Monday, 1 November 2010

A Pinch of Salt

I went to a funeral on Sunday - or rather I went to the wake. Some of my family and friends in Canada have asked what is involved in a Japanese funeral, so I thought I'd write a few thoughts on my blog... although apparently this particular funeral was a little "different."

My friend is the youngest of five, the only daughter born a number of years after her brothers. Her father was Taiwanese, growing up under Japanese occupation. He passed away nearly two years ago and, shortly after, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She fought it nobly and didn't let it slow her down - she looked after her grandson, made niku-man and Chinese sausages from scratch, continued to write and illustrate kami-shibai (an old form of story-telling with pictures and text written on the back for the story-teller to read out), and, when hospitalized, kept busy making origami gifts (intricate masterpieces with multiple layers) for those around her. Right up until the day she died (rather suddenly but very calmly) she had been planning a special 20th anniversary party for her first kami-shibai story. In those two decades she has created numerous stories, all beautifully illustrated either by paintings or by collages of gorgeous Japanese textiles. She wrote about her family (four brothers welcoming a baby sister to their family, a grandson's special time with grandma, the magic in a mother's touch...), she wrote about the things around her and everyday things. That seems to be the appeal of her work - it resonated for so many young and old. She won many awards for her work, and had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances (the funeral hall was less than half the size need to accommodate all those who came to pay their respects). By all accounts she was an amazing person, and I am sad that I knew her only through her daughter, who is incredibly kind, unfailingly patient, and fiercely stubborn!

When we arrived at the funeral hall - U in a black suit with white shirt and black tie (not to be confused with the same black suit with white shirt and white tie he would wear to a wedding), and me in a black suit and black blouse (neck shockingly bare of the requisite pearl necklace!)... When we arrived at the funeral hall there were receipt-type forms for us to fill out with name and address, which we handed to the reception desk along with a special envelope (purchased from a stationary store or your local convenience store). The envelope (make sure to avoid the one with red writing and decoration used for weddings, and also make sure to chose the black/silver decorated envelope depending on whether the person has just passed away or for the Buddhist memorial ceremony some time after the death) is inscribed with the giver's name written in a special light ink (symbolizing the tears that were shed and mixed in with the ink - a multi-purpose two colour double-ended brush pen is also on sale at the convenience store). The inner envelope is inscribed with the giver's name and address along with the amount of money inside - ranging between 3000 and several million yen depending on the relationship with the deceased, social status, income, etc. The type of bills is also important - the crisp new bills used as a wedding gift are inappropriate at a funeral as it would suggest that you were prepared for, or even impatient for the funeral. Instead old bills are used, but this been clean-obsessed Japan, bills deemed too dirty/creased should be avoided.

Having handed over our envelopes we received a small slip of paper and, since the seats were all filled, were directed to stand in lines of four abreast to watch the ceremony. The ceremony started with the MC (a female employee of the funeral hall at a podium in the back corner of the room) reading a eulogy, then the eldest son rose to say a few words. This was followed by comments (tearful letters to the deceased) from friends, the second of whom performed one of my friend's mother's kami-shibai stories. At the average Buddhist funeral the family members would each light incense in front of the flower-bedecked altar with the photo of the deceased. Instead of incense, my friend's family had prepared white carnations and each person laid one at the table in front of the altar. Once the immediate family members had laid flowers then the important guests did so, bowing to the back-lit photograph and then the family in turn. After them it was our turn, two-by-two we approached the altar, white carnation in hand. What I hadn't realized, or been prepared for, was that the white marble "altar" was actually the casket - with a little window through which you could see the face of my friend's mother deep inside.

As we moved out of the room we were asked for the slips of paper we had presented earlier, and in exchange handed a thank-you gift (a gift box of instant coffee packets and a tin of cookies). We were ushered upstairs to a room of tables with drinks, sushi, and other food. Along one wall was displays of kami-shibai, with a sign encouraging us to pick them up and look at them. We had a few bites of food, admired the kami-shibai on display and then headed back downstairs. My friend and her brothers were standing by the door to thank people as they left. When we came down my friend hurried over, looking thin and drawn and very unlike herself. I let go of Japanese tradition completely to give her a big hug, which she half-returned. She is a very undemonstrative person, so I was rather surprised by this, but U says that when I gave her the hug she had, for a split second, a smile on her face. Evidence, I'd guess, of just how much she needed the hug. Before we either had the chance to break down, I told my friend to call me when things calmed down so we could get together, and U and I slipped away, climbing back into his car and driving home through the overcast night.

Oh, and the title of the post? Comes from the final tradition, one that U and I completely forgot about! Ooops...! Having attended a funeral, you have come in contact with the "pollution" or "uncleanliness" of death. To purify yourself you are supposed to have salt thrown at you before you enter your home - similar to the idea of the sumo wrestlers throwing salt about before a match, salt has purifying properties. That would be why the funeral hall had included a small packet of salt in with our thank-you gift.


  1. So interesting - so ritualistic! I heard recently from a friend about the funeral of her father, which she had to organize about two hours after her father had died suddenly. Because of all the preparations involved (including figuring out who to invite, etc), ordering the food, etc., and the fact that people could come to her home unannounced to pay their respects, she felt like she had no time to grieve until weeks after the event. But I guess ritual is one way to organize or channel the madness of grief. The 'pollution' aspect at the end reminds me of a Japanese movie I saw about a guy who takes a job to prepare bodies for burial. It was a really good movie, although the female actor's parts were rather superficial. I'm glad you were there for your friend. love and hugs, Cath

  2. Cath - I can see how all the rule and ritual make it easier to plan (less decisions to be made at a difficult time) and for those attending (assuming, of course you do know what is expected behavior in the situation). But I can also see how impersonal it could become - apparently the personal touches (like the kami-shibai reading) were what made this wake different, but they were the aspects I and U both liked the most and what made it special.

    You aren't the first to mention that movie, I can see it made an impression on both of you! I should try and track it down (once it is no longer such an immediate subject).

  3. That was really tastefully written Sarah. I think you built an accurate picture of a Japanese funeral while honouring the life of your friends mother.

    I have only attended one funeral here (because I can't take the kids)and the funeral I did attend was that of a fellow foreign wife. It was difficult because it was different, no one knew what to do. Karen had attended the funeral of a family member a few weeks before she passed away and hated the formality and lack of individuality of the day. She told her husband that she didn't want that. So he did it differently. It left everyone with no purpose though and everyone to embarrassed to ask question; who was to prepare the food if the neighbour hood ladies couldn't do it, her husband was left feeling uncomfortable rejecting money bestowed on him, friends confused at being invited to the cremation. While the Japanese way is impersonal at least it runs smoothly.

    For me the hardest part of the day was her husband insisting I look at her lying in the coffin. Yes that is a regular Japanese practice but I wanted to remember the happy, jovial woman that I shared Christmas with the week before. I still feel like I offended him.

    I am thankful that I am a practicing Christian and that if I happen to die here it will be a Christian funeral taken care of by the members of my church, I won't have to worry about my husband stressing about a Buddist funeral for a foreigner!

  4. Achan - thank you.

    A funeral is about the people left behind, for them to say good bye to the person who has passed away. Formalities can inhibit this, but they can also make it easier. Planning a funeral is a tricky thing. I remember before my mother died we all talked about her funeral and planed it together. She chose the place and hymns and we all agreed on it. It made planning easier and made it seem like she was actually there with us at the funeral.

    I think what I liked best about the wake I attended was that it DID actually have personality and individuality while at the same time having the familiar progression.