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The Start of the Funeral Process

If you ask a Japanese person what image they have of a temple, they will more often than not say, `funerals`. Often the first encounter a Japanese person has with a temple or a Buddhist priest is when a relative dies and they become involved with the funeral process.

Just recently I visited a member's house for a post-funeral chanting service and the husband commented that it had been over 30 years since a priest had visited the house、the last time being when his father had died.  I thought this was a very sad state of affairs and immediately told him about the Equinox visits I do in his area every Spring and Summer. Seven houses in their part of the village invite us to do services in their houses twice a year, would he like his house to be included in my rounds? He hadn't known anything about the Equinox visits and said `yes` straightaway.

A lot of people cannot be bothered to think about these things, and to have this service presented to them makes the whole process of thinking about religious traditions easier. They begin to feel more connected to the temple, more open to listening about the teachings, more ready to see the temple as a living and working entity relevant to their lives, rather than just a funeral factory.

Yesterday we were informed of the death of a member of our congregation and the funeral process began for that family. Next week is the Spring Equinox and I will be visiting many of our members houses for services, so I thought I would share with you, over the next few days, some of the details of the temple`s key activities.

We got the phonecall from the deceased lady`s son at 10am, he told us that his mother had died of a heart attack earlier that morning and could we come to the house in about an hour`s time, when her body would have arrived back from the hospital. There are a few key things to bear in mind when thinking about funerals in Japan. There is no embalming, so funerals happen very fast, within 3 days of death, maximum. Time is even more of the essence when it's the height of summer. Decay sets in fast, nothing is air-conditioned, and no amount of Casablanca lilies can disguise the tell-tale smell of rotting flesh. My husband has done too many summer funerals, sometimes of people whose bodies weren`t discovered until a few days after death, and he absolutely cannot stand the smell of lilies now.

Takachiho hospital has no morgue so, as soon as the patient has passed, the hospital wants them out. (We had a deceased person brought to us in the middle of the night, in the throes of a severe typhoon, when we had evacuees sheltering in our main hall and roof tiles flying around, but the hospital wanted the dead patient OUT so we had to unbatten our hatches to welcome the deceased and their family in, even in such extreme conditions.)

The nurses do the basic preparations (cotton wool in the orifices, hands clasped on the chest, eyelids down). Then the Japanese agricultural association is called. (They provide all the logistical funeral services.) They have an unmarked van which discretely transports the deceased to their home, or straight to the temple, or to the funeral parlour. This is a very rural area, so the majority of funerals are still performed in the deceased`s own home. They are transported on a thin mat on a stretcher, and are laid out in front of the family altar in the home. Dry ice would have been tucked in the armpits and under the body to try and slow down the decay process.

Each house is part of a neighbourhood group of houses, called a `kumiai`.  Through the kumiai you pay your taxes, sort out garbage collection, pay local community dues, sort out road cleaning duties, support the volunteer fire brigade, and lots, lots more, but most importantly for this story, they are the people who rally round to give you a good send-off when you die. They man the welcome desk of the funeral, they prepare all the food for the wake, the funeral and the after service. They make your house ready for the stream of visitors. They are the living pulse of the funeral. You must always remain on good terms with your neighbours, because your death depends on it!

So, just about the same time that we at the temple got the phone call from the family, all the neighbours were being contacted too. Everyone gathered at the house of the deceased for the giving of the Pillow Sutra `makura gyo`. Traditionally, this sutra would have been chanted just as the person is nearing the end, not after, but it's very difficult to judge these things, as you can imagine. And you do not want to be too quick off the mark and then the patient not die after all.

At this gathering the most important decisions will be made (the when and where of the wake and funeral), a Japanese Agricultural representative will also be there, with his special file of coffin options, hearse options, notification options and other things you had no idea existed.  Yesterday we were told that the family wanted to have the wake and funeral in the temple, as they felt their house was too small and cluttered. The neighbours made arrangements to have 2 days off from their regular employment and everyone was delegated funeral jobs and roles.

This morning the neighbour ladies were due to arrive at 8am to start the food preparations. They are going to make the lunch for the family and the relatives, the food for this evening's wake and the food for the `otoki`, the traditional vegetarian pre-funeral meal for 100 funeral guests. It is my job as temple wife to make sure all the facilities are ready for them. We have 5 kitchens here at the temple, I have one, my mother-in-law has one, we then have 2 public-use kitchens and one private guest kitchen. I spend a lot of my time making sure everything is clean, neat and easy to understand.  I also make sure that I have enough futons for the relatives who will stay the night after the wake. It is tradition in Japan for the relatives to sleep in the same room as the deceased so they are never left alone.  I have spent the last few years stream-lining and perfecting the system here, making sure everything is easy to use, so guests can use the facilities and return them to their original state, without having to ask and check with me every 10 minutes. I have colour-coded the different cloths, so no-one wipes the floor with a dish-towel, for example.

So, this morning, before I set off to teach `Mummy and me` baby class in town, I welcomed the ladies, got them settled in to the kitchens and helped Junsho set up the hall and the temple main hall for the wake and the funeral.  This evening, after teaching my end-of-afternoon classes, I will see how the wake is progressing.

The deceased will be at home until 3:30pm this afternoon, when she will be placed into the coffin and transported here, to the temple, which is a 5 minute drive from her house.  I am often involved with placing the deceased in the coffin. The relatives tend to be understandably upset and confused at this time, and my job is to facilitate this delicate operation.  There are special straps attached to the futon the funeral people have placed the deceased on, you strategically place people at 4 corners, plus extras, if the deceased is large. You hold on to these straps and lift the deceased up and into the coffin. I remember one time trying to put a Buddhist rosary bead set on the hands of one fellow, only to discover that one hand was stuck in an awkward position, down the side of the coffin.  I fumbled around the side of his body, and managed to pull his hand up to a vaguely reasonably position on his chest, but it was all a bit wonky. Sometimes I think to myself, how strange it is that I, a foreigner, should be guiding Japanese people through such an intimate and traditional Japanese ritual.

By the time I get back later on today, all those preparations should have been done. I will just need to show the family the futons and to discuss with them any special requests they may have for the funeral tomorrow. 

I will share with you the rest of the funeral process in the next few days. 

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Genbuzan Shonen-ji Temple, Kamino 2771, Takachiho-cho, Nishiusuki-gun, Miyazaki-ken, Japan 882-1411