Sunday, October 12, 2008

I want a car like that.

Aaiu kuruma ga hoshii.

When a Japanese person dies, you pick a good day for the funeral. According to the Buddhist calendar with 6 day weeks, some days of the week are better for funerals than others. "Tomobiki," or "draw friends in" is a bad choice for funerals (but a lovely day for weddings). "Butsumetsu" or "Buddha dies" is a good choice (but bad for weddings). Usually a compromise is reached in terms of proximity to time of death, Buddhist calendar day of the week, and time needed for family travel arrangements.

An alter is set up with a picture of the deceased. They used to use only black and white photos, but these days, color photos are quite common. Around the alter, there are wreaths sent by family and friends. The wake is held in early evening. The Buddhist priest chants about how although it's well established that life sucks, we are still deeply saddened by our loss and how the deceased is now safe in the arms of Buddha. After he's done telling us life sucks, the people who've shown up at the wake offer incense and prayers one at a time (or two at a time or three at a time, depending on the size of the ceremony hall and the number of people who are expected to show up). Family stay with the deceased the night of the wake, and make sure the incense stays smoking until the next morning.

At the funeral, there's more chanting about how life sucks, and you offer incense again. Then the casket is filled with flowers and the deceased's personal belongings and things they liked (cigarettes, candy) and closed. Depending on your sect of Buddhism, the casket may or may not be nailed shut. Then it's off to the crematorium. The hearse is usually a very elaborate gold gilt affair topped with a laquered roof. I have a feeling it's just an urban legend, but apparently Elton John saw a hearse while he was touring Japan and commented that he'd love to have a car like that.

When the deceased and the attendees arrive at the crematorium, incense and prayers are offered one last time, and the priest chants one last time about how life sucks, and the casket (which is wood, btw) is slid into the cremation chamber. During the cremation process, you sit around drinking tea and chatting. When the ashes are brought out on a stainless steel gurney, many of the bones still hold their shape. The family transfer the bones into an urn. Custom dictates that two people grasp either side of a given bone with chopsticks and work together to carry it to the urn. (This is why, in Japan, you never, ever pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another.) The attendant will usually try to steer you clear from selecting bones from the skull and also the 2nd cervical vertebra. The 2nd cervical vertebra is significant in that it is shaped like Buddha sitting in meditation. After most of the bones still holding their shape are transfered to the urn, the attendant will show the family the 2nd cervical vertebra and place it in the urn. Most of the remaining ashes are swept into the urn with a brush and a dustpan. The bones of the skull are the last ones to be placed in the urn, insuring the deceased is right side up in their new home.

No comments: