Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Funeral In Japan

I guess I’m lucky to have a very good relationship with my father in law. A retired primary school teacher, we share an interest in education and the Japanese language. When I go to visit with my wife, he and I are often the last two at the dinner table, sipping sake and talking about the origins and meanings of kanji.

It was with great sadness that I learned the news that his oldest brother, Seitaro, passed away. The news was sad but not unexpected - my father in law is in his sixties and is the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. His oldest brother was around twenty years older than him and his health had been gradually deteriorating.

I was invited to the funeral with my wife and after negotiating a half-day off work from my employer, we took the bullet train down to Shizuoka to attend. When our taxi pulled up to the family home, there was crowd of around 100 mourners clustered around the house. As the head of the family and as an important member of the local community, Seitaro’s funeral had drawn a large number of people. We were a little late in arriving, which I felt bad about, and as we hurried into the house, the coffin was being lifted into a bus that would transport it and close family to the crematorium. These close family members were Seitaro’s sons, his daughter and his brothers, each of whom was given an item to carry by the Buddhist priest.

Everyone else boarded a different bus to follow the coffin to the crematorium. When we arrived, it was a strange experience to have to wait for the family in front to finish. I watched through the glass walls as a much smaller family group gathered around the coffin as it was inserted into the cremation chamber. Soon, we were next.

First, the coffin was transported into a side room. On the top of the coffin was a small window revealing Seitaro’s face. Everyone was encouraged to take turns to look at him and say their goodbyes. This was the first time that I had seen a dead body. My grandmother passed away last year and my wife, who loved her dearly, was surprised and even a little upset that there hadn’t been the same opportunity to say a final farewell. I felt nervous about saying the right thing and having the right reaction. I was told that seeing Seitaro’s face allowed people to see that he was sleeping peacefully and that he wasn’t in pain. An appropriate thing to say is, “安らかな顔ですね” (He has a peaceful face)

The coffin was then transported into the main chamber, where there were several slots in the wall. Our large group gathered around the end one for the next part of the ritual. The worker stood by the coffin and spoke to the crowd and at several points everyone’s head was bowed and their hands put together in prayer. I glanced at the people around me and felt the palpable sadness in the room. Although I had not known him well, I couldn’t help but feel the sorrow wash over me too, especially when I looked at my father in law’s face as he watched the coffin slowly pass through the doors to be cremated. He was gone.

What followed was a change of mood as everyone filed out and moved to a large dining area, much like a school canteen. Everyone was given a bento to eat and we sat eating and drinking, waiting for the cremation to finish. Here the conversation was light and much more relaxed than I might have expected. A funeral is an opportunity to meet people that you might not normally see and I was introduced to many who I hadn’t met before and who, after my marriage last year, are now my family.

After about an hour, the cremation was finished and the family returned to put the bones into the urn. The family lined up in pairs and each pair used chopsticks to pick up a bone from the tray of ashes and deposit it in the urn. This is the only situation where it is acceptable for two people to use two pairs of chopsticks to hold the same object. Doing so in any other situation is a major faux-pas in Japan. Once the bone is put in the urn, the pair turns and passes the chopsticks to the next pair.

With this finished, the urn was carried by Seitaro’s son back to the buses and we were driven to the family’s local temple. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and clear, fresh air. The temple had a small but pretty garden in front of it, lined with flowers. We made our way inside, where the men sat on the right and the women sat on the left. I placed myself at the back and sat down on a small cushion on the tatami floor. I looked around the wooden interior of the temple and noticed how clean and beautiful it was. The sun’s rays arced through the large entrance and from this a gentle light permeated the small space. The men and the women faced each other. In between, six Buddhist monks sat, three on each side, each holding a percussion instrument. Another monk sat at their head and commenced the chanting of the sutra. At various intervals in the sutra, the instruments would be played in time.
Unfortunately, the time allotted to my wife and I by our employers had run out and we had to make a quiet exit to return to Tokyo. It was a shame because my father in law had a written a speech that he wanted us to hear. Although we didn’t get a chance to do so, I was sent a copy and I was greatly moved after reading it. Being the youngest sibling, my father in law’s parents had died when he was quite young and his eldest brother had been like a father to him. He stood by his side as he was the first person in the family to go to university and to be recruited in the city as a school teacher in the city. (In Japan, a school teacher is a highly respected title to have). He even attended the interview with him and said, “Let me talk to the headmaster in this interview, I’ll take care of it”. Unthinkable nowadays.

These events and others were recounted in the speech. The first words spoken were “兄ちゃん。ありがとう。ご苦労様でした” (Nii-chan. Arigato. Gokurosama deshita), which I found both moving and interesting. Nii-chan is an affectionate term for one’s older brother. Gokurosama is said to people when they’ve done a good job or worked hard and expresses appreciation. I’d usually heard it in the context of employment and it surprised me to hear it in the context of someone’s life.

In the afternoon and evening that followed, everyone gathered for lots of food and drinks and I was very sorry to miss out on this. My impression of the day was that although there was great sadness at the passing of a loved one, there was also great solidarity and acceptance. I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Picture source: Wikipedia


  1. Nice to see you writing again man. Sorry to hear about the loss, but you did a good job describing what it was like to attend a Japanese funeral. Hope to see more articles from you soon.

  2. Wow great post, your descriptions are very detailed. I always enjoy reading your posts, although I'm sorry that this one was inspired by such sadness. I'm very interested in Japanese culture but I would be uncomfortable attending a Japanese cremation. I like how they get to pick a piece to put in the earn though, I don't know how if it was my relative/wife/son/father etc I wouldn't break down, at that point.