Little House In Ise

The Funeral
September 1, 2007, 03:42
Filed under: Family, Japan | Tags: , , ,

Megumi’s grandmother died this week and we went to her funeral. I can not express what Megumi and her family are experiencing so I won’t diminish it by trying. My family here contain their feelings more than my family in the US does. However, they are mourning the passing of the matriarch of their clan, much as my side of my family did last summer. The depths of emotion are the same but their expression of those feelings is different. Since I can not describe their feelings, I will write about their rituals.

We arrived in Mino after having stopped at my in-laws farm to change clothes. The rain that had been falling all day had mostly let up so we walked to the house through a light mist. We were greeted at the door of Uncle’s (my mother-in-law’s eldest brother referred to “Uncle from Mino”) house by my mother in-law who led us into the “living room”. It is actually two eight tatami mat sized rooms separated by sliding paper doors. The doors had been removed to make the space larger. The room was filled with family kneeling around the low table chatting quietly and it looked as though the alters in each room had been specially decorated.

Grandmother was lying on a futon covered with a white comforter and had a partially drawn short-sword across her chest. Her face was covered with a white lace kerchief. There was a lacey pink coffin beside the wall. Uncle gestured for us and we knelt by the body. He lifted the kerchief so that we could see her face. We all bowed and he replaced the kerchief.

Very soon after we arrived, the people from the mortuary came. All the women in the family went into the room and helped “dress” Grandmother for her journey. They lifted the futon and we could see that she was already wearing a grey kimono and had her hands clasped. The women put tabi on her feet for the travel “across the bridge” and fingerless gauntlets traditionally worn by travelers were put on her hands. A symbolic money purse was tucked into her kimono. The women filed out and all of the men were asked to come in and lift Grandmother into the casket. Once she was placed in the box, the children were asked to put in drawings and messages that they had written. Adults also added calligraphy and personal messages. A walking stick was placed beside her and a silk futon covered her to her chin. The box was closed and all of the men acted as pall bearers taking the casket to the hearse waiting outside. My mother-in-law brought out a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks stabbed vertically into the center.

That evening was the start of the Tsuuya (Through the Night). The ceremony was held at the local agricultural association hall in the same place where her husband’s funeral had been last year. A large and ornate alter made of intricately carved, blond wood; flower arrangements and enormous fruit bowls was at the far end of the hall. It was centered on a picture of Grandmother (photoshopped from a picture with my kids — she had a sweet smile). Off on the sides were vertical stands holding signs that resembled houses. Each house had the names of Grandmother’s adult relatives and their spouses. The casket was in the center. One long narrow table with three pairs of bowls was set in front on the left. A smaller table with enormous bells, bowls, incense and many other ritual tools was in front.

A priest arrived robed in orange and white. He was bowed into the hall by the mortuary people and proceeded to the small table to sit down. He began long, low, arrhythmic chanting occasionally lighting incense or ringing one giant bell or another. Not understanding a language (mostly not-Japanese with un-intelligible Japanese mixed in) really did add a bit of mystery. Occasionally, a woman’s voice would announce that it was time to put our hands together and bow.

Midway through the ceremony, the long narrow table with the bowls was moved to the front. Starting with Uncle and Aunt, the names of family members were read out by house, followed by attendees. One by one we went to the bowls, bowed and lifted a pinch of the grey grains in one bowl up to eye level and then sprinkled it onto a smoking ember in the other bowl. This was repeated three times. With a final bow, each person returned to their seat. Once everyone was done, there was more chanting and bowing as a group. Since I didn’t understand the words or the symbolism I can’t really explain or describe more. At the end, Uncle went up and spoke about his mother and thanked everyone for coming. It was a short speech and he did very well. It was clear that he was fighting back tears.

After the ceremony we all went into another room at the hall and had dinner. After the dinner, came the actual Tsuuya. Grandmother’s casket was moved into the room the family had been using to relax and get ready between various parts of the services and several close relatives stayed the night there. Traditionally, they stay up all night talking. The kids and I went back to the farm for the night. We got up the next day and prepared for the funeral itself.

Megumi, her mother and aunt all wore black funeral kimono. Almost everyone else was dressed as before. The priest wore different robes. I did a poor job of describing the first set and I will not be able to do justice to the difference. Suffice it to say that he looked like the Dali Lama (same hair-cut and glasses) dressed in the Armani line of Buddhist ritual attire.

More people attended the funeral than the Tsuuya and the hall was packed. The ceremony followed the same pattern as the Tsuuya. If there were differences in the chanting I could not tell. After the priest was done, the casket was opened for a final viewing. Mortuary staff quietly took the flower arrangements that had decorated the alter and broke them into small bouquets. We took the flowers and placed them into coffin. Grandmother was covered with flowers leaving only her face exposed. The casket was then closed and my father-in-law spoke for Uncle.

The casket was then wrapped with a long cloth cord. The women of the family were asked to hold onto the chord while a small group of men acted as pall-bearers. The women led the casket out of the funeral hall and then we were told to stop. We rotated the casket three times, removed the cloth and then put it into the hearse.

It was Japanese style hearse — a black pickup truck fitted with a black, camper-like top decorated with intricate golden dragons, swirls and nature patterns. The driver honked his horn as a cue for us to bow. Then it drove up the hill to the crematorium.

Once the family was gathered at the crematorium we moved the casket to a large mechanical device that sat in front of the open oven. A bowl of rice stabbed with chopsticks was placed on the coffin lid which was then rolled into the oven. Uncle was taken by the mortuary staff into a side room where, I understand, he activated the mechanism to start the fires.

Then we went to lunch. Back at the hall, enormous bento filled with more food than a hungry adult could eat in one sitting were waiting for us. Fortunately, each bento came with a cloth to use as a tote for taking leftovers home. Gift bags were on each seat and bottles of beer, juice and tea covered all of the free space on the tables. We were warned that the cans of beer on the tables
were intended as gifts to be taken home and so were warm. Cold beer from bottles was available and, once again, Uncle went around from person to person pouring beer and greeting everyone. After much eating and talking we were told it was time to go back to the crematorium.

When we got there, the tray with grandma’s remains had already come out and was cooling in the center of the room. I knew that this ceremony involved picking up bones of the deceased and putting them in a special box for transport to the temple but I had not been prepared for how intact the remains would be.What struck me first was how complete her skull was and then, upon looking more closely, how many other bones were left.

A table with special chopsticks was arranged and we all lined up to help. Using chopsticks, one person would pick up a bone from the tray and pass it to another who would then place the bone in the box. My father-in-law passed me a rib. I put it in the box. The kids, with their mother’s help, also put bones in the box. Small bones were put in first. The second cervical vertebrae was
reserved to be the last of the small bones as it is supposed to resemble the Buddha in meditation. That bone was placed in the box followed by the skull. The family then took the box to the temple. It was at this point that my small part of the family returned home.

It was very human. It was very sad.

I will always remember Grandmother from Mino’s smile and her laugh.


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