A Japanese Funeral
Last Friday, a friend of mine, Miyauchi Keiki, passed away after an intense 6 month battle with stomach cancer. I met Keiki, a local monk, at a Buddhist ceremony last autumn. He was quick to smile and had an amazing sense of humor. We met often in the four months to follow. I gave a weekly conversation class at his family's temple and often ate or had tea with his family when it was over. But one day Keiki disappeared and his mother began to cry and excuse herself at the oddest moments. Before long, we learned that Keiki had been admitted to the hospital for cancer... and that it was terminal. We made him video letters, sent him photos and often wished him luck in spite of the seemingly hopeless diagnosis. He kept signs and memos by his bedside that he written himself, vowing to beat the odds, get better and come home.
A week ago, he did come home.
He lived only four days after arriving home on the island... but he died with his friends and family around him in comfort of his own childhood home. He was 33. His funeral was today and true to an old Buddhist family: his send-off was as traditional and thoughtful as they come.
I've been to funerals before... but this one was different. It felt older, longer and more theatrical than the others. There were more guests... there was more crying... and even Japanese guests seemed lost when I asked them to explain why certain things were done or what they meant.
I mean no disrespect to Keiki or his family in sharing the details of his passing or his ceremony. I only hope they will be interesting or enlightening to those who read them. The funeral was amazing and I'd like to share it.
On arrival guests, all dressed in black, line up to deliver envelopes full of money (to help with the cost of the funeral and burial) to the family. These envelopes are very similar to the ones given on celebratory occaisions: only the chords that bind them are in black and white. The salutation ("condolences") is written in weak or watery black ink (to show sadness). These envelopes were collected by attendants and each guest signed a guestbook and recieved a small packet containing a package of salt (for purity), a note of thanks with a bit about the deceased, and a small gift (in this case, a package of expensive tea).
Guests then line up to pay their respects in prayer. Each guest carries a small string of Buddhist prayer beads throughout the funeral. In twos and threes, they line up facing a framed photo of the deceased and pray for a short time before taking a pinch of insence from the altar under the photo and lifting it to their head. It's then sprinkled on top of the already-burning pile.
Guests then gathered around the temple to watch the service. Family and close friends were seated inside while more distant friends watched from outdoors. The walls of the temple were opened up so that everyone could watch from wherever they sat or stood. Keiki's mother and father wore white robes to mourn (white, not black is the traditional color of death or mourning).
Monks (and one nun) then lead in chanting: the 108 calamities followed by the entire Heart Sutra. Keiki's life story was then read as a chant (by the most senior monk in residence). Three eulogies were then read: one by a monk from Koya Temple (where Keiki studied), one by another monk Keiki knew in his student days and another by a government official who knew him and his family. After that, the family and guests of honor were announced and invited to pay their respects publically (the same inscence smudging and prayer the regular guests did soon after arrival).
After another prayer and more chanting, the monks presiding retire and the funeral "proper" ends. This is where things get sad...
Family and friends who want to are encouraged to come inside. The coffin is opened and anyone who would like can gather around it to give gifts of flowers or pack the coffin with Keiki's own mementos, photos and wordly possessions. I tucked a flower near his ear while an old woman secured his tennis racket in his arm and talked to him like he was still a child. A junior high school girl sobbed while she tucked family photos by his feet. His glasses, a pair of sneakers, books he liked, flowers from the boquets that had been given: all of these things went into the coffin.
Keiki's cds were played over the PA while we did this. Then, when the gifts were given and goodbye were through, the coffin was closed and the guests and family were encouraged to drive in the nails. "Two taps each", they told us.
I couldn't do it... it seemed too horrible nailing his coffin shut myself.
When the coffin was nailed shut, everyone gathered for a funeral procession down the mountain. Keiki's mother wore a white veil of mourning, his father, uncles and younger brother carried his coffin while other family members carried banners and temple relics. His youngest brother carried the funeral photo.
The mourners followed behind as the procession continued down the mountain and highway. The entire path taking more than 30 minutes to trek. elderly pilgrims stood beside as we passed and played handbells, singing sutras to their chiming. It was really very pretty.
As we wound down the mountain, we passed through four bamboo gates, each bearing an inscription. I couldn't read them all myself, so I asked what they meant. Everyone I asked said that this was the first time they'd ever seen the gates, but I was told that their inscriptions read "Ease of Heart", "Determination in Study", "Calmness" and "Peace of Mind"...
When we reached our destination: the hearse, we all prayed one last time and bowed to the family and the hearse itself as they drove off.
I was surprised by quite a few things. One was that a photographer was walking around during the ceremony snapping pictures at close-range with flash. I asked someone if it was alright for him to be doing that and was told that the family itself had hired him! Monks were also paid openly for their services, but the money was presented in the same black enveloped used to deliver funeral offerings. These envelopes were tucked quickly into the monks' sleeves. Only the monks from Koya-san who seemed to know Keiki personally did not accept the money for their services at the ceremony.
I also noticed that some of the gifts given to the temple and displayed outside were baskets and displays packed full of food! I'd never seen this before and asked someone if the food was for the family or for Keiki (ie. to be burned when he was cremated). They laughed a little and said that in the following weeks, there would be many ceremonies which would be attended by friends and family. The food is to be divided among them, to save the time and effort they would otherwise need in shopping for and preparing food for themselves.
Cancer Links (donations do a world of good. With enough research, we may be able to defeat cancer once and for all in our lifetime):
Cancer Research UK : Stomach cancer at a glance
American Cancer Society
Re: A Japanese Funeral
Im really sorry about u friend...i never been in any funeral like this but i did heard about it! it is a very beautiful ceremony and very different from most of ocidental ppl...
Re: A Japanese Funeral
Very interesting. Nicely written Tsurara. The way the dead are treated are of immense importance in understanding culture and exploring history.