First, a little background. Japanese funerals are generally conducted according to Buddhist custom (although Shinto and Christian funerals are not unknown). In most cases, the funeral is divided into the tsuya, usually held at night and attended by close family, and the kokubetsushiki, which is the funeral proper and attended by family, friends and acquaintances. However, this is not a hard and fast rule; attending the tsuya of someone you've never met - the relative of a friend, for example - is not uncommon these days. Often it comes down to which one is more convenient for the person attending, as it is usually difficult to take a day off from work to go to a funeral unless it's for a close family member.
Our grandfather's funeral was being held near Hitachi, a medium-sized town in northern Ibaraki Prefecture, at a municipal funeral home near to the house he had lived in from after the war until his move into a home for the elderly a few years ago.
The main building was a wide, undistinguished hall going slightly to seed (as might be expected for a building maintained by the local government, rather than private enterprise), situated among a large graveyard that covered most of the low hill behind it. We signed the name register at the entrance and handed over our kōden (a sum of money given to the immediate relatives to offset the cost of the funeral and the grave), and changed into our funeral wear in one of the rooms provided for that purpose. Thankfully, these days it tends toward black suits for the men and black dresses for the women, rather than the traditional black kimono, which to be honest is an absolute nightmare to put on without help.
Weddings and funerals are one of the few times people these days have the opportunity to see their extended family, so the first task was to take a walk around all the relatives - most of whom I know only as names from conversations between my wife and her parents.
Our grandfather had six children that I know of, these days a large family but not unusual in pre-war Japan. The first son, also the oldest child, took the role of moshu, the person responsible for holding the funeral (the other most common choice for this role is the wife; however, our grandmother has become increasingly senile in recent years and thus did not attend the funeral). The second child is a rather loud woman in her mid-60's, for whom I have no great liking. The third child was a son, but died young; whether his death was from the war, accident or sickness, I do not know. The fourth child is my mother-in-law, a pleasant woman who took the greatest part of the burden of caring for her father in his old age. The fifth child, a son, died a few years ago of stomach cancer. The youngest child, also a son, is now in his late 50's.
To fill you in on the full cast, in addition to the people above and their spouses, there was the usual selection of more distant relations - grandchildren and their husbands and wives (which includes my wife and myself), a fair number of great-grandchildren, some cousins, a few representatives from the families of spouses - as well as a couple of local politicians and company presidents, and a smattering of elderly friends.
We had arrived just before noon, and found that we were just in time for the transfer of the bones into the bone jar. Under Japanese law, cremation is compulsory; after the cremation takes place, the bones are transferred into a pottery jar, roughly the size of a small bucket, which then may be placed in the grave or, more rarely, be kept by a family member. While I've been to Japanese funerals before, this was the first family one I had attended, and thus the first time I had been invited to this part of the event.
As it happened, yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far, a muggy midsummer's day with temperatures peaking at 38C (a hair over 100F) and a starkly bright sun beating down from a flat blue sky. A small group of the closest relatives, my wife and I among them, wandered up a short slope between the main hall and the crematorium, a white-plastered building of traditional appearance with a wide entrance that led into a small room. Upon entering the room, the scorching glare of the sun outside gave way to a drier but more intense and oppressive heat, radiating from the brick wall at the back. Two large metal doors embedded in the wall no doubt led into the ovens.
It may come as a surprise to some people that cremation actually leaves most of the bones relatively intact, something which was brought home forcefully by seeing our grandfather's bones and ashes laid out on a large metal tray in front of the doors. The tray had presumably supported the coffin when it was placed in the oven.
The attendant, a rotund, balding man in his forties, called for us to stand closer, and took what seemed an almost unseemly pleasure in pointing out the thighbones, the ribs, the places where the coffin nails had melted and fused with the bone, and finally several large fragments that when pushed together proved to be the skull. It seemed far too small to be that of the man I knew, more like the head of a child.
After this rather unwelcome lecture, he passed a pair of long, square-cut wooden chopsticks to the two closest people, and asked them to begin the placing of the bones into the bone jar. This process starts with the feet and progresses up the legs and torso, ending with the skull.
If you've ever lived in Japan, you've probably been told off once or twice for trying to pass food from your chopsticks to another's; if it was never explained to you, the reason is that it brings to mind this part of the funeral ceremony, where pairs of relatives share the task of picking up the bones one at a time and putting them into the bone jar.
When it came to our turn, my wife and I chose a smaller fragment, what appeared to be part of a rib. We each grasped an end of the narrow, ash-grey splinter between our chopsticks, and lifting it gently, placed it on top of the growing mound within the jar.
After passing the chopsticks to those behind us, we took our place with the other relatives who had had their turn; the final chance to touch the earthly remains of the old man whose photograph stood in an alcove in the wall, the man who regularly cried when leaving family gatherings, the same man who I had drunk sake with each New Year's, one of the few relatives who showed no hesitation in talking with the foreign husband of his grandchild.
Soon, it became evident that not all the bones would fit in the jar - already, it was full to the brim, and the skull and much of the torso still remained on the tray. At this point, the attendant passed a wooden pestle to the oldest son, who thereupon began to grind the bones in the jar, forcing them down to leave room for the last pieces. Each movement of the pestle produced a sound reminiscent of crushed glass, punctuated by the high, sharp chiming snap of a larger bone as it broke in two - a sound which I find hard to forget, even now.
The last pieces were then laid to rest in the jar, and the attendant briskly scooped up the last ashes and poured them over the bones. The jar was capped, placed in a plain wooden box and covered with a silk hood, and passed to the youngest son. We all fell in behind him and the oldest son, who was carrying the large photo that had stood in the alcove.
As we left the building, each of us took a pinch of salt and dried bonito shavings and placed it in our mouths, followed by a very small cup of sake. All of these are held in Japanese tradition to be purifying substances, allowing us to cleanse ourselves of any untoward influences left by the dead.
We shuffled back down the slope into the main building, where after a few minutes, the funeral proper began in a small hall. The bone jar in its box was placed on the altar at the front of the hall. Already on the altar was a variety of objects that would seem very out of place at a Western funeral; piles of red and white rice candies, stacks of fresh fruit including bunches of bananas and a couple of pineapples, tall lotus plants made of copper, and a black-framed photograph of the deceased's face (which I later learned had been photoshopped to make it seem as if he was wearing a black suit and tie). It looked somewhat like this.
The funeral director, a small man with an appropriately solemn but rather artificial tone of voice, directed us to stand as two Buddhist priests took their seats in front of the altar. They then began to rhythmyically chant one of several sutras, punctuated by the beat of the mokugyo, a type of wooden drum, the chime of the rin, a round clapperless bell of bronze, and the clash of a pair of small cymbals wielded by the younger of the two priests.
This continued for several minutes, after which each person attending the ceremony had the opportunity to stand before the altar and throw aromatic wood powder on one of several incense burners, followed by a bow toward the altar and then the family seats (for distant relatives and friends of the deceased) or the general seats (for immediate family). Once everybody had taken their turn at this, the priests once again went into their chanting routine, during which most of those attending the ceremony seemed to take a quick nap.
Once the priests finished up and left the room, we filed out into one of the large reception halls, where food had been laid out on several tables. In Japan, it's traditional to eat and drink as much as possible after a funeral, and take the chance to discuss memories of the deceased - although this tends to degenerate into something rather less poetic, with the men knocking back beer and sake with a will and the women huddling into little cliques, no doubt sniping at particularly disliked relatives.
After that, it was just a matter of making the compulsory circuit around the room, delivering parting remarks to the relatives we wouldn't see again until the next one had a heart attack or a stroke or fell prey to cancer. My wife and I walked back out into the glaring heat of the sun, past the rows of cars left with their engines running, no doubt in the hope that the air conditioner would bring the temperature inside down to a bearable level. The heat beat up from the asphalt in waves, and my eyes stung with sweat.
Goodbye, old man - maybe I'll see you in the next life.