Mister Micawber

A Japanese Funeral

Saturday:  Tsuya, the private wake

My mother-in-law passed away quietly in her 86th year in the early morning of September 30th.  When we arrive in Chiba that afternoon, she has been brought home from the hospital and laid in state on the tatami floor of the parlor, her body in a white silk shroud, her face covered with a cloth.  Beside her is a small table bearing incense and a stand, a candle and a bell; in front of the table is a cushion on which to kneel, light a stick of incense, tap the bell gently with its mallet, and pray.  The immediate family serves us tea and a small snack in the next room, as they will do for the irregular stream of visiting neighbors over the next two days.  We stay only briefly today, to offer our immediate condolences and learn the schedule for the coming funeral ceremonies (they are to be according to the rites of the Shingonshu Buddhist sect), and then we drive back to Yokohama.

The body is washed at the hospital, and in some cases, the body apertures are stuffed with cotton.  An undertaker is contacted for arrangements, starting from delivery of the body from the hospital to her home.  Over the next few days, the immediate family discuss schedule and arrangements for the funeral services with the undertaker.  Wake and funeral schedules are fixed in conference with the bonze.  Type of alter and decoration, as well as the casket to be used, are fixed.  Food to be served at the wake and after the funeral and gifts to be presented to those who come to the services are chosen.  Photographs of the deceased to be used, and all other details, including of course the overall budget, are fixed in discussion with the undertaker.  Helping hands (master of ceremony, receptionists, treasurer, ushers, and gift presenters) from among neighbors, friends and relatives are named from volunteers, and their positioning is fixed.

We return on the third day, Saturday, and at four in the afternoon two funeral home staff arrive, dressed in rather rumpled suits, and load my mother-in-law onto a gurney. They leave behind a pair of white plastic candelabra in lotus-flower design and a tiered display table that will be used for the home memorial.  The family follows the gurney along the narrow sidewalk between houses to where the hearse – actually a rather dirty station wagon with one hubcap missing – waits.  They load her into it, and we all bow the station wagon off, as it lets out one loud blast of its horn.  Along the way, the neighbors have come to their garden gates to bow her off as well.  In a few minutes, we get into our cars and head for the funeral home for the 'tsuya', or wake.

In the main hall of the funeral hall, we are met at its far end with a wall of flowers framing an immense temple-like wooden façade with a large framed photograph of the deceased amidmost.  An empty coffin, a simple white rectangular solid of thin wood, waits in front of this display.  The gurney is wheeled in, and the competent but rather unkempt staff member spends several minutes explaining to us what the procedures will be, mopping his brow with a crumpled handkerchief at each pause:  the room is exceptionally cool, but he is rather corpulent.  Several of us step forward to lift my mother-in-law from the gurney and lower her gently into the coffin with the straps provided along the borders of her cerements.  Then, various of the bereaved prepare her for her journey:  they tie white silk booties onto her feet and white silk leggings on her shins.  Into her clasped hands, which are raised – her forearms have been positioned vertically, not crossed upon her breast – they place a Buddhist rosary and then a silk coverlet over them.  Around her neck is tied a light silk bag that contains a single slip of paper representing money needed for her toll for passage across the River of the Three Hells.  Then, at her feet, one of us places a pair of rice straw sandals while another places a small straw hat near her head.  The pièce de résistance is a wooden walking stick, laid at her right side. The symbolism of these items is, I think, obvious.  It will take her 49 days to reach Heaven.  First, she will wander about the world, revisiting places from her past.  This spiritual vision is wilted slightly by the last act of the staff, who spray what I take to be a deodorant into the open coffin.

She is now prepared for her journey, and we are invited to closely surround the open coffin and gaze upon her.  All have been stoic and stalwart, but at last the first tears come to the younger members of the family.  We are finished for the moment.  The coffin is wheeled up to close in front of the floral façade. We must now wait for the priest to arrive and the service to begin, so we adjourn to the lobby, where there is on display a looped slide show of photos of my mother-in-law gleaned from the family albums.  Family members talk quietly in small groups or go outside for a smoke.

At 6 o'clock, the family members take their seats at either side – the next of kin and their relatives sit on the right side (spouse or head of family closer to the coffin), and other relatives on the left – of the hall, not a natty soul among all the baggy double-breasted (for the elder generation) and single-breasted (for the younger) black suits and ties or the long black dresses of various conservative cuts.  And now the guests arrive:  friends, neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers of the bereaved.  Each goes through the same routine, called 'shoko', the offering of incense: step into the room and bow to the relatives at each side (and the relatives return the bow); approach the incense stand amidmost and bow to the photo of the deceased above and before it; three times take a pinch of incense, hold it briefly near the forehead, then place it on the smouldering coals provided; place the hands together and pray silently for a moment; step back and bow once again to the photograph; another step back and bow once again to relatives left and right (who bow back) and then either leave or take a seat in the section set aside near the rear of the hall for guests.

This amounts to a lot of bowing for the relatives, who must twice return the bows of some 50 or 60 guests in succession.

And then the bonze appears.  He bustles in, a big burly fellow with a shaved head and an armload of paraphernalia.  He sets these out methodically on the altar, bustles back out the side door, then re-enters with a bang and a bell.  Taking his seat before the altar, he moves confidently through a ritual of alternated recitation and chanting from the book before him, intercalated with ringings of a large and a small bell, the loud scraping of his rosary against his callused palms, the waving of a wooden baton, the holding up of various ricepaper arcanities.

Then he barks a brief instruction, and the relatives two by two rise and move to the incense stand, where they repeat 'shoko', as the guests have done earlier.  The bonze keeps the tempo on his wooden drum the while.  When all 25 or so of us have done this, the bonze picks up a microphone and explains to us all that has been accomplished.  He explains that my mother-in-law has received the posthumous Buddhist name, 'Sei'en', which means 'peaceful garden'.  He issues us all small ricepaper sheets cut in the shape of leaves, which we are to take to our hotels that evening and compose farewell messages to Sei'en upon.  The bonze then bustles out, banging on his bell, like a Visitation might, and we adjourn to the funeral home's banquet room for a sushi dinner.  The guests receive a paper bag containing a small gift and a card message in a white envelope, thanking them for coming.  There is also a very small paper envelope (about 3 cm x 4 cm) containing salt for purification after returning home.  I drink far too much beer and saké.

The meaning and the practice of the wake is that the relatives take turns sitting around the coffin during the night, and they watch to keep the incense burning.  Modern incense used for the night is in a coil form that lasts for hours, and the coffin could be left alone all night.

Sunday:  Kokubetsushiki, the public funeral

At 10:00 Sunday morning, we drive from our hotel back to the funeral home.  Outside the home now are four giant – what shall I call them? disks? wreaths? – perhaps a meter and a half or more in diameter, mounted on tall easels two meters in the air.  These are purple and white, a mass of plastic flowers and ribbons, and are reusable.  (Similar but more colorful ones often appear outside shop grand openings and happier events.)  They are artificial flower wreaths, 'hanawa', mounted on wooden tripods with a name plate for the presenter, who might be a company, friends, or relatives.  One of them costs between 15,000 and 30,000 yen just for the two days.

Several of the neighbors are now volunteers at the reception desk, where arriving friends and relatives stop to turn in their envelopes of 'condolence money', ranging from 5000 yen from casual acquaintances to 50,000 yen for close relatives (us).  Guests fill in their names and addresses in the register, which is normally separated into two groups – company or social groups, and general (the rest).

We have some idle time, so we look into the showcase in the funeral home lobby at the urns (50,000 yen), rosaries (10,000 yen) and votive candles (2000 yen) for sale.  I walk up to the floral facade in the main room and take a closer look at the gifts on display – several very large bouquets of white lilies and chrysanthemums (one with my name on it: 15,000 yen), large canned-goods baskets surmounted by stylized plastic peacock tailfeathers, and large baskets of fresh fruits.  These latter two will be distributed to the neighbors who have volunteered their services.  On the altar there are two tall candlesticks, incense, the large and small bell, the microphone, and a clock.  Beside and in front of it, a small table with a glass of water, a plate of rice cake, and a cup of green tea for the deceased.  And the interminable piano muzak – it ceaseth not, forever and forever.

My sister-in-law is wearing a black kimono this day; the others are back in their same baggy black suits and dresses. Thank goodness, I had the foresight to bring along a second white shirt, at least.  I look marginally crisper than some.  On the other hand, my favorite niece, the vivacious one, looks quite alive in black.  She is functioning as a sort of 'flight attendant' on this junket, smiling, liaising, and being quietly helpful to all.

Aha! Our bonze strides in again, in full regalia this morning:  in purple robe now, and a gold silk cape with a rooster motif.  He again arrays his sets of bells and clappers, his baton and dorje and beads.  Incense is lit, the book of sutras is opened, and we begin again with some magnificent chanting, belling and baton-waving on the bonze's part and interminable bowing on ours.  This time we have two incense altars operating simultanously:  the family members two by two are approaching the one in front, while guests two by two (more than before, some are returnees and others have come just for this main public funeral) use the altar in the rear.  They are coming so thick and fast that we must be alert as hares to bow in a timely fashion to those at each altar:  it is like a pingpong match without the ball. My neck aches.

In addition to the bonze's occasional explanations, we have the soft, disembodied voice of another, female, staff member on a microphone behind a folding screen at the right, moodily reading a sort of biography cum elegy for my mother-in-law, if I understand her aright.  I am later told that representative condolence messages (out of the many) received by telegram from those who could not attend the funeral are usually read by the staff MC towards the end of the bonze’s chanting.

Now, we all have a sort of psalm to chant.  The bonze passes out a small sheet with its words or lyrics (see above photo), beside which are hieroglyphs representing the changes in tone, the slides and glides, of the chant...for those who can read it and perform it.  Here we come closest to a Christian service, for the 50 participants solemnly, uncertainly, and all but silently mouth these words, while the bonze booms it out, compensating for the inadequacy of his congregation.

At last, a final bowed prayer by all and sundry as the bonze suddenly strides ceremoniously from the room, tinkling his little bell.  He either walks far down the hallway or gradually softens the ringing, so that the solitary sound slowly fades away and we are all left bowed in a spiritual silence.  After a few moments and a stunned glance around by everyone as to what to do next, the staff suggest that we wait out in the lobby again.  Some folks make a dash for the toilet now, not knowing when their next chance may come.

I loiter by the main door to see what is going on.  The chairs, altars, etc., are cleared away and the open coffin is wheeled into the middle of the space.  The funeral home staff busily pluck all of the flowers out of the display and pile them onto a number of trays. We are then called back in, and we all contribute to heaping handfuls of these flowers into the coffin, until only my mother-in-law's face shows above them.  With the flowers, we include the various messages we have written the night before.  Her husband and children are each given a purple orchid as a special floral tribute to place in with her.

The staff set the coffin lid on top (it has a little window at face level for further viewing), and one staff member sets a ceremonial nail into the head end of the lid with his shiny brass ceremonial hammer.  It is not driven flush, but instead we pass around and each wield a small marble cube with a couple of Chinese characters incised in it, each taking his turn to tap this nail a bit farther into the coffin lid.  The last person drives it home.  The bonze strides forward and briskly strokes a message with brush and ink onto the coffin lid.

My father-in-law, now in charge of a sort of tall, narrow wooden plaque as a memorial, makes a short speech of thanks to all who have attended, while his son, his eldest child, stands at his side, bearing the photo of his mother, which has been brought down from the façade.  These items will accompany us for the rest of the day.  It is now noon.

Eight ad hoc pallbearers (including me) carry the coffin to the waiting hearse – now a much nicer, shiny black one.  Then we get into a waiting highway bus for the drive to the crematorium, the bus following the hearse.  Only relatives and close friends continue to the crematorium, while others bid their last farewell and see off the hearse.  The crematorium is about half an hour away, along the broad Tone River and past rice field after peaceful rice field, on a truly glorious early autumn day.  Unfortunately, the hearse misses the turnoff, and hearse and bus must make a labored U-turn on the narrow country road to gain entrance to the facility.  It is about this time that my son's rosary breaks (he has been fiddling with it idly) and the little beads bounce and clatter down the bus aisle.  There is an electric silence, but favorite niece is up and has most of the beads quietly collected in a jiffy.

We disembark at the crematorium.  Awaiting us are a couple of cremators in dingy uniforms and neckties and charred work gloves, who direct us pallbearers in unloading the coffin onto a steel pallet on the stilled conveyor belt just inside the doors.  We all have a last viewing through the coffin's window, a last prayer by the bonze, and the belt conveys my mother-in-law into what looks like a hot dumb waiter.  The stainless steel door shuts behind her, and we are pointed to the adjoining dining facilities for a luncheon snack.  On the pathway there, my mother-in-law's photograph appears again, in a little alcove en route. We each pause to offer incense and another brief prayer, then move on to the sandwiches and beer.

At 2 pm, we are notified that the cremation is complete, so we take the path back to the business end of this operation.  The wayside alcove now holds a photograph of an old man (another party had come into the dining room after us, I now recall).  The steel pallet has emerged, and where once rested a white coffin full of flowers there now rests half a skull and a few vertebrae and major bones, nestled in a powder as white and fragile as new snow.

The urn is produced, and we line up to gently place these relics, with large chopsticks, two people per bone fragment, into it.  After we have done this, we must each wash our hands, with a pinch of salt, in a nearby basin.  All the manageable bone fragments so attended to, the attendant sweeps with one gloved hand the final dust from the pallet surface into his other and dumps it too into the urn.  Our bonze reverentially sets the crown of her skull on top, and on top of that another written paper.  (Sorry to leave so many written papers in mystery, but I'm sure we can imagine their gist.)  Then the urn is capped and placed into a silken box, and this the eldest son takes up.  Her husband continues to carry the wooden plaque, and my favorite niece is given as her burden a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks stood upright in it and another small dish containing five rice balls.  My sister-in-law now carries the photograph.  We all get on the bus, bound for the cemetery.

The cemetery too is about 30 minutes away.  It is in a shady nook next to a Buddhist temple.  The bus pulls up to the entrance, and we disembark – the urn, the plaque, the photograph, and the rice bowl foremost.  The cemetery gates are flanked by five small stone Buddhas, each with a red knitted cap and his own incense tray, and before we can enter, we must march in a circle at the entrance, single file, our bonze in the lead, tinkling his bell, and we file past the Buddhas in this way three times.  This is where the ceremonies approach nearest to burlesque for me:  in the stark heat of noon, 25 dour and black-suited mourners marching round and round in a circle, led by an urn and a monk with a bell.  I silently hope that we finish before anyone sees us, and indeed, after the third go-round the bonze leads us into the cemetery proper.

Here, along the narrow paths between gravesites, our numbers impede us.  We are led, still single file, to the family plot, where cemetery staff stand ready with the marble slab of the small crypt lifted aside.  We file past, each gazing briefly in to where previous urns already stand.  We seem to be checking that they are all right.  When the head of the line comes round to the crypt the second time, my mother-in-law's urn is added to the shelf, with more chanting by the bonze and the lighting of handfuls of incense sticks (unfortunately, I miss the details, if any, of this operation, because I happen to be near the back of the line, around a corner or two from the scene).

Now again, the line moves.  The cover is back on the crypt, my mother-in-law's photograph and flowers and the bowl of rice have been placed upon it, and we each in turn offer a whole handful of incense sticks and another prayer for her journey. The wooden plaque has also been set on the tomb; it is made of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria), about 10 cm wide and about 1.5 meter in length, with script in Sanskrit and the name of the presenter in Japanese characters.  It is colloquially called in Japanese an 'o-tooba, but the correct wording is 'sotooba', originating from 'stupa'.

 When we have all completed this round, we return to the gates, where we offer more handfuls of incense sticks to the five Buddhas.  The ceremonies are complete.  We board the bus and return to the funeral home at 4 pm, where the large wreaths have disappeared.  We again go to the dining room for another meal.  A smaller photograph of the deceased stands on the sideboard and a meal identical to the one we are to have has been set before her.  This time I cannot drink, because I will be driving back to Yokohama immediately afterward.  My father-in-law gives a short speech of thanks to all and an envelope of money to the bonze (this could have been anything from 50,000 to 300,000 yen), who then is bowed gratefully out.  After mutual farewells, I peel off my suit jacket at last and drive us home in my shirtsleeves.

 Epilogue:  The Following Sunday

We drive out to Chiba a week later, the following Sunday, to help clear out closets, dressers, etc.  In the front parlor, a small shrine has been erected:  the tiered table with Sei'en's omnipresent photograph, flowers and various gifts brought her, the two large lotus candalabra, now alight, that the funeral director had brought when they picked up her body, the incense and the bell.  Family members now greet her with a prayer for her safe passage each morning, as do any guests that arrive.   She will be on her way for 49 days, at which time we will come back to Chiba for another Buddhist ceremony.  That will be sometime in mid-November.  Until then, her presence will be actively preserved.