I asked my Obaachan (grandmother) when we got home, ‘Was that a normal Japanese funeral?’ and she replied, ‘Yes, but the bath is optional’.
Arrived into Narita and got a train to Kasukabe my home town. When I got to the house where I was born everyone was dressed in black, just in time for the funeral preparations. I put on my black clothes and was asked about pearls but I wasn’t listening because my Ogiichan was lying still on the floor of the hachijou (reception room). All wrapped up in white cloth. A white veil covering his face. The light filtered in through the paper windows. There was piled up snow outside.
Obaachan spoke to him kindly, said that I’d come home.
I knelt on a cushion and she lifted the veil; he looked asleep and I looked on; lit an incense; hit a bell that rang through the silence.
Hurriedly my mother did the same and then a cute little man dressed in a suit came to the front door donning gloves and a sympathetic smile. Lots of bowing. Lots of apologising for existing. They had come to move him, so obviously I let them and it seemed so logical that I didn’t question why. Another man appears soon after also suited and gloved and stooping under the pressure of solemnity, then the two of them move Ogiichan’s body onto a stretcher out in to the snow and then in to a BMW. The cute little man askes us to hold our hands together and bow until the car has gone out of sight, so we do, and then I go and get ready.
The family arrive dressed in black at a place called The Grand Ceremony, this is a brand name for a building/service I am not sure how to describe as it is like a professional undertaker-cum-funeral-wake-type-reception-hotel. It’s like what you’d expect for a wedding but for a funeral. Chandelier lights, soothing music and soft furnishings. Then things start to get surreal. We’re seated as close family in front of Ogiichan’s wrapped body and we watch him get a ritual bath. A woman and a man wash him with warm water out of a shower head (the type you get at salons). The woman gently says what she is doing like I am shampooing his hair now, or the man says stuff like I am sure he will appreciate the bath, and they clip his finger nails and make him just clean. One by one we have to do things too, like wipe his cold face with a warm towel. But I like that, it makes me feel part of the process.
After the bath they dry him, and let me just say the soothing music is still playing and we see nothing indecent and the corpse is never treated once like a corpse but like a living person getting ready for a long rest. It’s relaxing though cathartic.
Ogiichan then gets or is prepared behind a screen to be presented to us (again) but this time clothed in a white silken kimono with a light blue trim. Serene. The family have to help with various clothing rites, like putting on his tabi, his long socks, his gloves and each item is tied to him with a neat small knot. We also help move his beautified body into the coffin by lifting him then gently laying him down on his bedding.
Nothing that can’t be burned must go into the coffin because in the end he’ll be cremated, so a slip of paper representing money (6000 Yen, I don’t know why?) gets wrapped up in a white cloth purse that Obaachan places in to his breast sleeve pocket. Point Of Interest: This is the fare Ogiichan(‘s soul) will need to cross the River Sanzu, the mythical river of the dead resembling something like but not quite the River Styx, and the ferryman will only help Ogiichan cross it with the correct fare.
There’s other things made out of wicker or grass, unsure, that we place in the coffin beside him. A pair of sandals one for each foot, a walking stick, and a hat that will keep the snow off his head and the shade across his brow. It’s like he’s about to go on a journey. What an adventure? He looks peaceful but also totally ready. I wish I was that ready. What a dude.
I keep crying throughout the day as more random Japanese people come up to me to talk and pay condolences until they realise I am the equivalent of a dumb child who doesn't have more to say than ‘Thank you’. The jetlag and the sorrow produce confusion in me and I still don’t know what to think of Ogiichan being dead. It’s still not right is it? At least he’s had a bath, which is more than I can say for me. Tomorrow we start at 7am.
The Buddhist Monk as he chants long and lowly sounds like he is saying ‘pie jesu’ in long drawn out breaths interspersed with knocks of bells. How funny. How familiar.