Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fat Men Can't Sit Seiza, Vol. 2: The Funeral

AS has been mentioned, my wife comes from a very strongly Buddhist family. Three uncles are monks, and her late Grandfather was a high ranking priest at the Ryuko-tokuji temple. My first major encounter with my new family's religion was at his funeral.

Here's the story. (This is a long one...and kind of sad. But not too much.)

Not long after my wife and I first moved in together, her grandfather passed away. It wasn't unexpected, but it was of course a very difficult time. For me, however, this marked one of the strangest days I can remember.

If you have never been to a Buddhist funeral, they are really quite impressive. This one may have been more so, due to the man's status as a monk. Wearing black suits and dresses (only the older members of the family, or members of the order, wore Kimons), we went to the funeral home. There were flowers decorating the building, of course, and decorations with plaques form members of the community who had known the man all his life. Inside, there was a large altar, a stair-step arrangement of shelves of diminishing size. It was draped in white cloth and covered in lanterns, flowers, and statues of the Buddha. In the center was a large, black swathed picture of Tomomi's grandfather. In front of the altar was a small white box, about 4 feet long. Arranged around this were various bells, drums and incense burners for the priests to use in the ceremony.

Soon, the service began. We all sat near the altar, and the priests arranged themselves in front of the altar. They began to chant, beating the drums and ringing the bells. The family members, all holding buddhist prayer beads, joined in the chanting of the sutras, and I followed along as best I could. When the sutras were finished, each family member stood and went to the front, where a small pinch of crumbled incense was touched to the forehead and then dropped on a charcoal brazier.
It was extrememl;y solemn,and impressive, and above all funereal.

Then, it was time to take the body to be cremated.

We went to the crematorium. Everyone rode a bus provided by the funeral hall. The ride was long, and the beer I had drunk was starting to leave me, so I felt a little out of sorts.

The crematorium was in a beautiful little forest, on the side of a mountain. I was impressed, until I got inside.

And this is where things get...surreal.

The Crematorium lobby was a stark, echoing cave of a room. The walls were tiled in white, and the far wall had massive, iron doors set into it. Between the four doors were tiny, pathetic little vases with old, drooping plastic flowers. This was the only concession to the real function of the place--there was no further attempt at solemnity, or at addressing the fact that this was a place of mourning.

The coffin was set up to one end of the room. The guests all lined up in a semicircle around it, and the priest said another sutra. Then, we all shuffled past, lighting a stick of incense and putting it on the small white box. There was a plastic window in the lid, so family members could see the departed one last time.

Finally, when everyone had finished, out came the crematorium attendant. He was a huge, sweaty man, standing over 6 feet tall and dressed in an white shirt (unbuttoned to the third button) black dress pants and white sneakers. He loaded the coffin into the oven and led us to the waiting room.

We found cold, institutional seats in a drab room, a TV set high on the wall, and a vending machine. There was an attached Japanese style room with tatami mats and a low table, where the children in attendance promptly started up a game of cards, and the adults broke out the refreshments. I was sitting in a corner, trying not to attract attention, and trying not to think too much ("How long does it take to burn a body? Do I smell smoke, or is it my imagination? Why doesn't anyone notice how ugly this place is?").

Soon, my wife's uncle brought over a case (A CASE!) of beer, opened it up and said "Jim! Drink! For you!" and put an opened beer can in my hand. I tried to nurse it, but some kind of weird time warp saw me sucking down four beers in the two hour wait.

Eventually, the attendant returned, and then came the part I had forgotten about. The interment.

Back in the lobby, the remains were laid out on a metal gurney. It was the first skeleton I had ever seen, and in my half pissed state it was deeply uncomfortable. Then, they started handing out the chopsticks. If you didn't know, after a Buddhist cremation, the family takes special chopsticks and uses them to place the bones into an urn. Once everyone has done this, the closest relative then picks up the adam's apple and places it in the urn.

As the chopsticks approached, I started to panic. Not only was I not very good with chopsticks in general, I had been drinking, and these things were huge--over a foot long, and about an inch thick. I was terrified I would fumble them and cause a horrible scene.

I hung back, just wanting to watch, but my wife pulled me forward, and I took the huge sticks in hand. When it was my turn, I was numb. I kept staring at the bones, blackened and broken by the heat. Finally, I found a small piece and managed to get it into the urn without dropping it. I almost cried with relief.
When everyone had finished, and the adam's apple was in the urn, there were still bones on the gurney so the attendant put them into the urn himself.
(It gets a little gruesome after this. You're warned.)

Apparently, the cremation process wasn't as clean as I thought, because the bones were stuck to the gurney. The attendant had some trouble getting them up, so he got a large iron spatula and scraped the bones into a pile. Of course, a lot of them broke in the process, so he had to get a little shovel and a broom, sweep them up and dump them in. I just watched in shock. There was so little...ceremony to it. I really wasn't prepared for this.

The final shock was the lid. It wouldn't exactly fit, so...even thinking about it makes me a little the attendant took the shovel and the spatula and pushed the bones. They crunched and shattered and made room for the lid to go on.

The urn was sealed and wrapped and that was it.

We all went home and I was given a crash course in my new life.

1 comment:

Andy said...

One of the things that always struck me about the Japanese was the disparity to how they are so respectful (normally) in life but have such a different idea of respect in death to the one we hold.

On a bum note - you're going to have to go through that several more times in your life. At least this time you'll be better with the chopsticks and will know to really hit the beer during the cremation.