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.