Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Sunday was one of those days where I was reminded I live in a foreign country. Not in the you're-a-strange-furriner bad way, but just a day I was reminded just how different the customs are here from what I grew up with.

Sunday was the seventh anniversary of the deaths of U's paternal grandparents. (I'm not sure about the specifics, but special Buddhist rites are held at certain times after a death - particularly 1, 7, 13 years after) Although the rites can be held in the home (at the family alter) or in a temple, U's family chose to hold them at one of the special halls at the cemetery.

Bright and early Sunday morning three generations of U's family met at the cemetery. We sat in a nondescript waiting room with a few other black-clad families, supping tea from the automated tea machine. The screen on the wall indicated which family was in which hall when. Each family was attended by a Buddhist priest, whose robes were the only spots of colour in the room. Our priest knows the family well and didn't even blink when he saw me sitting beside U. He greeted U's father (the eldest son) and the two disappeared behind a partition for a few minutes to sort out the sordid financial details.

Soon enough it was our turn and we went into the hall. There was a flurry of activity as U and his uncle brought out the large framed photographs and U's mother and youngest sister unwrapped the tablets inscribed with the posthumous Buddhist names. These were all arranged properly, the janitor popped in new candle tops and lit them, and the Buddhist priest started chanting as we took our seats. Partway through the ceremony we all went up one by one and placed three pinches of incense chips onto a pile if cinders.

Being the partner of the eldest son of the eldest son (eeek!) there weren't many family members in front of me for me to watch, but I managed to get my bows and incense pinching done properly, apparently. But there was more still to come.

We were rushed out of the hall, the next family waiting and the janitor bustling about with new candle tops and more incense. We clambered back into our cars and drove through the cemetery. U's mother and youngest sister collected a bucket of water and ladle, and we went to the grave. The grave had already been cleared of weeds, so we placed bouquets in the holders and ladled water onto the stone monument. The priest (with a different colour over-robe) arrived with new name boards, which were placed into the back of the monument, and the smaller name tablets (from the family alter at home) were unwrapped and placed at the front. More chanting was followed by all family members placing a few sticks of incense in front of the monument. The priest bowed and left, and the rest if us posed for a picture in front of the grave (no peace fingers!)

Then back to the cars and off to the restaurant near U's parents' place. The restaurant had readied a basin of water and bowls of salt. We threw pinches of salt over ourselves and washed our hands (to "cleanse" ourselves) and then went into a private room within the restaurant. The framed photos of grandpa and grandma were set up and presented with food and sake. After the men in the family (except for U, who had to drive us home) had had their fill of beer and we had all stuffed ourselves, we walked through the parking lot and back to U's parents' place.

As soon as we walked through the door everybody disappeared off to change, and U's mother set out tea, coffee, and even more food. We relaxed and chatted, and U's mother and I began discussing cremation and funeral rites. She couldn't understand the concept of total cremation - how would you then recognize your loved one's bones? I tried to refrain from shuddering as I told her that for me the idea of passing around the bones of a dearly departed family member (part of a Japanese funeral) was a rather gruesome prospect.

But, despite how strongly different the whole experience felt for me, U's family never once made me feel uncomfortable (well, except for both of his aunts and their cousin all grilling him about when he is going to propose!) I dressed the part - black skirt and top, pearl necklace. It was U who didn't quite fit in - for some strange reason when packing for the weekend he grabbed a blue shirt instead of the necessary white one. His entire family enjoyed ribbing him about that! When asked he said simply that it was his favourite shirt... Um?! So he and his mother had to go through his old clothes and find an old white shirt that he had outgrown (the collar button wouldn't close but better than one of his father's shirts where the arms were too short!) And he also left his jacket at home - when asked about that one he tried to use the "cool-biz" excuse, but he was the only non black jacketed guy in the entire cemetery! Who's the furriner now?!

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I'm glad to hear that there is a respite from the 'peace fingers' in funeral photos. Very funny about U. I think furriners/immigrants in any society tend to be more tradition-bound because their belonging/fitting in is not taken for granted (by themselves or others). Thanks for sharing!
    love and hugs,