperation, but the responses ranged from, "Well, you see, I, uh...well, uh...," to a brusque, "No way." A couple of men responded with icy silence.

As for me, participation was out of the question. The day of the funeral was the day that kicked off the new school year at the Academy. Classes weren't to begin for a few more days yet, but it was to be the day of the infamous First Meetings ("ta-da" in a diminished 7th key), when the staff and policy changes were announced and new roles decided. There is always a lot of work to do on such days, and missing them is never a good idea.

I put up my hand. "I'll do it," I said.

Every mouth dropped open. Hard.

When the chairman had scooped his jaw off the floor and put it back into place, he stammered, "Er, uh...are you sure your father-in-law can', uh..."

"He's not coming," I retorted. "I'll do it."

The chairman, no doubt afraid I'd change my mind, wrote my name down with record speed, and the meeting went on. Not surprisingly, volunteers for other, less bothersome roles were immediately forthcoming.

When it was all done, the other members of the rokushaku crew told me to be there promptly at 8 a.m. and suggested I stick close to them and follow their lead. As I walked home, I was barraged with comments of, "How noble you are," spoken with a tone of voice that suggested, "You're a bloody idiot!"

Cut to today, the day of the big event. I asked dad-in-law what I should wear, and he said as much black as possible. Therefore, I put on black trousers, black socks, a black, long-sleeve polo shirt, and a black coat. However, as soon as the Mrs. sees me she blows her stack. You see, the black coat was a birthday present from her, and my job promises to be a dirty, sweaty one. Frothing at the mouth, she demands I take the coat off and put on my black Oregon State hooded sweatshirt instead. I figure it's not worth fighting about, so I comply. Just in case, I toss my black suit and funeral necktie in the back of my BLUE RAV4 and head out.

It's cold and pouring down rain today, and I arrive at Mr. M's house to discover I have a flat tire. The first thing the rokushaku crew does is help me change it. Embarrassed before even having begun, I take my car back home and return on foot. Then the real work begins. Fortunately, Mr. M's family has provided us with rain parkas purchased at 7-11.

I can't help noticing that my fellows on the team are all wearing their regular (blue collar) work clothes. Not only am I the only foreigner, but I'm the only one all in black save the oh-so-noticeable, orange lettering on my sweatshirt. I feel like a total idiot. It's even worse when we set to work making the various traditional ornaments for the ceremony, because I've never even seen them before. I do manage to make myself useful, however. I also manage to slice my thumb wide open while whittling down a strip of bamboo with my old Boy Scout knife. (I cut it on the bamboo, not the knife. That stuff is nasty!)

Once the initial preparations are all finished, we take them over to the local temple and set them up as best we can. The rain is proving to be a serious nuisance. Not only is it cold and, well, wet, but the grass fibers used to bind everything together are soggy and snap at the least provocation. The paper hangings with their sutras in beautifully-written Chinese characters are disintegrating as we work. Things are taking forever, and we don't have forever. It winds up being a case of, "Oh, screw it! Good enough! Next!"

Once we are more or less done, we are taken to the funeral hall, where the first of many ceremonies is already underway. Accompanied by the eerie sound of the priest's Buddhist chanting and ringing of gongs, we pop into the back room for a quick bite and some tea, coffee, and vitamin drinks. (Can you say "WIRED"???!?) Then we're on standby for the next part of the ceremony. We tie blessed cloths around our chests and necks (foregoing the headbands because of the rain) and are given new, blessed shoes to wear so we don't wind up being possessed. Then we are ushered into the ceremony hall. Our job is to distribute flowers to the mourners, who then toss them into the open casket as they say their farewells. Needless to say, there is a lot of wailing going on (when people stop staring at me). After all, the deceased woman was a beloved sister, mother, and grandmother.

Unfortunately, the youngest grandson, aged 4, is a horrible, unsufferable brat. After watching him throw several screaming tantrums in the course of five minutes, noisily demand that he either be picked up or allowed to ring the gongs, and then try to open his dead grandmother's eyes (and go into a shrieking fit when he is stopped), I can't help thinking what an angel my son is by comparison (and that's saying a lot, believe me!) The little monster's elder sister, a classmate and friend of my daughter, gives a very touching, tearful farewell speech over her brother's screams and then does what the adults cannot: she literally pounds him into line. When reason and indulgence don't work, sibling violence often does. We're all very close to giving her a round of applause.

Once all that is done, we close the casket and carry it out to the hearse. It takes us a while to get underway because the little s**t is determined to get in the hearse, too, and he can' he is running and rolling around shrieking in the parking lot. Once again big sister comes to the rescue, and we finally get the parade going to the crematorium. I get on the charted minibus with the family, and it is a macabre ride. The atmosphere in there is, well, heavy. As we make our way along the road through the gloomy, rain-soaked fields of Namegata City, not a word is spoken. I don't feel like I could say anything if I tried. The stillness is oppressive, and it's only appropriate. This family is accompanying a dear one on her final journey, and I feel honored to be there with them...even in my Oregon State sweatshirt.

Fortunately, the rokushaku team doesn't tarry at the crematorium long. We carry the casket in, participate in the final words of farewell, and are in attendence as the casket is loaded into the cremation chamber, but then we are off to the temple to make the final preparations. As for the family, they will wait until the body is cremated, and then they will use special chopsticks to pick out the surviving bone fragments and place them in the burial urn. I don't regret not being there for that. Instead, we return to the temple to find the rain has made a mess of our earlier preparations. Somehow, I wind up being the handyman doing the repair work. Meanwhile, the other members lug the new, temporary gravepost (a post of wood on which the deceased's "living name" and newly-given "afterlife name" are written) up to the gravesite for Mr. M's family. (Hmm...a grave pole. Perhaps that's why the job is called "rokushaku" [六尺].) I join them as soon as my hands are free. The ground in the grave area is now the consistency of JelloTM Pudding, but we somehow get everything ready to go. Then we have only to wait standing under the eaves of the temple, shivering in the cold.

The bus arrives almost half an hour late (because of the brat? I shan't ask). Then we start the pre-burial rituals. Apparently funeral traditions vary widely from place to place, particularly if different sects of Buddhism are involved. Here I get a glimpse of that first hand. The relatives and well-wishers who have come from outside our area have no idea what to do (and neither do I), so the priest talks us through it. Basically, they form a circle around a sort of gate we have constructed. Then, carrying special ritual poles we have made and the burial urn, they walk around the gate three times and then pass through it as the priest chants. We then head to the grave, where the urn is inserted in the burial cell and offerings placed in front of the new gravepost. (I don't participate in this last bit because I'm carrying the incense. Determined to keep it dry, I bundle it under my rain parka and hold it carefully as we move along. As it turns out, the priest decides to bag the incense bit altogether. It's too wet. I get to bundle the incense back out again...looking like I'm pregnant or something.)

Our work is now complete. The last step is to burn our protective cloths and then go back to the funeral hall, where the family has prepared a banquet. This is when find I've made another grievous error. I gave a monetary offering from our family at the meeting, but I didn't bring one today. I didn't think I needed another one (and my wife apparently forgot), but it seems you're supposed to give money every time you go to any of the events related to a funeral. That can be expensive if you attend everything. I realize with horror that I've just insulted Mr. M, one of few men in the neighborhood who is always really friendly with me. Oh, well. I'll find a way to make it up to his family later. That would be the American thing to do.

Thus ends my experience working as a rokushaku for a neighborhood funeral. It was some pretty demanding on-the-job training for a very demanding tradition. Now that I have a better idea what to do, there is a very good chance they'll ask me to do it again. After all, not many people are able...or do it.

Then again, maybe they won't ask me again. Oh, well. Time to buy some new tires.


  • That was beautiful, Mr. 陸尺!!!

    Chinese often said that the deceased will not remember anything in their previous life, including their family. But we don't have any name for afterlife, though.

    But no doubt, like chinese, funerals are very much a community thing, that money suport, known as 白金,(literaly means 'white gold' in chinese) are expected. Some eldery often have their so-called 'coffin money' (棺材本) -- saving kept to handle their own funeral. Me? I have insurance, hehe...

    I would loved to see some photos here, but you are a good teacher, I guess :)

    By Blogger @ロウ 。LOW@, at 3:57 PM  

  • Otsukare sama deshita, MM.
    Well, those teams of helpers are usually supervised by seniors or someone who has experiance. Here in my neighborhood, they are called "Otoko-ra" for men, "Onna-ra" for women.

    By Anonymous j-apricot, at 6:04 PM  

  • Okay, I finally got a bit of explanation from a Japanese language teacher at my school.

    The term "rokushaku" originally referred to palanquin bearers in ancient times. Apparently the mounting poles were of a standard six "shaku" in length. Apparently deceased were also originally carried in palanquins...until Western-style caskets became the norm.

    Just thought I'd point that out!

    Some deceased are probably better off not remembering. ;-) I'm surprised to hear you don't have a tradition of "death names", since Buddhism came to Japan from China by way of Korea. Maybe it's something that was invented by Japanese Buddhist sects.

    Sorry about the lack of photos. I didn't bring a camera or my cell phone...and I doubt I would have used them if I had.

    I've heard the terms "otoko-ra" and "onna-ra" used before, but seniors were very much in short supply this time. (Maybe that's why they wanted my father-in-law to be there so badly.) The chief advisor for the rokushaku team was the fifty-something-year-old man who owns and runs the only restaurant/pub in our area. He was also the only one in the group who fully understood how to prepare all the ornaments and things. Other than that, except when we were at the temple (where the priest helped out), we were on our own.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:42 PM  

  • Wow, you're brave.

    What an interesting inside (dare I say "underground"?) story. We have a temple down the street as you know and there is a crematorium just down the hill from us and I've seen the activity around these places for funerals. K has told me a bit about them, but your post is most illucidating.

    Thanks for volunteering.

    I also learned a new word - acolyte. I was guessing it was something you add to a car battery.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:35 PM  

  • very interesting funeral. I like the idea of having an afterlife name though. Its like obtaining a new identity.

    By Blogger saba, at 12:12 AM  

  • The tradition of a Buddhist name (Homyo in some sects) is an ancient one. I was told that when people wanted to join the Buddha and become part of the "sanga" (followers) the laws of the time required some kind of ceremony. When one wanted to become a monk, it was being "adopted" into the sanga, so a new name was given. In those times, monks took on that new name and abandoned their old one.

    The homyo is given in a rite called kie-shiki during which the member makes a pledge the Dharma (teachings) Buddha, and Sanga (fellowship). In Hawaii temples this is usualy conducted by the Bishop. It is a rite for the living, but many members don't get around to doing it and so it is conferred upon their death.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:58 AM  

  • With regard to the blessed cloths and blessed shoes, for the Chinese, if Taoist/Buddhist rites are observed, the grieving family members will wear specially-made clothes for the occasion. They are of different colours to denote whether they are children (sons and unmarried daughters), son-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. For one familiar with such setups would be able to tell the status of the person by just the colour of clothes he wears. During the prayers and the ceremony, grieving members are not allowed to wear shoes, only white socks. There are lots of other do's and don'ts but in these modern times, a lot of the traditional do's and don'ts are not being adhered to strictly anymore. People are more practical and westernized I guess.

    MM, thank you for sharing it. Yes, you are very brave and noble to have taken on the task.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 3:32 PM  

  • "People are more practical and westernized..."

    I don't know, happy, if we are that practical at all. You either do it properly or don't do it at all, half-cooked? :p Anyway to blame everything on westernization will be rather unfair to our foreign friends, as we take things for granted as well. And some foreign friends are even trying to get "easternize" :)

    Culture, traditions -- for me is like language without words. Speak or loose it, do it or forget about it!

    By Blogger @ロウ 。LOW@, at 7:45 PM  

  • I find it annoying that you stepped up as rokushaku but that Mr. M still felt insulted that you hadn't brought more money. I guess I could see it from his point of view, but still. When so many demands are placed on the rokushaku, not to mention this was your first time, you'd think there'd be some forgiveness ... Then again this is a difficult time for them and they're probably not thinking straight.

    I think it's excellent that you stepped up and participated so deeply in this rite. I remember early on in your LitLotRS emails you often mentioned that you were more aware of Japanese culture and history than the locals. And so it continues. Though it's painful and difficult to work at something you have no experience in, in the end you may end up being the elder the community looks to (and if they don't like it they can step up to the plate themselves!) and that gives you the freedom to set a fresh tone for a flagging neighborhood spirit.

    Awesome entry.

    By Blogger Kami, at 10:34 PM  

  • Saba
    Welcome back! Yes, it was quite an experience...rather eye-opening at times. Well, if the afterlife is like being reborn, a new name is only appropriate, right?

    Thanks for being such a valuable fountain of knowledge, as always!

    Wow, that's pretty elaborate!

    I don't think I'd say "Westernized". I'd say "decadent". Of course, you might say the two terms do kind of go hand in hand, but any people will pick and choose the culture they prefer, and people tend to follow the path of least resistance. (Was that cynical, or what?)

    Very well said! Thanks!

    I find it annoying that you stepped up as rokushaku but that Mr. M still felt insulted that you hadn't brought more money.

    I think I'd better clarify that issue so that there's no misunderstanding. Actually, neither Mr. M nor anyone in his family ever said anything about it. The complaint that I'd insulted him was implied rather than stated directly (as is usually the case in Japan), and it came from the men at the reception counter and my fellow rokushaku. Basically, the latter handed in their money, and when I didn't they looked positively shocked. Meanwhile, the reception crew all sighed and shook their heads.

    Of course, dad-in-law did make a stink about it, but that's normal.

    Thanks, Kami.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:51 PM  

  • Reading this, brought back some memories of my Uncle funeral a couple of years back. I came down to LA from Portland and spend a total of five days down there. As part of the families I had several parts to play in this, and helping to move my Uncle from the gurney into coffin and interesting experience. Going to the various ceremony and in the end helping monetary to the cost of funeral. I was totally lost in lots of the ceremony and can relate to what you probably experienced. Sounds like you did a good job anyway.

    By Anonymous Viet, at 1:39 AM  

  • Low, you're right. 'Westernized' may be a wrong choice of word. What I meant was that people are more exposed to the Western ways that they find their own traditions too cumbersome to practise. Either that or we've lost knowledge of the actual traditional do's and don'ts and our elders are not so particular anymore.

    We may still be practising our traditions and cultures but are we doing it right? I believe as time goes by, bits and pieces get eroded away ('decadent' as suggested by MM but in no way related to being Westernized, of course).

    MM, "Basically, the latter handed in their money, and when I didn't they looked positively shocked. Meanwhile, the reception crew all sighed and shook their heads.

    Of course, dad-in-law did make a stink about it, but that's normal."

    -- Hope you're not affected by this. You did great!

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 10:16 AM  

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