Sunday, March 4, 2012

A funeral

This weekend I had to go to a funeral. The ojiisan (grandfather) at the Japanese sweet shop where I do crosswalk guard duty, passed away last week. Every morning he and I passed greetings to each other and I often chat with his wife. Usually for funerals, Tetsu will attend rather than me, but he doesn't know the family so I went this time.

Thankfully I don't have to go to many funerals (whereas Tetsu in convalescent work, does!). And the few I've been to have mostly been Christian funerals. The one on Friday was fully Buddhist and between the Buddhist customs and the Japanese customs I was at a loss. I really wondered what I was doing there... probably attracting attention with my faux pas... What IS this foreigner going to do next?

There are so many things that have to be done in just a certain way in Japan. Officially I learned of the ojiisan's passing when I went to the crosswalk and found the front of the shop decorated by a large plastic flower circle. In wealthy farm homes there may be many of these standing along the side of the road, and the funeral will be held in the home, but the sweet shop had only one flower circle at the entrance (others were displayed in front of the memorial hall where this funeral was held.)

I recall 30 years ago when I was a new missionary, a foreigner friend noticed a flower circle in front of a noodle shop and expressed congratulations for what he thought was the shop's opening. My friend was so mortified that he had mistaken a mourning flower circle with a celebratory flower circle... The colors are different, as well as what is written on the placard (which my friend couldn't read, of course.) What must the poor noodle shop owner have thought! (Picture from the Internet.)

For Friday's funeral I dressed from head to toe in black... a formal outfit that Tetsu's sister gave me 30 years ago in order to be a proper Japanese wife fitting into society. The only accessories allowed are a short single strand of white pearls and single pearl earrings. (I don't have a strand of pearls but do have a single pearl on a chain.... Good enough. Better than making the mistake of wearing a double strand of pearls which would wish a double dose of unhappiness on the family!)

I had asked Tetsu to write up a mourning envelope for me that morning but he forgot and I had to do it myself. Yuck. What childish handwriting! That is my name on the front of the envelope. Inside, depending on the relationship to the family, a gift of money is offered. I had already consulted Tetsu on what was the proper amount...

At the cigarette smokey memorial hall I presented my envelope (it was supposed to be wrapped in a special purple fabric but I just pulled it out of my mourning clutch purse).

"Are you a relative?" asked the man at the reception desk. (The sweet shop owners' last name is also Watanabe.)

"No. I'm a neighbor." (in a way...)

"Do you live in the same district?"

"Yes... I'm a neighbor... in a way."

The reception desk man gave me a small package and directed me to the funeral room.

The flowers on the altar were just gorgeous but I didn't feel it was appropriate to haul out my camera. This is similar image from the Internet... The flowers swept around a picture of the ojiisan in the most artistic way. It made me think of oceans and waves and flowing water.

When the ceremony started, Buddhist priests in heavy gold brocade robes filed in and while one priest thumped his drums and gongs, the other priest chanted and hummed. A cacophony of noises all through the chanting. Wooden drumbeats, reverberating gongs, ringing bells, tinkling chimes, clashing cymbals, banging lids, swishing rods... The room became smokier with burning incense... canceling out the cigarette smoke.

Around the room were baskets of flowers some real, some artificial, and all overflowing with food products. I was interested to see jars of instant coffee, cans of tuna fish and peaches, boxes of pancake mix, bottles of salad oil. Hmmm. Interesting decorations. Tetsu explained later (as far as he knows which isn't really very much) that the food products will be divied between relatives and people who helped at the funeral.

At some point all of us were invited to come forward and offer incense which I did... There was a proper ceremony of bowing and dipping and bowing and dipping again and I did the best I could monkeying the people ahead of me in the line.

The nicest part of the funeral was when slides were shown of the ojiisan in his younger days and then we were invited to come forward again and place flowers in the coffin. I declined that invitation. And then everyone softly pounded the closed coffin with a rock before it was hammered closed. Whew.

We all filed out after the family members who held a picture of the ojiisan; his Buddhist name carved on a block; the cremation urn; and flowers. The family and relatives all boarded a bus that was bound for the crematory but neighbors and friends aren't included in that ceremony.

This morning at the crosswalk, the sweet shop wife came running out (in the rain) to thank me for coming to the funeral and she handed me another package from the memorial hall... Somehow I ended up with the wrong small package... At the reception desk I should have specified that I was the crosswalk guard, not a mere neighbor (in a way). The sweet shop wife was very upset that I had been given the wrong package. The first package was a handkerchief. The one I was given this morning had seaweed and osake in it.

I will miss seeing the ojiisan washing the windows of his sweet shop every morning. He always had a smile and a greeting for the children walking by his shop.

By the way, the movie Departures about Japanese funeral customs is EXCELLENT!

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