Inside one of my Christmas cards last year read the message, ‘Hope this year is a better one’ or words to that effect. The meaning of the message relates to the passings of my parents last summer. A kind message from a thoughtful person. However, sadly, on the 19th of January, my father-in-law passed away due to heart failure. He was 75 years of age. Due to his deteriorating mental condition, he had been admitted to a nursing home five months earlier. Nevertheless, is passing was very unexpected. His funeral took place three days later.
In Japan, traditional burials are not the norm, only cremations. From my recent experience, I have found out that Japanese and English cremations contrast considerably. The Japanese employ particular rituals which might appear a little too disturbing for those with a sensitive nature. From my recent experience, my perspective of cremation funerals has changed somewhat.
Part One: The Funeral
The ceremony took place at the Jizo-in Temple in Ome, West Tokyo on Friday, January 22nd. This glorious piece of architecture is located not even a stone’s throw from my in-law’s house. You could say across the road. It was an icy cold yet crystal clear sunny morning. The ceremony began at 10:30 a.m. prompt. The congregation were offered green tea on arrival. By the time we were all inside the temple, there were around 75 people consisting of close family, distant relatives, friends and neighbours. My father-in-law was one of seven children. Incidentally, his oldest brother (85 yrs), the oldest of the seven and his youngest brother (68 yrs), the youngest of the seven, both still survive and were both in attendance at the ceremony.
First, in turn, (always in hierarchical order, I was fourth so I always had to carefully watch what to do. No rehearsals!) everyone knelt and bowed before a large decorative alter inside the temple. The alter consisted of the open coffin which was surrounded by flowers and wooden tablets. Then, each person lit a jostick (senko), placed it upright into a small bowl of sand, chimed a small bell and prayed. Next, the congregation took a seat which are in rows. The close family sat on one side of the room facing friends, relatives etc on the opposite side. Though not a blood-relative, I sat with close-family. In the centre, two priests conducted the service. In this case, father and son, both were facing the temple alter.
Jizo-in Temple in Ome, West Tokyo and its surrounding environment
The older priest then read the sutra (Buddhist scripture) to the congregation. After the reading, my brother-in-law (the eldest brother of the deceased’s family) read a kind of eulogy to the congregation.
The next stage is to burn incense for the departed’s soul. In pairs and in hierarchical order, everyone went to the alter and placed a pinch of incense on the smoldering incense after bringing it close to the forehead. This action is repeated twice. Then, before returning to their seat, each pair bowed twice, first to close family then to the rest of the congregation. While this procession is happening, the priest continued to chant.
After the last pair bowed, like a swift scene change in a theatre, the suited temple staff appeared from behind the scenes and hastily cleared the alter in preparation for final coffin viewing. Pallbearers carefully manoeuvred the coffin from the alter area. The Flower heads were cut off and with origami, are presented (in hierarchical order) to everyone on large steel trays. We placed the flowers carefully around my father-in-law’s body. I think I was presented with flowers and origami at least three times. Though I found this whole experience very over-whelming at first, I soon adjusted and felt more comfortable just by the aura of the spectacle. Also, I was surprised by how composed everyone remained through this ritual. Finally, the coffin lid is sealed and is carried out to the hearse. The family then travelled to the crematorium. The ceremony at the temple took around 90 minutes.
Jizo-in Temple (interior) in Ome. Photographs taken just after the funeral ceremony
Part Two: The Crematorium
The car ride (riding in a newly designed sporty-looking Japanese hearse) to the crematorium took between 10-15 minutes. Once inside, we were directed to the elevators and to the second floor. The building is modern, large and spacious. I felt slightly agoraphobic and once inside the building, I soon lost my sense of direction so it was a case of just following the crowd. From the elevator, we are all herded into a grey-walled, windowless, high-ceilinged, unfurnished, square-shaped room. We waited in silence for a few moments as the coffin was carefully brought in by the pallbearers.
A small window on the coffin lid was opened, my father-in-law now visible again but for the final time. A priest asked everyone to come forward to the coffin to make a final prayer. Again, in order, we clasped our hands together and prayed. The coffin was then moved and placed onto a platform near a wall. One of the crematorium staff, in this case a suited women, opened a discrete operating pad from inside the wall. A section of the wall opened up revealing a dark, rectangular space. The coffin was then electronically transported like a box on a factory conveyor belt into that space. Everyone was asked to pray again. The coffin then slowly disappeared from view and the wall is sealed back to its original state. At this point, I was unaware that the coffin was heading into the vaults of the building and then to the incinerators. We were all led outside the room and taken to the crematorium canteen.
Lunch was served up at 1:00 on the dot. A traditional Japanese meal consisting of delicacies such as sushi (raw fish), miso soup, tempura (fried seafood) and dango (pulped sweet rice) for dessert. My wife, her mother and brother sat with the local priest. I sat next to my wife’s cousins. I usually feel a little anxiety in family situations in Japan, largely due to my hopeless Japanese speaking skills. Fortunately, I had my son and daughter to translate my thoughts and feelings which was a relief.
Lunch at the crematorium
At the end of the meal, I assumed the ceremony had finished though there was one more ritual to come. At 2:00 the crematorium staff led us back up to the same room where we had previously been. I must have been the only one curious to why we were going back into that very room.
Picking the Bones
A table had been placed in the centre of the room. On the table was a large decorative blue and white ceramic urn and a framed photograph of my late father-in-law. Everyone assembled around the table. The wall then magically opened and one of the crematorium staff, took out a large steel tray with a portion of bones and ash on the tray. I must admit I winced when seeing part of my father-in-law’s skull and what looked like his pelvis and shoulder blade bones on the tray. We (members of the family) were then given unusually large thick wooden chopsticks. In pairs, using the chopsticks, we picked up the bones and placed them into the urn. My chopstick dexterity didn’t let me down, thank God. The urn was half filled. However, there was still a considerable amount of bones and ash left by the time all the members of the family had picked the bones. Then, a member of staff intervened. It was obvious he had an important role to play in the next procedure. I vividly remember his white gloves, his movement, poise and grace. First, he placed his hands on the bones inside the urn and gently crushed down. Then, using the chopsticks again, he gathered the remaining bones, each time crushing them down to make space for more. Finally, only the skull and ashes remained. I was relieved to see the skull remained not crushed, he simply placed the part of the skull at the top. Then, using a white bristled brush and a small shiny steel pan, with exquisite manual dexterity, he brushed up all the remains from the steel tray into the urn not leaving a trace of ash. Finally, he placed the urn into a wooden box then covered the box with a decorative Japanese designed cover. We stood and watched in complete silence. I was mesmerized by the whole process. This was a performance.
The bones picking ritual stayed vivid on my mind for days after the ceremony. It was such an astonishing and over-whelming experience for me at the time. Also, I was mystified about the incineration. How could only some bones remain solid while the other bones had dissolved into ash? I later found out that the incinerators are always set to a certain temperature.
Part Three: Paying Respects at Home
The urn, now filled, was taken away from the crematorium with the flowers and the framed photograph by the family. My son held his late grandfather’s photograph in the back of my wife’s car. When we got back to the house, my mother-in-law set up the praying area in her bedroom. Re: Photograph (below)- To the right of his photograph are a wooden tablet with details of his name and age and the urn in its decorative cover. On the next platform (from left to right) are the objects which are used when praying. A candle, a box of matches, a jostick bowl and sand, a vase of josticks, and a small metal pitcher (pot) with chimer. Also, it’s customary for fruit and rice to be displayed too.
The day was still unfinished. Friends, neighbours and my father-in-law’s ex work colleagues came to the house to pay their respects from late afternoon into early evening. My mother-in-law offered green tea and then directed each person to the praying room. The door bell never stopped. Even my brother-in-law’s work colleagues came too. Like my father-in-law, he’s in the construction industry, so there were quite a few builders coming to the house after their work. Finally, after a light supper, by 10:00 p.m. we were all bathed, changed and under our futons. The candles remained burning through the night.
The Praying Room in the House
In Memory of Akio Ogura (1940-2016) R.I.P.
On a final poignant note, it seems that with these recent family passings and all the passings you hear about everyday in the media from cultural rock & pop icons, to politicians and TV personalities, I feel it has starting to take effect on me. I’m in my late 40s and for the first time in my life, I’m starting to consider my own mortality.