Thursday, July 05, 2007


This is not a very cheerful post today.

Yesterday I had to attend the wake of the son of one of my friends. He was only 23 years old.

You may think I'm not very sympathetic but I found myself thinking a lot about funerals and what they mean to people. Maybe I shouldn't have been analyzing the situation at a time like this but I was.

Of course since I am an American living in Japan there are a lot of cultural differences and when it comes to funerals this is always quite obvious. On top of that, being Christian in a Buddhist culture brings out many more differences and this is true for even Japanese Christians.

There are the petty differences that Christians can get hung up on. Do we burn incense for the departed or don't we? Some churches will tell you that you shouldn't. Others will say it doesn't matter, there is no need to flaunt your faith. I have done it both ways though usually people assume that since I'm American that it is not my custom and I'm not insulting anyone if I don't offer it. Tetsu gets involved with a lot of funerals since he works at a convalescent home and he just assumes the custom of the funeral service.

I've been to Buddhist funerals when the person who has passed has actually been Christian but the family isn't and so they wouldn't know what to do in a church setting anyway. This seems a shame to me. The person I know would have wanted to have a Christian service, but then I get to thinking, well, isn't the funeral for the people who are left behind anyway? It's supposed to comfort them and at least for the Christian it doesn't matter what kind of send off he gets.

The wake that I went to yesterday was held in a memorial hall and was attended by close to 500 people. Formal black wear is required and if you live in Japan one of the first things you buy is a black ensemble or suit. Actually all the formal mourning wear looks alike though there are differences in lace and style. Basically the women wear black stockings, black shoes, carry black purses and wear a simple strand of pearls. Depending on the season there is a black matching jacket that can be worn.

Yesterday's Buddhist service was a little over an hour long and the priest, dressed in robes, entered and knelt before the very elaborate altar with a picture of the boy and began chanting and hitting a drum. The chant is incomprehensible to me of course but I have asked Japanese friends and they too say that nothing that is chanted can be understood. Only the priest seems to know what he is saying but the chant opens the road for the person who has died to enter heaven so it has to be long and no one is expected to understand it. Part way during the chant the people attending were asked to line up and offer incense that was provided and in some cases I've seen incense sticks, at other services it is powdered incense. Since there were so many people this took a long time yesterday and the priest chanted throughout. No words of comfort were spoken nor any eulogy. In some cases the priest may say something at the actual funeral but often not. Yesterday, the boy's parents and brother stood at the exit to say thank you to the guests for coming, but very few words were passed between the family and those attending.

Is this comforting to the family? Maybe it is. Maybe the endless chant numbs the pain and grief. I think everyone felt the service was exhausting and wanted it to be over. Maybe the number of people attending gave the family comfort to know their son was in so many people's hearts. Maybe words of comfort and relating details of the boy's life would have made the situation more unbearable. I don't know. It is not how I would like to say my farewells...

I remember the boy from Sunday School and kindergarten. I pray his childlike faith from then will open the gates of heaven for him now.

"The Lord is near the brokenhearted,
And saves those who are crushed in spirit."
Psalms 34:18


anne bebbington said...

The death of a young person is doubly sad as you think of what might have been if they'd lived to old age and the missed opportunities. Funerals are a necessary part of life and death - from a practical point of view there is a body to dispose of - from an emotional point of view it can often be a focus for the grief, an excuse for a jolly good bawl where no-one will think less of you for crying and not keeping that stoic 'British stiff upper lip' but increasingly now the refreshing trend of using the service as a celebration of the deceased's life rather than just the sorrow that they're gone is coming into the UK way of life. When my aunt died two years ago at the age of 71 I gave the eulogy and am pleased to say I managed to add a little gentle humour giving those attending the opportunity for a reflective smile if not a real belly laugh - often being able to laugh out loud can then naturally lead to breaking down the flood barriers for a jolly good cry to let all the emotions come to the surface - repressed emotions are the most harmful in dealing with grief. As for the black suit so many funerals in the UK, particularly of young people ask specifically for NO dark clothing which all ties in with the celebration theme. It was interesting to read your account Tanya, thanks for again sharing how different things are on your side of the globe

meggie said...

Very interesting to read your account & thoughts about funerals. I often ponder them also. I have recently lost a younger cousin, & her parents were surprised to discover she was Buddhist, after she had died. Her mother was Roman Catholic, & I think it bewildered her a little. It is true that Christians in one country can be very different to Christians in other countries. I find this very odd. I dont have a 'religion' but I do think a ceremony is necessary for the relatives & friends of the departed to help with their wellbeing. I always thought the Maori had a great approach with their Tangiing, which last for days, & is a healthy release, I am sure.
Thank you for your view Tanya.

The Calico Cat said...

How intersting... Luckily I have not been to a lot of funerals... But I think that many people are going through the motions, doing what is expected, so if that community has been doing it that way, then that is the way to do it. (I am thinking there is no right or wrong way.) I do recall that a Catholic funeral, had incense too, though... (That is probably my only memory of the service.)

atet said...

No -- funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. And each culture and even individuals have different ways of saying goodbye to those who have gone. I don't think there are easy answers to this one -- I know when it is my time, I want those who remain to celebrate my life. To take comfort in the memories I leave behind rather than following some notion of what is "right" or "proper". But there is comfort in custom too. There is the ability to follow some set of guidelines at a time when you are incapable of really thinking much at all. Like I said, no easy answers. I'm sorry for his family's grief -- and your own.

teodo said...

Ciao Tania
sometimes it happens something we can't explain and when it happens to young people it's impossible to explain the pain.
some rituals and traditions so different from ours leave us a bit upset.
ciao ciao

Shelina said...

My grandmother passed away a couple of years ago, and I went to the Muslim funeral. I hadn't been to one since I was a young child (my grandfather's) so I did some research on what the customs were, etc. It isn't true that the funerals are for the living. That is a very modern way of looking at things. In Muslim tradition, according to my research, the departed is going to heaven, and we need to do a lot of chanting and praying for them, and the more people that pray for them, the more likely the application to heaven will be honored. The comfort for the family that their beloved is going to a good place, is secondary, because the funeral is all about the deceased.

There isn't a lot done for the living (although since the funeral was in Canada, the grieving did get a lot of attention.)

Una said...

Thank you for sharing your views on the differences between Buddhist/Japanese and Christian/American funeral practices. I come from Germany and here the attire is similar to the Japanese, all in black, semi-formal wear for both men and women. Most ppl who do not own black clothes wear a black ribbon tied to their arms (either right or left depending of wether it was a friend or family).

I think in the Western world funeral services are slowly changing depending on how old the person who died is. A couple of years ago I attended a friens's funeral who happened to be a Christian Korean and he deliberately had asked his family and friends not to book either a typical Christian nor a typical Korean ceremony. We had a semi-formal gathering with ppl telling stories about him, playing his favourite music and only when he was actually buried a priest had said a few words. I think that was one of the most sad and yet uplifting funerals I have ever been to. A celebration of a life that has come to an end. Most funerals always are so gloomy and here was one that was full of laughter, good memories and somehow filled with the spirit of my friend.

Anyway, sorry to babble so long. I'm only a beginner in quilting, and as I am interested in Japan (esp. music and doramas) I was delighted when I came across your blog. Thank you for sharing such a unique view with us. Please continue your hard work. Onegai shimasu.