February 12, 2005
Juzo Itami (1933-1997), the courageous and talented director of our favorite film ever anywhere, Tampopo (1985), is also known for the gently comic and poignant Ososhiki "The [Father-in-Law's] Funeral" (1984).
We at Good&Happy correspond with a colleague, an American woman who long ago moved to Japan and married her husband there. Her father-in-law died recently. With permission to publish, she writes:
[I have been away from Tokyo] in my husband's hometown here in Japan for the funeral of my father-in-law....I want to thank you for the thoughtful messages of condolence. ...and to share a bit about what it was like to say good-bye to my father-in-law.... Some parts may be startling, as they speak about customs that are not followed in the United States.
What I want to share is not so much about my deep personal feelings for Otoosan, my father-in-law, as about the cultural challenges and gifts for me of experiencing a Buddhist funeral in Japan. What I have experienced is so foreign to what I grew up with in Massachusetts.
I reached Otoosan's bedside in time to spend some hours with him as he took his leave of us and this life near daybreak. This was a sad, and precious, and hopeful time. After Otoosan's death, I went back to the house to lay out his futon and blankets on the tatami in the room where we would receive mourners. Dressed in a kimono, Otoosan's body was transported from the hospital and laid on the futon, where the blankets covered both him and the three large blocks of dry ice on his chest and stomach.
At his head there was situated a small altar, flanked on both sides by fresh flowers. On the altar were incense and a candle, which I was told should not be allowed to go out. Both were long-burning and would need fresh replacements every four or five hours or so. And Otoosan, too, should not be left alone, for if the body was left alone then his spirit would be lonely.
Mourners came and went throughout the day. They sat by Otoosan and cried over him, and drank the tea that I served. It was my duty, as the wife of the only son, to serve the tea. We family members gratefully absorbed the words of the mourners and shared our tears with them. When night came, we brought our futons into the room too, and took turns sleeping and tending the incense and the candle.
On the evening of the wake this scene was repeated at the funeral home, as other relatives joined us: about 10 of us slept in one big tatami room; Otoosan was there too, in the coffin. And incense and candle duty continued. Sake, beer, and whiskey flowed as cousins sat and reminisced about their uncle with my husband (Otoosan was the last of his generation).
The next day, after the funeral, our immediate family accompanied Otoosan to the crematory, where we watched the coffin roll into a furnace. About an hour later, the furnace doors opened and the trolley rolled back out to reveal bones and ashes. An attendent selected special bones and put them on a tray, explaining to us which bones were from which part of the body. Then each family member was given a pair of chopsticks, with which we were instructed to pick up a piece of bone and transfer it from the tray into an urn. The contents of this urn will be interred in the family grave at the local Buddhist temple. After some prayers, we left for home, where we set the urn on the altar in the tatami room to await the day of interment.
I feel humbled and grateful for this experience. It was both comforting and an assault on my senses. The physicality, the reality, the spirituality...all of this, all rolled into one. Knowing that the soul had moved on, witnessing of the body, become ashes. It was raw and real and heartrending...and poignant and beautiful.
Thank you for reading this. I am sharing this with you, as well as with others in my life, because it is important to me to close the gulf I feel between my experience of this funeral and what non-Japanese imagine, based on their cultural frame of reference, when they hear the word funeral.
We here feel enriched, contemplating someone fulfilling with true heart the profound demands of a culture not originally her own.