I’m not superstitious in England, but here it seems unavoidable. The day after the end of the funeral I was woken up by some clattering on the tin roof nearby. That’s what raised my eyelids anyway. Clattering. Then two sharp crows from the crow who then quickly flew away. Ogiichan’s telling me to get up I thought, so I did, and went downstairs where my Obaachan was also stirring. I asked why she had got up and she said she remembered Ogiichan’s face laid down in the coffin and thought it was high time to get up. I said I heard a crow. She said she knew. Since the day Ogiichan passed away they’ve been frequent visitors to the house and garden, Obaachan says, ‘Until the 49th day the tamashi of the person surrounds the house protecting it from evil.’
Tamashi means something like soul or spirit, the latter probably being the fuller translation. For when a person is alive people don’t refer to his or her tamashi, they refer to their soul or heart (kokoro) though. A tamashi is something intrinsically connected to the person, viscera or essence, yet it appears bodyless like a glowing circle of densely packed matter of soul. Japan’s a funny old world when it comes to superstition or religion or simply belief, so many elements are grounded in logic yet they make no sense. But when you hear the stories (that’s another story), it’s hard to not let their logic flow.
The second part of the funeral, after the ritual cleansing and chanting the night before was surprising to say the least. I had asked what to expect but nobody had told me in full detail, or even responded to my request so I was left in the dark about things until they happened.
We returned en masse to the undertaker-cum-hotel in the morning to greet all the guests. We sat in the room where the body of Ogiichan lay and gave incense again, and bowed regularly again, as the Buddhist Monk carried out his duties.
Lots of chanting lots of chiming lots of Om’s (Buddhism).
I was jealous of everyone with their beaded rosaries.
Then the coffin was brought to the forefront and opened fully so that the family and guests could say their personal goodbyes to Ogiichan, and we were all invited in and given handfuls of flowers to cover his body with.
Lilies, carnations, yellow cup tulips, white daisies, purple fuchsias...
Ogiichan was a man of flowers. One of his sayings was,
‘A man of flowers can do no harm’.
He also used to say to me - isn’t it ironic that the most beautiful things in the world like flowers are free? I’d agree.
The coffin was filled to the brim with flowers. Everything was covered apart from his face which was left to see out of the bed of petals. He looked at rest. The lid was closed and then the family processed out with Ogiichan following behind led by the Monk who rang a bell every so often. We were led in to cars and went on our way to the crematorium.
At the crematorium the Monk processed us in; a trail of relatives and guests followed subserviently behind us. Final looks in to the coffin were made and then Ogiichan was pushed in to what can only be described as a man-sized oven, a capsule hotel for the dead, and the doors were shut. We heard this loud hum, which began to sound more and more like a blaze and I knew that he was in flames. The Monk chanted more and we were led out.
Then we sat in a room with soft drinks and snacks for about an hour. I hadn’t put two and two together whilst I sat in that pallid room, but we were all essentially killing time for Ogiichan to burn up. Toast. I thought we were just hanging on until lunch or something. I felt pretty claustrophobic in that room so went out for some air, the people of the crematorium looked at me worriedly as I left the building through the entrance, not sure why. Maybe people don’t go out for “walks” at funerals here.
After an hour a uniformed woman came in to look in on our party. She announced,
‘It has been exactly one hour. We will need more time for yours but there is nothing to worry about, everyone is different.’
I thought fair enough, she means Ogiichan isn’t ready yet, which means he hasn’t fully burnt up. That’s when I realised why we had been placed in this horribly warm holding room. We were waiting for the dead. Don't worry we can wait.
‘Let me tell you some facts whilst you're waiting.’ The small uniformed lady began…
‘The myth of degenerate bones or diseased areas coming out of the kiln in different colours is a myth. The reason some of the bones will appear discoloured is due to the dye of the clothing they were burned in or the colouring of the flowers that were placed near or onto the skin before burning.’
All the old folks let out a sigh of awe and understanding. I had no idea what she was talking about.
‘The piece of bone that we call the “Adam’s Apple” is not solely found in men but also in women. Although we call it that, it is in fact referring to the top of the spinal cord. Both men and women have this and it also takes one of the longest times to burn. The actual “Adam’s Apple" is a piece of cartilage and will not remain after the fire.’
Another astonished awe of disbelief expelled by the congregation. Whatever I thought, let’s get on with this, whatever this is.
A tannoy speaker gently states, ‘Tanaka family we are ready.’ That’s my Japanese family name. So we all get up to go, the uniformed woman speaks to the elderly that now is the time to go to the toilet because there are no breaks in this part. We are told to line up as before, two by two, family spearheading the procession. This time though no Monk. We walk solemnly down a corridor and enter a beautifully stagnant room. We all wait. I have no idea what we are waiting for.
My mother, her sister, and my Obaachan (grandmother) are taken out of the room. We wait more. They are brought back in after long silent minutes. They look a bit sick actually. My aunt’s eyes are forever red.
Two sharp knocks on the waiting room door, which are slid open in classic Lynchian style, and then a shining tray of stainless steel is wheeled in.
On it are all of my Ogiichan’s bones.
And an urn and some chopsticks.
The bones are completely white.
They have been scorched at such a high temperature that they have turned in to calcite (my archaeological brain points out. Thanks brain). Then the procedure is explained to us by a little man in uniform wearing gloves and a clean blue blazer who presides over the rite.
We have to go up to the tray, each command some chopsticks, and in pairs on either side of the tray lift a bone up out of the heap and then place it in to the urn.
When I pick up the bone and drop it into the ceramic it makes the noise of a pebble hitting a stony beach. Like in Orkney. I feel repulsed and sacred all at the same time.
Chopsticks to carry parts of my Ogiichan. What the fuck? When everyone else queued up to do the same I couldn't help laughing. The absurdity of it. All the neighbours and his brothers and sisters carrying a piece of his bone with chopsticks. Imagine doing it to a body in a church with knives and forks, it made me laugh. I supressed it as soon as it rose up though because I realised it was inappropriate. But it was funny. My brain couldn’t really fathom that Ogiichan had now become a pile of white dust and soon the little man in a blazer would sweep him up with a dustpan and brush to empty the last bits in to the urn. Clean and tidy.
The skull of Ogiichan had been kept separate until the end.
All the bones when placed in to the urn did not fit so the uniformed presider simply crushed the bones down with a stake. Pragmatic. When it came to the skull parts we were all asked to move close to the tray again and the man carefully placed the bones into life-corresponding positions in the urn. By that I mean, the Adam’s Apple the lady in uniform had been so vocal about was placed at the very front of the urn; then the mandibles and jaw of right and left placed respectively facing forwards; the ear bones behind them; and then different parts of the skull cranium laid out on top of the other bones.
Oh the duty. Oh the precision.
The man turns to my Obaachan for the final possessions. My Obaachan goes in to her bag and hands him my Ogiichan’s glasses and wristwatch. The glasses are opened up and placed carefully in the position they would sit on Ogiichan’s head, facing forwards, imagining where the eye sockets would be. And the watch is gently laid to the right of his skull because he was right-handed.
The lid is closed on the urn.
The urn is placed within a polonium-wood box that is closed.
The box is wrapped in a silken white cloth and tied impeccably.
The wrapped box is placed in an embroidered sheath made of purple and gold thread.
I am handed the box.
I carry the box of Ogiichan’s remains in to the car. He’s sat on my lap and we drive home. At home, I think he’s returned. I carry the box to the hachijou (reception room) and place him on a mantel. People make the mantel look right, with a candle, a bell, incense sticks, his photograph, a glass of fresh water to be changed daily, wooden blocks with worldly inscriptions. And that’s life, death that is.
This morning after the crow awoke me I went in to the room where Ogiichan’s box of remains were and opened all the shutters of the windows. My Obaachan lit the candle and incense and I did the same and gave a prayer. We both looked at him and my Obaachan said I should give him breakfast so I was like what do you give someone who’s dead for breakfast? And she replied toast because that’s what he ate when he was alive for breakfast. So I go and make some toast and put it on a plate and place it on the mantel. I look at it and laugh again, it’s all a bit surreal this transitionary phase isn’t it? We have to treat the thing that’s not there as if it’s still there, more for us Living than the actual Dead who no longer cares. Right? But something in me feels so much more settled knowing that Ogiichan was bathed and cleaned properly before going in to the kiln, that we all as a community placed his remains in to the box, which I carried home, for it to reside over the place he lived for over 60 years. This made more sense than any other way of grieving. The toast was a mere embellishment to it all.
When my aunt Mariko got up and came in to the living room she asks me timidly,
‘Urm, why is there toast on the scared mantel?’
‘It’s his breakfast’. I say, ‘Obaachan told me to give him breakfast.’
‘You don’t give The Spirit bread for food – you give him a bowl of fresh white rice.’
‘Ok. Well you take it up with Obaachan.’
‘How else do you think Ogiichan’s spirit will become the Buddha if it lives off stale bread?’
‘Like I say, ask Obaachan I don’t know.’
So Mariko goes off to explain to Obaachan the ins and outs of what the dead want for food, and I hear my Obaachan exclaim that she doesn’t think he needs fresh white rice and my aunt says of course he does because it's The Spirit, and then I begin to write this blog.