Saying Goodbye

Writing this was easy. Putting it here was not.


First was my brother. He was eleven, I was seven. My parents were called into the hospital early in the morning, and when they came home in silence, I knew immediately that something was wrong. My siblings and I were not allowed to attend the funeral, for fear we would not understand.

Then my grandfather. Again the phone rang in the morning; my father rose from the breakfast table and took the call. The slight rise in his tone when the caller identified themselves, followed by the way he silently put his hand on my mother's shoulder, told me what the call was about. I was sent to school anyway, but broke down crying when criticised for some poorly prepared homework. This time I did understand.

I remembered both these events from my childhood recently, after my father in law lost his battle with cancer. My wife got the call at around 3AM, and set off for the hospital. She called me an hour or so later, having reached the hospital just a few minutes too late.

My own kids got the day off school, but wanted to play outside anyway. Never having lost a loved one  directly before, they did not understand the seriousness, the sadness of the situation. When my other brother died suddenly in January of this year, their first reaction was to ask whether we would be sending any New Year cards the following December. But unlike the funerals of my childhood, my children would play a full part in their grandfather's proceedings, and share the experience with the adults around them.

The preparation of the body is done in the presence of the family. I feared it would be morbid, disturbing even, but it was strangely calming. It was a poignant, powerful way to say goodbye, to see the deceased off on their journey to the other world.

After his body had been brought home from the hospital and laid out at home, we all kneeled in a row beside him, as the undertaker explained the procedure. She started by washing his hair, then shaved his face. After a few minutes, my daughter could no longer bear to look at the grandfather she loved, and crawled behind me, burying her face in my back.  As she started weeping, I asked if she wanted to go out. She nodded meekly, and I carried her upstairs. I would have done anything to make those tears go away. Without a word she sat down at the desk and started drawing. First was simple picture of me, folded and passed to me as if to send me on my way. Then she started on a portrait of her grandfather. She was dealing with it her way, expressing her feelings in the way she knew best; drawing. I asked if she wanted me to stay, but she gave no answer. I watched her for a few more minutes then said I would go back down, and asked would she be okay on her own. She nodded slowly.

We each took a turn in preparing one part of the garments. When my son's turn came, he was calm, precise, serious; even reverent. For those few seconds, I looked on my eight year old son, and saw the grown man I hope he will become.

The final step of my father in law's preparation was to wet his lips with a little Sake. Each of us took turns to dab some on his mouth with a cotton bud, and wish him a peaceful trip to the afterlife. My young nephew was a little too eager to please, prodding the cotton into his grandfather's nose as well. That was not the last time in the coming days that he and his generation would provide comic relief.

With the preparations complete, my sister in law's husband and I helped the two undertakers lift the body into the coffin. My father in law would then lie in repose until his removal the following evening. His four grandchildren gathered round, placed letters and drawings in the coffin beside him, and the lid was closed. Small doors in the lid allowed a view of his head and shoulders for any relatives and friends who might come calling.

I have always been uncomfortable facing the departed as they lay in rest. The first time we see them, they have already been prepared by the embalmer, to a level of perfection they rarely achieved in the last days of their life, and I had always felt reluctant to disturb their serenity.Afraid I might knock a hair out of place, I even found myself hesitant to touch them. At the time of my mother's funeral my family discussed how she had disliked open coffins at funerals and did not want one herself, as for all but the immediate family it was little more than ghoulish curiosity to look down on the deceased, comparing their preened corpse to one's last memory of their appearance while living.

But this time was different. For one thing, since bodies are cremated in Japan, it is customary not to embalm them, so my father in law's skin was a more natural colour, and had the same sallow, wrinkled gauntness that he had in his final days. Also, we, the family, were a part of the process of preparing him, which gave us a last chance to actually do something for him.  It was not just inquisitive gawking, but a tangible act of tending to the needs of the body as a part of the process of the funeral. The closest I had ever got to this before was probably clearing up my brother's room after his death in January, which was only a small step towards putting his affairs in order, but allowed me to feel I had done something for him after his passing. Because of this practical purpose, it was somewhat easier to come to terms with facing the corpse. 

Another contrast I noticed with my brother's death was the nature of it. My brother' died suddenly, and very unexpectedly. The phone call from my father on a Saturday morning was such a shock that for several hours I almost doubted it was real. Because of this, and his relative youth (only two years older than myself), it was harder to accept, and left me angry at the unfairness of it. 

For my father in law, though, we had fair warning. He had been told of the cancer some five years before, and given "maybe two or three years" at the time. Over those years, his treatment became gradually less effective as the disease progressed, and at each stage the doctor warned us the end was getting nearer. Even my father in law himself guessed towards the end that his time was coming. (It is custom in Japan not to tell the patient themselves too much about their expected demise, as it can demoralise them and in some cases induce suicidal thoughts.) We even had the chance to break the news to our children in stages, giving them time to come to terms with the concept of their grandad being sick, then very sick, so that when we finally told them the name of the disease, which they already knew of from television, they still had some time to consider the possibility that grandad would not recover, before actually having to deal with that reality. 

For them, and for all of us, his dying was the end of a process, the prevention of further suffering. He had the opportunity to put his affairs in order, to say goodbye. And those around him had the chance to get their emotions in order too. The farewell was less of an injury, less of an insult, less of a shock, than it had been with my brother. My brother had died too young, with many things unfinished or undone. My father in law had died after a full life; with a career, a family, and grandchildren he doted on. I hope that when my final day comes I can say the same.

The following day, the removal of his body took place to the local funeral hall. We loaded his coffin into the hearse outside the house; his wife rode beside him, and the rest of his family stood respectfully; daughters, sons in law, grandchildren, heads bowed and hands clasped in the traditional greeting reserved for the deceased, as the car moved away. It was at this point that I first saw his two daughters openly show emotion, weeping as their father left his house for the final time. 

Turning the corner, the hearse was met by several of his neighbours, showing their respects from the vegetable patch they had all tended together, marking his departure from the location of his other great pleasure in his retirement.

By the time we reached the funeral hall, some of his brothers and sisters had already arrived from Fukushima. Some would be spending the night at the funeral hall, in a reserved room for that purpose at the back. Reunions were made, greetings exchanged; the grandchildren praised for their appearance, increased size, and general good health. The room where the service would take place was still being prepared, so I tried to make myself useful carrying bags and such.

When the two buddhist priests arrived, we were called into another room to hear from them the name they had decided to give the deceased in the next life. The elder priest always had a soft spot for myself, ever since our family purchased a grave site at his temple for my wife's grandmother some years before, and always tried to practice his English on me, but was somewhat restrained on this day by the nature of the event.

The first part of the funeral rite, the "Tsuuya", involved some prayers, followed by each mourner coming up to offer their condolences by burning a small amount of incense. The grandchildren were given a practice run beforehand, and with the exception of the smallest, who wanted to repeat the act several times, performed excellently. There followed a short reception with food and drink, and people started drifting home for the evening. The siblings from Fukushima called me to join them in the back room for the wake, but we had to get the kids home to bed, so we made our excuses.

Noon the next day was the "Kokubetsushiki", the sendoff. Similar prayers and services to the previous day, after which everyone filed out to the entrance lobby while the coffin was prepared for removal. When everyone was invited back in, the lid of the coffin had been removed again, and my father in law was lying in state in the middle of the room. All the flowers from the bouquets received had been spread on trays, and everyone was then invited to place them in the coffin around the deceased. All said their final words of goodbye as they placed flowers around his head and body, filling the coffin so that only his face was visible in a sea of petals. (One interesting piece of protocol I learned during this was that if a flower is dropped on the ground, it must not be placed in the coffin; presumably it is tarnished in some way.)  This was also a beautiful and moving event, allowing all present to have a little part in preparing the deceased for the final stage of their journey in the physical world, the cremation. Once done, the coffin was closed again and wheeled out to the waiting hearse. Again, we menfolk did the lifting, and the body of my father in law set off with his wife at his side, holding his photo.

The cremation took place at a city facility for that purpose, and this was, to my surprise, the least personal part of the process. My only other experience of a cremation had been my brother's some months before, and I was expecting a similar setting. In Dublin, the final moments with my brother's remains took place in a century old room, reminiscent of a church, with tastefully arranged flowers, curtains, low lighting and piped-in classical music. 

The crematorium in Japan, however, was reminiscent of a bus station, even down to the uniforms of the staff. At the back of the entrance lobby were the four ovens, two of which were in use. We were given literally a couple of minutes to say our final farewells, and then the coffin was rolled in to the oven on a motorised conveyor and we were guided to a waiting room upstairs. About an hour later, we were called back down to the other end of the lobby, where the remains were wheeled out before us. The family then transferred the remaining bones from the trolley to the urn, in pairs, using metal chopsticks. Compared to the thoughtful and emotional scenes up to that point in the day, this was the most businesslike part of the proceeedings. I was surprised at the lack of privacy. Conversation was sparse, but comments were made about certain features of the bones, such as the jaw still holding the one crooked tooth that had not succumbed to old age like those around it. The remaining ashes were gathered and placed in the urn, which was then put in a box, and wrapped in cloth. We carried it outside, and took it back to the funeral hall (in my car), where the final meal was prepared. A few words from my mother in law, and a final toast from myself started the meal. Most of those mourners still with us had long journeys home, so the group broke up rather quickly. People were seen off to taxis amid a flurry of activity, trying to make sure along the way that nobody forgot their parting memorial gifts. 

We took my father in law's ashes back to his home, where a temporary altar had been built, and placed them in position, where they would rest until the interring forty nine days hence. 

The day was done. Life, for the rest of us, would go on.


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