Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Time of Parting

The mourners continued to come followed soon afterward by the first relatives arriving to help. For the entire day on the 29th my MIL's body was left in state on cushions looking for all the world like she was only sleeping...except for the cloth covering her face. (There were also dry ice packs hidden under her blanket since embalming is not practiced in Japan.) We kept ourselves busy mainly cleaning up and clearing space (i.e. what the relatives had tried to do earlier until MIL had told us to stop them) so that we would be ready to accommodate somewhere around a dozen people. A lot of that work, thankfully enough, was left to the relatives so that my wife and I could attend to the steady stream of mourners.

On the 30th the businesslike young man from the funeral hall arrived with a truckload of gear. It used to be that the body of the deceased was left in a normal sleeping position until the funeral. Things have changed a bit in modern times, particularly on account of the hot, muggy summer. (No complaints from me!) MIL's body was placed in a dry-ice-packed casket with a trapdoor over her head so mourners could still speak to her. An altar was also set up in front so the mourners could place incense and offer a prayer. White curtains were placed to cover up the motley assortment of bookshelves and chests along the walls.

mil cask2

On the left side of the picture you can see the brown case of MIL's taishogoto (大正琴), a musical instrument based on the koto but fingered by pressing keys. (See an example video here. MIL's is a practice type like this one and doesn't have a wide body like the concert types in the video.)

A memorial "hanawa", or flower wheel, was also placed in front of the house.


It used to be that funerals were held at the household of the deceased, so it would end up surrounded by hanawa brought by well-wishers. Now that funeral halls have become more common, hanawa are usually placed there instead of at the household. That's why there was only one here.

In addition to helping greet and tend to the arriving mourners while at the same time looking after our guests and tidying up the place, I got to provide a taxi service between our house and the Suigo-Itako Bus Terminal, about a twenty-minute drive away in Itako. I don't know how many times I made the trip in my BLUE RAV4, but it was a lot. The highway bus is, after all, the most convenient way to get here from Tokyo, and vice versa.

On the evening of the 30th we had the obligatory neighborhood meeting. Every time there is a death in the neighborhood, each household is required to send at least one representative to a meeting to discuss the schedule of the funeral events and also decide who will do what. (I have already participated in several.) In most cases the funeral happens within a few days of the death. For a number of reasons, however, it wound up being delayed a little. That did raise a few eyebrows, but everyone understood. There was also none of the usual difficulty assigning roles; so many of our neighbors are actually relatives that the most demanding roles were snapped up immediately. It really helped. The meeting went smoothly, and the real planning got underway without any bumps.

The 31st and 1st were both pretty much more of the same. Everyone expected the tide of mourners to be ebbing, but it kept right up fairly constantly. In fact, at one point a whole group of ladies who had been fellow members of the taishokoto club my MIL had belonged to showed up at once. That was a touching display of loyalty, but it was understandably hard for my wife. I was thankful we had aunts and cousins on standby to take care of the traditional female roles in such situations. Meanwhile, more relatives continued to come. As before, the overwhelming majority were from my FIL's amazing family spread all over the country. A few of MIL's siblings finally arrived, some of them apparently after a bit of coaxing, and we had to step lightly to prevent the event from turning into a very unfortunate family feud. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. In the evening it was all beginning to seem like more of a giant double-family reunion than a funeral.

The 2nd of August was when things really got started. In the late afternoon we all changed into our black suits and relocated to the funeral hall for the first of two funeral services, this being the "Tsuya" (通夜 - literally meaning "night of passage"). The Tsuya is a relatively small and low-key event attended mainly by family members and very close friends, although it is also common for people to come if they can't make it to the main funeral the next day. The priest who led the event was the one from our local temple, an old friend of the neighborhood and the family. There was a lot of ritual, a lot of chanting and ringing of bells (which is always very intense), and finally people coming up to the altar one by one to offer incense and a prayer.

After the Tsuya was finished, we gathered in the funeral hall's dining hall for a "purification" (i.e. a drinking party). Then the plan was for two of the uncles, one from each extended family, to remain at the funeral hall overnight to keep vigil. Meanwhile, the rest of the relatives (those that weren't cutting and running, at least) were to be led to a hotel in Itako for the night. Once again I had been fingered to be a guide and a BLUE taxi driver. That HAD BEEN the plan, at least. Once again, things changed at random, and I was suddenly told by my FIL that I had to stay at the hall overnight. I was pretty irritated, to say the least, since I hadn't made any preparations to do so. I wound up rushing home, changing, throwing together my overnight bag, grabbing a sleeping mat, and hurrying back to the hall so I could assume my vigil duties. No sooner did I get there than I was told my wife was going to be joining me there later. Not long after that I got a phone call from my wife telling me FIL had "commanded" me to go pick him up at the hotel in Itako, to which he had accompanied his relatives. Forcing my temper down, I drove to Itako...weaving through a festival, of all things...and arrived at the hotel only to find that FIL had apparently flipped out and taken a taxi home alone.

Fortunately, the vigil was quiet and uneventful.

The next day was the real funeral, called a "sōgi" (葬儀) or "o-sōshiki" (御葬式) in Japanese. It started out very early in the morning with the arrival of the four neighbors who would be the rikushaku (陸尺 - perhaps both "pallbearer" and "gravedigger" would be the best translations, though either term would be an understatement!). (Incidentally, I've never been able to find a dictionary entry for "rikushaku" anywhere, so it may be a local term.) They then began their own ritual preparations.

(As a side note, I was a rikushaku once. It happened a couple of years ago. I volunteered to do it when one of my cooler neighbors lost his mother...and no one else would do it. It was very interesting, if a bit awkward. I did my best, and it seemed to improve my standing in the neighborhood in some ways...while perhaps hurting it in others. I also arrived at the meeting early that morning only to have the others laughingly point out that I had a flat tire. They then eagerly changed it for me, making a big deal of the fact that my spare tire was new and my tire jack unused. I have always wondered about that whole thing, since my tire hadn't been flat the night before and frankly had no reason to BE flat. Ever since then, whenever there is a funeral in the neighborhood, and I'm at the prep meeting, the men fall over each other in the race to volunteer to be rikushaku. The funny thing is that they never did that before I did it. I can't help having a sneaking suspicion that, although I get along with my neighbors well for the most part, someone didn't want me, a gaijin, to be a rikushaku for one of the neighborhood families...)

Some relatives had stayed at the homestead instead of at the hotel, so we had to feed them breakfast. We also had to deal with the arrival of still more relatives, meaning still more BLUE taxi service...and some of them showed up without funeral dress, which meant a mad rush of trying to find things that fit them and doing some speed-shopping when we couldn't. We managed to get everyone to the funeral hall more or less just in time.

The main funeral was definitely a massive event. The crowd not only filled the hall but packed the lobby and extended out the doors into the parking lot. (Considering it was 36 degrees centigrade [97 degrees Fahrenheit] out there and humid enough to be misty, I felt sorry for all those black-suited well-wishers out there!) It is a testimony to my MIL's standing in our area that, overall, including the people who stopped by just long enough to offer condolences and a prayer before the funeral started, more than seven hundred people attended. Considering that every single one of them proceeded to the altar to place incense and pray, the funeral took a long time. (Considering that, as son-in-law, I had to bow to each and every one of them TWICE, my legs and back were starting to get pretty sore by the time it was done.)

The funeral was also unusual in that it was conducted by two priests, the first time I'd ever seen that. The priest from our neighborhood presided, and a much younger one, possibly one in training, assisted. There had been some controversy about that at the planning meeting; the idea of having two priests conducting a funeral seemed odd to some and downright inappropriate to others. However, watching it in action, it all seemed natural. It was no different from Christian church services I'd seen with one presiding and one associate minister. The younger one assisted the senior one and took some of the workload off of his shoulders. Considering the recent hard schedule of our local priest, I'm sure he welcomed the help.

The last part of the funeral was the most difficult. The casket was wheeled out from its place in the altar and opened. Then, after the female master of ceremonies read farewell speeches written by my children (which had everyone in tears...especially my children), people were invited to come up and give their final farewells, placing flowers and/or messages in the casket. Then my FIL was given MIL's ihai (位牌 - memorial tablet), my wife was handed a small, wooden altar tray, and I was handed the large photograph of my MIL that, until then, had been the centerpiece of the altar. We then marched in a procession out of the funeral hall, the presiding priest followed by the casket carried by the four rikushaku who were in turn followed by the associate priest and then everyone else.


This is my MIL's ihai. The small writing on the right and left sides are the date of her death. The big writing in the middle is her death name, i.e. the name given to her soul by the priest. The large photo behind it is what I carried in the procession.

The casket was placed in a hearse, which my wife and FIL boarded. I got on a bus with the kids and everyone else planning to attend the final stage of the funeral...the trip to the crematorium. Once there, there was one last ritual of prayer and farewells, and then we watched as the casket was loaded into the oven. After that we were led to a hall where we waited while eating and drinking (not that I and my family had much appetite) until the cremation was finished. Then we were summoned to the next stage.

Up to that point there had been nothing new for me as I had already participated in a number of funerals here, almost always as a staff representative of the neighborhood. However, the next step was something I'd often heard about but had never witnessed first hand. We were to place my MIL's remaining bone fragments in her burial urn. Basically, all of the participants doubled up, and then each pair used special chopsticks to pick up a single bone fragment in tandem (apparently to make sure it didn't get dropped) and place it in the urn. We were told to leave the head for the director to take care of himself. Anyway, once everyone there had had a turn, the director carefully lifted each piece of the head, held it up for us to see with some explanation, and placed it in the urn, with the very last piece being the top of the skull. Just as the director was about to seal the urn, however, my daughter noticed that there was one little piece left, hiding under the edge of the rack. It was a tooth. Occurrences like that are never taken lightly here, and it made everyone wonder.

The urn was sealed, placed in a box, and wrapped with care. My FIL was handed the ihai again, my wife was given the little altar tray, and then the director started to hand me the urn.

Immediately one of the rikushaku, a relative of my MIL, began to protest quietly but vehemently. He said it was totally inappropriate for me to carry the urn and insisted that it should be left to him. The director politely told him to go bite himself and handed the urn to me. I proceeded to bear my MIL's earthly remains until we got to the temple. Once there the same rikushaku asked me politely if I'd let him carry the urn. FIL said he thought it best, so I politely complied. We then had the final funeral rite in the temple, performed a sort of ritual of passage out in front, and then marched up to the grave. The rikushaku busied themselves there preparing the grave itself, wooden spiritual markers, and temporary decorations that will be there for about a month.

MIL grave

This is the way the gravesite looks now. The bouquets, the wooden altar tray, and the bamboo and paper decoration to the left of the tombstone will be removed after a little while. I think the large wooden post with religious inscriptions on it may also be temporary, though that might be left up to the family. My in-laws purchased the tombstone and had the grave ready years ago (since space is at a premium, especially in temple graveyards). I regret that it is being put to use so soon.

There was another "purification" party afterward, and then the various relatives and friends scattered to the winds to return to their various corners of the Land of the Rising Sun. Things are far from over, however. There will be another funeral rite next month and another one next summer. As I said before, care of the dead is serious business in these islands.

MIL's presence is also still very near. We still have a memorial altar bearing her ihai, photograph, various offerings, and an incense burner in a prominent place in FIL's house. People are still showing up from time to time to offer their prayers and condolences. I've heard it said that, in Asia, people live with the dead all the time. I'm finally beginning to understand that. But I also understand that there is now a MOUNTAIN of work to be done...


  • 朋友:


    更願你岳母在天上之靈, 保佑你們一家平安, 快樂!

    By Blogger PinkPanther, at 5:53 PM  

  • Again, our heartfelt condolences.

    I really appreciate you sharing this experience in such intimate detail with everyone. It is a most personal look into a part of Japanese life (death is a part of life) that few outsiders would otherwise know about, and important since death and how we the living deal with it is something we all must grapple with.

    I will always remember a Buddhist minister on Maui asking the congregation, "what happens when we die?" Many people offered answers - "we go to the pure land", "nothing", "we are reborn", and so on. Finally the minister said, "No. That is not what I meant. What happens is, the living have a funeral." Meaning that, what happens to the deceased is beyond our knowledge and that what matters is how the living carry on.

    Take care. Be well.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:05 PM  

  • it makes me very sad to think of the pain your wife is going through.

    i've never been one for funerals... death is a difficult thing for me... but in saying this, i'm really glad that your family has so many ppl to help out and be there for you. that's so important and it really impresses me how the japanese step up to do their part and be there for everyone. it shows a lot of respect. respect that's missing in many other parts of the world today!

    what does the tooth signify? was this a difficult part of the funeral? i could imagine it being so.

    it surprises me that family would come and not be prepared clothes wise... why is that? is it because ppl wait until the very last minute and then run out of time to buy clothes? i guess signifying why your FIL got upset at your buying clothes so early??

    what was the name the priest gave to your MIL's soul? how do they come up w/ the names?

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 1:04 AM  

  • I appreciate that you were able to share the ceremony with those of us who could not be there. I have fond memories of your MIL from my visit and I will miss her.

    We send our best thoughts your way.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:26 AM  

  • I know it is an intimate thing for you and your family, and so thank you for sharing the tradition with us. It was indeed a learning experience.

    I wonder if rites and rituals in this tradition make death easier to bear than the way we do it in the west?

    Anyway, I thought the cremation ritual was unusual, in that people pick up the pieces and put them in the urn themselves, and like Um Naief I too am curious as to the significance of a piece left outside.

    And once again, my condolences to you, your wife, FIL, and your poor kids.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:14 AM  

  • Pink Panther

    我亲爱的朋友, 总是谢谢您的仁慈。


    That's definitely a very good lesson to remember. Thank you very much.

    Um Naief

    I don't know what the hiding tooth specifically meant if it had any particular meanint. It was rather a faux pas for the crematorium director, however, since the top of the skull is supposed to be the last thing to go into the urn. Some of the people there were saying, "It's just like her, isn't it? She always has to have the last word."

    The people showing up without their funeral clothes really pissed everyone off. We were getting dressed and ready to go, and suddenly one uncle and one aunt said they didn't bring anything to wear. The worst thing was the cousin who showed up right at departure time with only PART of the necessary clothing, i.e. we had to dig to look for things in a mad rush. It was just pure sloppiness and/or laziness on their part.

    As far as the death name, those are always chosen by the priest based on the history of the person in question (and, it is often said, the amount paid, though this priest is an old friend of the family). Simply described, MIL's death name includes bits of her name, the fact that she was a well-known teacher, the fact that she was a beloved sister, and, interestingly, part of the word meaning "stock" (a comment on her stockholdings?).

    I know a number of people who read this blog would have been there if they could, and that's why I wrote this article in such detail.

    Thanks again!

    Yes, m'lady, the bone-placing ritual was a bit of an eye-opener even though I'd heard about it before. People were being remarkably candid about the fact they were looking at and handling bits of my MIL's skeleton. Still, I think it helped bring some closure, because it helped emphasize the end of the mortal life followed by the spiritual life. All those rituals do the same. Yes, I'm sure it does help, but since it all goes on SO LONG closure doesn't come quickly.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:47 PM  

  • I'm sorry to be so late but all my sympathy to u and your family. You must all be going through a hard time especially your wife and FIL... And your kids.. They miss their grandma, don't they?

    Anyway, thank you for sharing such an intimate moment of your life with us :)

    By Anonymous ÅnGe|e, at 1:58 AM  

  • What's going on? Comments keep disappearing and reappearing in this thread! My response to all these comments, someone else's comment that followed, and my reply to that all vanished!

    Blogger, what are you doing?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:30 AM  

  • Ha ha ha ha ha!

    By Anonymous Some disembodied spirit, at 10:31 AM  

  • Angele
    There's no such thing as "late" here. Thank you very much!

    Now what's with this comment thread?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:31 AM  

  • There seems to be a problem with this thread. The last two or three comments aren't appearing or even being counted, but if I add a new comment one of the hidden ones appears instead!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:38 AM  

  • MM, thank you for sharing such details about the rituals and procedures for a the death of a loved one - esp one who was well-respected and known as your MIL. I wonder how the process differs in other parts of LOTRS.

    I'm glad you were not entirely new to all of these details. They sound exhausting. Best wishes for all the rites to follow and for your own family's grieving.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:57 AM  

  • MM, again my condolences to you and your family. Thank you for sharing the experience with us.

    Japanese ritual is somewhat similar to the Chinese Taoist/Buddhist ritual - the white cloth to cover bookracks, the incense (joss-sticks), the bowing, the grave site, the alter at home, the follow-up ceremonies. Ours will be for seven more times, every seventh day after the funeral and one more for the soul returning in about ten days after the funeral. Yes, it's a rather drawn-out ritual after death.

    As for the picking up of bones, for us, the people to do it are those from the deceased immediate family and must be lower in status, e.g, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews.

    We have funeral clothes for immediate family (colour-coded too) but none for others but it is customary to be dressed in sombre colours - no reds, yellows, oranges, etc.

    A death is a great loss. I feel for you. Take care, my friend.

    (I hope my comment will not disappear. Keeping fingers crossed.)

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 2:55 PM  

  • What is with this comment thread?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:29 PM  

  • My heart goes out to you and your family. I truly feel for your children as i was about the same as as your son when I lost my Grandmother.

    take care moody

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 4:12 PM  

  • This post was deleted by the comment.

    By Anonymous Author deleted, at 2:07 PM  

  • Any chance of fixing this thing?

    By Anonymous Sauce, at 2:07 PM  

  • I was mistaken.

    By Anonymous A mistaken individual, at 6:55 PM  

  • Hi Nice Blog . I don't really know a lot about Human anatomy or art, but that's just my 2 cents. Really great job though, Krudman! Keep up the good work!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:32 PM  

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