Earlier in the year, I got to experience something very Japanese that not so many of the foreigners I know have got to encounter. No, I’m not talking about mud festivals, sumo wrestlers making babies cry or even playing Pantsu Getta but I’m referring to a attending a funeral.
Sadly, my wife’s grandmother on her mother’s side passed away back in February. She was in her 80’s which is a typical lifespan in a country where the life expectancy of Japanese women is just over 86 thus making them the world’s longest-lived females.
I didn’t feel it was appropriate to write about such an event at the time but now a fair amount of time has passed, and in the wake of Halloween and all things spooky, it seems like a good time to regale some of the events of what is a two day event in Japan. Remember that this is my version of events, some of the details are a bit sketchy (and quite probably wrong!) and of course no offence is intended by my ignorance and lack of knowledge!
Throughout both days I was often asked what funerals are like in the UK and how they differ but it was really difficult to answer as fortunately I’ve only ever been to one; my grandma’s in late 2002. I was unable to attend my best mates in May 2004 so my ideas of funerals are almost solely based on soap opera’s like ‘Eastenders‘ and ‘Neighbours‘ and movies like ‘Four Weddings & A Funeral‘ (1994), ‘The Dark Knight‘ (2008) or ‘My Girl‘ (1991). As this one was in Japan, my mind was awash with funeral scenes from the likes of ‘The Wolverine‘ (2013) and ‘The Karate Kid Part II‘ (1986) but in reality things were very different.
On the first day, we arrived at my wife’s uncle and aunt’s house in Saitama and as I walked into the tatami room to hang up my coat I was very shocked to see the dead body lying there! It seems that the deceased often spends a last night in the home and sometimes the family even sleep in the same room as the body!
Some time later, a few men arrived and the body was put in the coffin and carried to the car where it was taken to the otsuya which is similar to the wake ceremony in the western world. We followed later to the two-room place with the main hall possessing the coffin amidst flowers and messages from family, friends and companies relating to them. There was a 40 minute buddhist chanting ceremony called a sutra. No idea what the meaning was but following the lyrics sheet for me was just like reading the furigana script used for Japanese words (foreign words are written using a different script called katakana). We also took turns to go and stand in front of the body whilst offering incense at an urn and moving a grain of powder incense from a bowl to the incense burner.
After that we all had dinner and drinks though I somehow avoided beer which was lucky as I was in the middle of an alcohol-free period which would eventually go on till the end of April and lasted for 114 days!
The next morning, we returned to the same place for a similar ceremony to the Otsuya; a chanting Buddhist priest plus the bereaved burning incense and paying respect to the family of the deceased via a series of claps and bows. I had no idea what I was doing but just had to mimic what my wife was doing from the corner of my eye. At the end we all covered the body in flowers and said a final farewell.
It had all been fairly normal up to that point but for me the weirder stuff was quite literally around the corner. We were all taken in cars to the cremation ceremony where the coffin was put on a drawer thing and slid in to the incinerator where it would be burned. Whilst that was happening we were in another room eating lunch!!
If that wasn’t so weird (different!) then what followed was, as after lunch we returned to the incinerator room where a guy had the deceased’s bones ready on a metal table. He explained which parts of the body each bone was and then in pairs we used long chopsticks to transfer the bones out of the ash and into a burial urn within a box. There is very limited space in Japan for dead bodies so just the bones are interred in the family grave. That box was then sealed and outside the place some of the family even posed for photos with it and the giant framed picture of her.
It wasn’t until I returned to work after this event and passed on the above details to colleagues and students alike that I realised what an interesting experience I’d encountered but it’s one I’m in no rush to repeat anytime soon.