I recently experienced my first Japanese funeral.
The husband of one of my fiancée’s older cousins passed away, and I was one of ten people present at the funeral.
My fiancée and I arrived first, and we spent some time waiting in the reception area of the funeral home. The staff were as polite and accommodating as always, but with almost a sense of personal embarrassment in their interaction with us. I couldn’t help but recall the traditional stigma attached to those who work with the dead in Japan—both human and animal—and wondered if these people, as hard working as any others, still suffered under the same social ignominy. Had they served in this field for generations? Or were these people new to the job, falling into the work as one falls into any other second-tier occupation?
When the family had assembled, we were called to view the body. He was placed on a high trolley with a crest on its side, laid in a simple wooden box, the lid slid back to reveal his face. The staff provided flowers for us to place around his head. It was a beautiful gesture, as if we could somehow take part in ensuring his comfort, giving us a final chance to show him some kindness, letting us feel something other than useless. I had never even known this man, but I got to feel that I had done something good for him. After a few minutes, a staff member in what seemed to be a security uniform told us it was time to go, and the lid was slid shut.
We each put a hand on the casket, ferrying him past a zen garden. This, too, was a kindness: I felt as though I were helping a friend take the next step in his journey. The guard-like man took control when we reached the destination. We followed the casket into a giant chamber with eight black doors, each marked with a gold seal, a red industrial light by its side. There were no more illusions. This was a furnace. And we were providing its fuel. Beside us were seven more doors for the same purpose. Another would be opened before we left.
We watched as the casket was slid inside and the doors were sealed. In waves of four, we took turns sprinkling tiny reddish pebbles in a cup of hot ash, each saying a prayer. We were then led to a cafeteria-like area where we were given free tea and the opportunity to order from a simple menu of drinks. The process would take roughly 45 minutes. We spoke, sombrely at first, then with greater animation. Then we were called back.
The doors were opened, and a collection of charcoal emerged on a metal table. It was collected in a broad metal pan while we waited in a room next door, where a jar was prepared. Long chopsticks were provided and then, two at a time, we each took an end of a piece of bone in our chopsticks and together placed it in the jar. The remaining pieces and dust were swept up and placed in the jar by another guard-like man, with the exception of the pieces of the skull and the topmost vertebra, which were placed inside last, resting on top. As he retrieved them, the guard-like man explained the nature of each piece—two halves of the jaw, the hard concatenations by the ears, the plates at the top of the head. We watched with curiosity, like children at a science lesson; like customers listening to a sushi chef explaining the details of his next delicacy; like we were no longer directly involved.
The jar was sealed, then placed in a plain wooden box, which was carefully wrapped in a white furoshiki (a kind of wrapping cloth used for carried goods), then hooded with a more ornate cover. The box was given to the man’s eldest son, and we were bidden farewell.
With all the guard-like uniforms, complete with hats, it felt more like going through customs than experiencing a religious ceremony. Perhaps, in a way, it was.
We took the box to the family home, where it was placed in the shrine they had prepared. A candle was lit, and each family member took turns lighting a stick of incense and ringing a bowl-shaped bell.
As we sat waiting with our tea in the funeral parlor, the husband of one of my fiancée’s other cousins offered me a brilliant reminder of the Japanese technique of conversational delicacy.
He asked if this was my first Japanese funeral. I said it was, and he noted that Japan has very fixed rules for these sorts of things. I agreed, noting that Japan’s longstanding monocultural nature had likely contributed to the establishment of clear-cut single rules of practice. He went on to note how, at his first funeral, he had been sent home to change when he showed up straight after work in his electrician’s uniform. As we laughed at his folly, he noted that even little things are considered quite strictly—for example, watches should be dark, and even my silver tie clip was probably too shiny to be considered appropriate.
I apologized and immediately took it off. I think he’d gone a long way just to deliver that point without offending me.