Thursday, February 12, 2009

Funeral customs

Ok. This is not supposed to be a morbid post (though it may seem that way). I had to go to a wake/funeral last night and that got me thinking about the funerals I've attended in Japan and some of the cultural differences. And by the way, yesterday's funeral was a celebration of a church member's 89 years of life. Not that many tears and many wonderful stories to hear about.

When I came to Japan 30 some years ago I met a young woman from Venezuela who was married to a young Japanese man. They were newly married and were planning to live in Japan and Gladys and I studied Japanese together. Gladys' husband, Hajime, had a good friend, Tetsu and it was through them that Tetsu and I met and later married.

Gladys had her problems (as I later did!) adjusting to Japanese life. She would often visit me and bemoan some of the Japanese customs and nuances. I didn't know much and it was interesting for me to hear about in-laws and living as a Japanese housewife. Tetsu and Hajime and Gladys and I often double dated out of necessity! Tetsu and I couldn't talk to each other! I spoke to Gladys in English, Gladys spoke to Hajime in Spanish and Hajime spoke to Tetsu in Japanese! It was always a long drawn out conversation with a lot of mistranslations!

One day Gladys turned up at my door.

"I've left him! I'm not going back! Hajime's father died yesterday! They're planning the funeral today."

"What! You can't leave your husband because his father died. What happened?"

"I'm sorry for Hajime but I just cannot be the proper eldest son's Japanese wife. I don't understand all of that and I don't know what I'm going to be asked to do. I'm not going back until after the funeral!"

Tetsu called me about then asking if I knew where Gladys was. The family was in an uproar because she'd disappeared. (My Japanese had improved somewhat over the months that we had dated.)

"Umm. She's here. She says she's not going to go home until after Hajime's father's funeral. She's afraid of all the customs and doesn't know what is expected of her as the eldest son's wife."

"Tanya. Gladys HAS to be there! She HAS to be there to save face for the family! Even though she's a foreigner she HAS to be there for Hajime!"

We went back and forth with me translating for Tetsu and Gladys.

"Wait a minute, Tetsu. Give me a run down on the day's proceedings so that Gladys can know what to expect and what she has to do."

"Okay. She just stands besides Hajime and the family during the chanting. No one understands anything so it doesn't matter if she doesn't understand. After the service the family will go to the crematorium and they'll wait while the body is cremated." (Ooh. This is beginning to sound bad.) "Then the family will pick up the bones with chopsticks and put them in an urn."

"WHATTTT!!!????" That was me.

"What? What? What?" That was Gladys.

"I don't think I understood him. Quick get my Japanese-English dictionary. I don't think I understood one of those words. It isn't possible that somebody would pick up bones with chopsticks!"

Sorry. It's true. Japanese crematoriums just incinerate enough to leave bones. Not ashes. And the custom is for the family to pick up bones one by one together, two pairs of chopsticks holding one bone, and place them in the urn. That's one reason why one NEVER passes a piece of food from one pair of chopsticks to another pair of chopsticks while eating. Did you need that bit of trivia? That's enough details.

Tetsu did convince Gladys to fulfill her duties as the eldest son's wife but she stayed FAR in the background at the crematorium.

So you see. At least I knew what I was getting into when I married Tetsu and decided to live in Japan...


Diane said...

It is so interesting to learn the customs of other countries.
Thank you for sharing.
I love the story of how it took three people for you to talk with Tetsu.

Karen said...

That is very, very interesting. Are all bones collected? How big is the urn?


wow. That is something. Chopsticks huh? hmm. I've told my husband I want a service like i attended of a native american friend. You wrap the body in QUILTS made by the family, and have a Large banquet of food, staying with the body. It was quite wonderful, it was a celebration and not a sad time. I told my hubby I'd save one quilt just for the service!

The Calico Quilter said...

What I kept thinking while I read this is that we have become so divorced from the process of death and dying. I'm not sure I could collect the bones of a loved one, but then again I couldn't wash and dress a body for burial either, and that's what my mother's older relatives all did for their families. No funeral home involved. Maybe I'm just a wuss.

Are the urns buried or interred in above-ground masoleums?

Chocolate Cat said...

Thank you, another interesting custom and story. I love learning about your life in Japan and its differences to our life here.

Amanda said...

It seems that funeral customs are weird all over the world. You just get used to your own, but when you stop to think about them they do seem strange. I wonder why it that is. When my MIL died last year she had requested a cardboard coffin - to cut down on cost and to be more ecologically friendly. The immediate family were fine with it, but the older relatives were pretty scandalised.

Colleen formerly of South Africa said...

I enjoyed reading about the funeral traditions. But adored the story about your friend Alice....what a lovely relationship you have had over time. How fortunate you are.

Shasta said...

Those are interesting customs. Is it bad luck to drop the bone?

Katie said...

Very interesting. It is so nice that we can follow our customs and wishes. There are a lot of different ones here in the States. Thanks again for sharing.

anne bebbington said...

Oh Tanya it is always fascinating to read your explanations of Japanese customs - to be frank here in the UK after a cremation a large portion of the deceased's bones are also usually still intact but the staff at the crematorium have a grinding machine to reduce all the remains to fine dust - I know this because I once watched a programme about a young person who was attached to an undertakers for work experience and the UK tv saw fit to make a documentary about it. As far as I'm aware they don't necessarily cremate the deceased at the time of the funeral either, there can be a day or two's delay here so the family would claim the deceased's remains from the undertaker at a later date. What an odd subject to be discussing!

Karla said...

Tonya, thanks for sharing so many of your tidbits about Japan. I always enjoy reading you blog, though I've not left a comment yet. Love you way with story telling!

Elaine Adair said...

I've been remiss in not commenting, but today, I read from Fuerals, to your Pen Pal. You certainly have a gift for writing and explaining and giveing a verbal picture. Loved the hot springs story. 8-))) And definitely, LOVE that beautiful Winding Ways!