Saturday, June 28, 2008

Above the Purple Clouds

My grandmother-in-law passed away late last week. She was the best, most sweetest grandma figure I've ever known. And she was beautiful.

In Japan you keep an altar for the deceased relatives and on that altar you display a picture of the loved one(s). I was proud that they chose a picture I had taken of her about a year before she collapsed due to a stroke. It was taken at a BBQ we had. She had never been to a BBQ (American style) before so I took a lot of pictures that day.

Here's the picture:

This was my first Japanese funeral. It is a vast and surreal thing, a lot of ceremony and ritual, incense smoke and chanting. I've never been to a funeral back home but I really liked this one.

{Although I must say I do despise the funeral industry here. They charge outrageous prices, the most expensive the world over. For example, after a person dies he gets a new name, a Buddha name. One reason they do it I've read is because if you say the person's name he'll come back (in ghostly form) so they should have a new special name that you wouldn't normally call them by. But these names cost big bucks...the 'better' the name the more money you have to fork out.}

A very abbreviated version of a Japanese funeral:

She passed on Wednesday afternoon. Relatives went to see her and began making plans. Everyone was notified.

Thursday was the day everyone came into town and all the details were worked out about the funeral.

Friday at four in the afternoon there was a special ceremony where she was decorated and groomed by the family. I was supposed to attend but had to pick up my husband from the station and missed it. Anyone who wants to put something in the casket can slip it in beneath her white futon. My husband, a rock'n'roll nut and musician, added a casset tape with the song "Stairway to Heaven" on it. He did this the next day when they allowed more mementos to be added.

At six is the wake. Lots of chanting and incense and viewing. When that is over the immediate family is taken upstairs and fed tons of sushi and beer and tea and other snacks. At about eight we go back downstairs into a tatami-matted room. There is more food and drinks and they actually roll the casket into the room. So in effect we are partying around her/with her. People go up and talk to her, whisper things into her ear. It is all very ... affectionate. Several family members spent the night with her making sure that a continuous stream of incense was lit, the smoke in effect helping to carry her soul to heaven.

Saturday is the funeral. We all show up again at eleven, much chanting, incense, talking. At one point we are presented with a tray full of chrysanthumum blossoms, white ones, just the tops no stems. Everyone lines up and we each put one near her face, surrounding it. The same is done with yellow flowers. The top is put on the casket and the window opened. She looks lovely framed in flowers.

Next four nails are placed in holes at the four sides of the casket and again everyone lines up. We take turns hammering the nails in with a block of marble. Two hits. Whap whap. The oldest son finishes the job hammering in the one at her head last.

Here is a picture of one of the rooms.

She is taken outside. We follow. She's placed in the hearse, which happens to be a Benze mini van and with a monk in the front seat chanting the driver honks the horn one long time. This is called shukan and everyone bows their head and prays while the car drives to the crematorium. A bus takes some people there. It was close so most of us walked.

There we see her into the actually room where they'll cremate her. Again, prayers. It is about one o'clock and we are shown into a room where we again eat and drink. After a few hours an announcement is made and we all gather into a very surreal round room, completely dark except for a round skylight. The room itself is round and there is no furniture. Instead, in the middle is a metal cart on wheels with the bones. A dustpan carries other bones (the head). Everyone lines up in twos. We take turns using long chopsticks (one round-shaped, one square) placing the bones into the urn. Two people pick up one bone with their chopsticks. Most people leave and the immediate family finishes up placing bones into the urn. The guy makes sure we got everything then he takes the bones from her head and places them on top. He closes it and gives it to the eldest son. The urn, her Buddha name (written on a small slat of wood) and the picture is then taken back to the funeral home where the funeral proceeds.

By five or six all the chanting, incense giving and euglogies were done and we are again ushered uptstairs to eat. This time the meal is huge with sushi, rice, snacks and obentos. Again lots of alcohol and drinks. Great grandma's urn, name and picture are placed at the head of the room. A few hours of this and everyone is ready to head home.

Here is the obento everyone got. No one could finish it so most people took it home to finsish later.

Two layers.

It was really good.

We are also given a bag full of gifts as we leave. These are usually tea and seaweed. On one one of the boxes is a small bag of salt. You are supposed to sprinkle it over yourself before you enter your house. It's a way of making sure you don't bring home any bad spirits from the crematorium.

I'm really going to miss her.


Tigermama said...

I`m so sorry to hear about your Grandmother-in-law. It`s wonderful that you had a good relationship with her. Take care.

Katarina-bakajo said...

We have big funerals in my family to. It's crazy with the beer and the food stuffs and the music. It bugs me that in my family, you can party while someone close to you died... and then I think... it's nice that you can be happy... well, maybe not happy but celebrative of someones long life. And then the funeral isn't about death, it's about rejoicing about one's hopefully long or at least happy good life, and the lasting effects they've had on you. I'm also sorry about hearing of her death but, I hate it when people say I'm sorry, cause death isn't something anyone should be sorry about. I hope you move on well and remember her always ~♥

Kappa no He said...

Thank you Tigermama, that was so kind of you to comment.

Katarina, yea, at first I was confused but in the end that's what it felt like...celebrating her life and all the good memories. She was actually bedridden for seven years and even her son said he wished she would have been taken earlier because she had to have suffered so. Despite the alcohol and laughter there were a lot of tears.

Gina said...

I'm very sorry about your grandmother in law as well. : ( She looked like a very kind and wonderful woman, you could see that in her picture.

Also, I have been to many Catholic funerals in the US. However, I have never been to a funeral in Japan before. I am sure I will at one point.: ( But it has always made me wonder what they were like here. I found your post really informative. Like the part you said about the picking up the bones with chopsticks, that sort of thing I never knew about. Anyway, it sounds like the whole funeral is done in a respectful manner, and like you said a celebration of life as well.

I really am sorry for your loss. :(

Hilary said...

Awww Terrie, I'm so sorry for your loss. It sounds as if she was a much-loved woman, leaving behind some beautiful memories. Your post was fascinating - and mixed with sadness and pride. Condolences to your family.

Anonymous said...

My condolences, Terrie. I hope the eulogy went well.

I was curious: the bento in the pictures is 8-sided. Is that significant? I've never seen an octagon bento box before.


Kappa no He said...

Gina, thank you for your comments. My family back home is Catholic, but I've never been to a Catholic funeral. I am curious though. The bone thing was quite surreal but not as morbid as I thought it would be.

Hilary,I really wanted to write more about her. How during the war she would take her four children and run to the nearest tunnel (over an hour away) to hide when the air raid sirens sounded. She did that every day for months.

J, I bet that does have meaning...I'll have to look it up. More details Monday!

david mcmahon said...

Hilary sent me here - and I'm so glad I came.

My deepest sympathy for your loss - but what a way to honour a remarkable person.

Hilary said...

Terrie, please do write more about her when you can. She sounds like she was an incredible woman. I'm sure it would be fascinating.

Kappa no He said...

Hello David! Thank you Hilary for sending him. I went through my photo albums and found some great pictures of her. They really brought back memories. I will definitely work up something just about her.

Ello said...

I'm so sorry about your grandmother-in-law. She looked like a beautiful soul from her picture and I know you will miss her. Was this a Buddhist ceremony? I don't do well at funerals but hers sounded lovely. And the obento box looked too pretty to eat. I hope your husband and son are doing well. But it did sound like a lovely way to say goodbye.

Kappa no He said...

Ello, thank you. Yea, it was Buddhist. But what was interesting was that it is kind of an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism (called sokkagakai) and part way through the head monk's speech he started tauting how wonderful his sect was, how we should all join and spread the word. Julyan leaned over and said, "If he doesn't stop advertising his religion and talk about Fumibaachan, I'm going to raise my hand and stop him." Thank goodness the monk returned to his eulogy because having a twelve-year old stop the ceremony to tell him he was completely tactless would have been a tad embarrassing (although I agreed).

laughingwolf said...

so sorry for your loss, she looks like a grand lady :(

womaninawindow said...

Never know what to say...sorry for your loss...

I like to see that you are all given a voice during such a ceremony. So much more than standing in a stale hall, quiet and burdened. A little chanting could help anyone's spirit, I think.

Pat - An Arkansas Stamper said...

Your post is a wonderful tribute to your grandmother, and a fascinating look at the funerary customs of her country and religion. Thank you for sharing these intimate moments with us.

Arrived from authorblog David's Post of The Day, which you well deserve.

CrazyCath said...

I arrived from Authorblog too. My condolences on your loss and thank you for the insight into a Buddhist funeral This is especially nice for me because my dad turned buddhist, and one day, I will have to organise this because it is what he wants. Although in the UK, it will not be on such a grand scale (I hope!) and I know the monastery he attends will guide us.

She looks a beautiful and remarkable woman. Thanks for sharing.

Kappa no He said...

Laughingwolf, thank you.

Womaninthewindow,I do so enjoy the chanting. And sokkagakai has a very simple chant you just say over and over. Even I could participate.

Pat, thanks to you too. I'll have to go see David's Post of the Day. I'm a little dim about these things.

CrazyCath, I would love to see a Japanese funeral done in another country. There were really many more details I didn't go into. But I imagine though they wouldn't all be used. Sometimes the ceremony can get quite confusing. Even the Japanese don't understand a lot of the meaning behind it.

Sandi McBride said...

The Oriental people revere their elderly and ancestors in a way which we should's an endearing custom, I think. The funeral sounded quite lovely

Kappa no He said...

Yes, and I live in a smaller town so you often get many generations living together under one roof. It's really an eye opener.

Frank Baron said...

Sounds like a darn good way to send someone off. There are similarities with Ukrainian funerals - what with the feasting and drinking.

I'm surprised at how few funerals you've attended! I've been to at least 35. (Large family and unlucky friends.)

You did your grandma-in-law much honour with this post and I'm sure she's proud of you. Count me among those who hope you write more about her. :)

Kappa no He said...

Oh Frank...I'm very, very young. That's why I haven't been to many funerals *cough*cough*

Thanks for the sweet comment.

Mary Witzl said...

I missed this earlier and I am so sorry!

Your grandmother-in-law really was beautiful, and what a sweet-tempered face she had. That is a triumph -- to live until you are old and keep a face that is so bright and happy and pretty.

Towards the end of our time in Japan, a friend of ours died and we went to his wake. He was only 38, and the saddest part was that almost everyone there had black hair. At most funerals, most of the mourners have white or grey hair.

The funeral industry in Japan is a disgrace, and it is no wonder that a lot of people choose to convert to Christianity towards the end of their lives just to beat this ridiculous system of filling the coffers of Buddhist priests. A friend of mine lost her father and had to pay the most ridiculous sum for his coffin, his shroud, the priest's gratuity -- the whole thing. Her family was almost bankrupt in the end. It makes me think of that saying, Nakitzura ni hachi -- a bee in a crying face. Bad enough to lose someone you love; not a consolation to get fleeced afterwards.

MDK said...

Hello, Terrie. Please accept my condolences for the loss of your Grandmother-n-law. She was most certainly a beautiful person. It seems as if friends and family had reason to celebrate her life. Your immaculate description of the procession is intriguing. Thank you for sharing this most personal post.