A Fukushima Funeral

This past Tuesday, T’s grandfather passed away. He was 92 and led a very rich life, which I will write about in part 2 of this story. In this post I want to write about the funeral rites and rituals.

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Gathering at the Village

Kunio Kasai lived and died in Fukushima, an agricultural prefecture five hours north of Tokyo by car. We set off on the drive with T’s dad on Thursday morning at 7am. Her mother was already there. Several other relatives from around the Tokyo area and some from Niigata also were on their way there by car.

Kunio had four daughters and they were all there. The second eldest, Kyoko, strangely enough, was already in the area attending another funeral, so she even had appropriate clothes. What a coincidence.

On the drive north, we saw the landscape turn increasingly autumnal, and eventually there was snow everywhere. It was beautiful. When we arrived in the afternoon, many of the villagers were camped out at the house preparing food, making arrangements for the funeral. The kitchen was full of women. In contrast to Tokyo funerals, the family of the deceased are the guests and the rest of the village make all the preparations. Some of the men of the village were in the living room writing calligraphy and drawing up plans for the next day. Everyone was dressed very casually, which surprised us since we were dressed formally.

Kunio’s body was on a futon in the living room and his widow, T’s grandma, Hisaye, was there to greet us. By his body was a small altar where we lit an incense and said a prayer.

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Purifying, Chanting and Singing

When most of the family was there, the paper and wood doors were closed to the rest of the house, and the family members plus an elderly man who appeared to be a village elder sat around the body. We ritualistically cleaned his body, by taking turns wiping his face, his hands and his feet. Then we put white silk booties and gloves on him and laid a white silk kimono on top of him. We then placed him in a coffin and placed flowers around him. All the while we each wore something that belonged to him. I had on what seemed to me like a Guatemalan shirt. After the cleansing we took off these pieces of clothing to be incinerated with the futon the next day.

Normally, it’s village tradition to go to the hot springs and be purified because we handled a dead person. But because the roads were icy, we did an abbreviated purification, throwing salt over our bodies and cleansing our hands and mouth with spring water.

Next, one of the village priests came and chanted and prayed for about 30 minutes. By this time my legs were killing me and I had to change my leg positions every few minutes. The priest had a very resonant deep voice. After the priest, the villagers gathered in front of the coffin and sang a traditional song. This went on for perhaps another 30 or 40 minutes. Finally we ate a feast and drank sake and beer.

Later that night most of the visiting family members checked in at a traditional inn in the village. We expected something very simple with few amenities. It turned out to be quite nice, with a hot public bath with a view of the snow outside, and a delicious breakfast in the morning. Because of the holidays, there were few rooms available and many of us had to double up. T and I shared a room with her brother and his wife. Despite the freezing weather outside, the rooms were quite cozy. Although since I’m used to going to sleep late at night and waking up after 5 hours of sleep, I woke up at 3:30am thinking it was much later.

The Funeral Hall

We headed back to the house early in the morning in our mourning clothes. Traditionally the bereaved would wear simple hemp clothing, but everyone wore black. We loaded the coffin into the hearse, and boarded a bus. We went to the funeral home, a large building with seating for a few hundred. The family members sat facing the entrance as the whole village entered the service. There was a lot of bowing and a lot of crying. It was moving seeing all these elderly people who grew up with Kunio come in and greet Hisaye. The hall filled up completely.

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When everyone was seated, the same priest from the night before prayed again. And from here, it resembled a traditional funeral, with speeches by T’s dad, as the head of the family, and by the village elder. Finally, each of the family members approached the alter and placed some herbs into the incense, prayed and rang a bell. Afterwards, each of the villagers also did the same thing.

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Once the rituals in the funeral home were finished, we went on a procession with the women wearing hemp scarves and the men wearing paper hats. Everyone carried a chrysanthemum, a flower representing death and the afterlife. After bowing towards the villagers in thanks, we boarded the bus again and proceeded to the crematorium. There we watched as Kunio was placed into the furnace, and then we were directed to a room to wait. We ate and drank and talked. I stepped outside to get some fresh air after eating.

When Kunio’s cremation was finished we gathered around the bones and ashes and took turns picking up the bone fragments with chopsticks which were transferred to the chopsticks of T’s dad and the village elder. They placed the bone fragments into a large urn that will be kept in the house for 49 days, with visits to the temple every 7 days. On the 49th day, Kunio’s remains will be placed in his grave.

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Some Other Observations

The older men smoked in the house, the bus and the waiting room at the crematorium. It was odd for us city folks where such things are looked down upon. But it reminded me of what was common in the US just 15 years ago.

When I first arrived, grandma Hisaye talked to me, in Japanese of course, thanking me for coming from so far away. Just seeing her and thinking about her losing her husband of 62 years made me break down and sob. She talked to him throughout the day telling him about who had arrived and about the snowstorm.

Some of the women in the kitchen looked to be in their 80’s. Normally I’d go in there and insist on helping out, eventually being chased out. I’ve come to accept that women in the kitchen is not such a terrible social injustice. It’s amazing how cross-cultural this phenomena is. I’ve been chased out of kitchens of many cultures: French, Korean, Canadian, German, American, Japanese, Congolese. Sometimes the women welcome the help, sometimes it’s a bit awkward. But I realized that it’s a part of the house where women rule, where they can congregate, talk and be together without the annoying presence of men. Rather than a place of servitude (from a man’s perspective), it’s seen as a place of power, where sustenance is prepared and then disbursed to the household. So these days, if I’m at a stranger’s house, I stay out of the kitchen. If I’m with my family or friends, then they just have to accept my meddling, rebel ways.

The village elder, it turned out, was chosen by Kunio before his death to preside over his funeral. It’s village custom to choose someone trustworthy to organize all the tasks necessary to successfully pass into the afterlife.

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2 thoughts on “A Fukushima Funeral”

  1. My Japanese grandmother passed away about five years ago. Only my parents came to the funeral, but my mother told a completely different story. T’s family sounds warm and relaxed. And I don’t think it’s because they live far away from Tokyo, you are lucky!

  2. in my experience, funerals really are usually a cold process. there’s no chance to openly grieve. i liked this funeral because a whole community was involved, both formally and informally. so the bereaved have no chance to grieve alone.

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