Monday, August 31, 2015

Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep

Recently, I had the very unfortunate opportunity to attend my first Japanese wake, known as tsuya (通夜, literally "passing through the night.")

While I didn't know the man personally, he was husband to a wonderful, warm teacher, and father to two young boys, all of whom I know very well. The oldest son is a college student, and the youngest still in high school. He passed quite suddenly in his late 50's, so it was a shock to everyone to hear the news.

When I heard about the wake that morning, I realized that more than anything I wanted to support my friends in their troubling time.

And I also realized that I had no idea what the customs of attending a wake in Japan were.

I sought out the help of my teachers and Google and went to work.

The first thing was to buy a special envelope used only for funerals. The office in my school was selling some so I bought one. It looked something like this:

Inside the envelope is where you place condolence money - anywhere between 3,000 and 30,000 yen (between 30 and 300 dollars); the amount depending on how well you knew the person or the family. Since I was a coworker I gave a standard 5,000 yen (a little less than 50 dollars). Even here there are rules: you are not supposed use new bills, but somewhat crinkled bills. 

Envelope and money intact, I then sought out another teacher who was going and we agreed to meet a half hour before the wake.

It's a good thing we did, because the minute I stepped out of the car and met her in the crowded parking lot, I asked her: "Is this bag okay?" (It was tan, not black, like the rest of my outfit. I don't own any black bags). "Nope, put it in your car and give me your stuff."I had also worn my hair down, which I just read online should have been put up, but nobody said anything, so meh. 

We walked into the hall as I mentally recited, "I'm sorry for your loss," in Japanese about 50 times. Go shuu shou sama desu. Go shuu shou sama desu. I'm sorry for your loss. Go shuu shou sama desu.

Upon entering the receiving area, where the envelopes with the money inside are collected, I burst out with "I'm sorry for your loss," to the wrong people. But I knew the receivers and I'm sure they understood I was nervous. They took the money and I got a gift in response.

Oh, yeah. If you go to wakes and give money, you get gifts, apparently (that are worth about a third of the cost of the money received). This is a "thank you for helping us pay off the funeral" gift. Because you see, Japan has the some very expensive funerals; at the end of everything you can expect to be out around 20,000 US dollars (~2.5 million yen). Compare that to the average US cost of $7,000 for a funeral. 


After getting my gift bag, it was time to actually give my condolences to the family. 

I got like a ton of dried seaweed...pretty solid present, but I'll probably pass this on to someone who will be more likely to use and eat it.

Here's the thing. My mother and I are known to have this horrible habit of being able to make people cry by looking at them (that is to say, in sullen situations such as a funeral; we don't walk around with weeping people flanking us wherever we go). It is literally the shittiest super power in the world. A friend told me I have "projective" eyes; when you look at me you can tell exactly how I'm feeling. Maybe that's it. 

As you may imagine, it does not help the funeral situation.

I went up to my friends and watched their faces crumble the moment our eyes met. We began our bowing war to see who can bow their heads more, my eyes already filling up with tears at seeing them. In America, it'd be natural to hug them, to pat my friend's shoulder, to console them. But in Japan all I could do was bow eternally and say, "I'm sorry for your loss," in a quiet tone I didn't know I was capable of. 

More people were on their way so my teacher and I went into the receiving hall where cushioned chairs were lined in rows all the way down the long room. "Well, that was horrible, and it hasn't even started yet," I said to my teacher, who nodded in agreement. We took the side for non-family members, somewhat near the front, where I took in the scene before me: a portrait of a smiling man with crinkled eyes; stands upon stands of flowers, fruit baskets and snack basket offerings with the names of the senders written in a pristine hand; enormous wreaths hanging down the left side of the hall; and three thrones facing it all, waiting for the monk who would send off the recently-departed (who had passed only two days before; wakes are done as soon as possible in Japan) and the monks' apprentices. Above everything was a wide model of a shrine, made with a light-colored wood and stretched pearl-colored paper, and a scroll of who I could only guess was Amaterasu, Shinto goddess of the sun. 

But wait, aren't funerals in Japan Buddhist? Eh, whatever. Most of the time the line between the two are pretty blurred anyway. On reflection, it may have been Buddha, with light beaming off of him like Amaterasu. Well, it was someone, and it was pretty.

Most fortunately, there was no open-casket. Which is possibly one of the most unsettling, disagreeable Christian customs I have ever had the misfortunate to participate in. I guess it's not uncommon in Japan either, but either way I was glad. 

The air was heavy as people filed in, finding seats among the endless rows of chairs. The irrepressible sadness that comes with the death of a loved one transcends all languages and customs. I could feel the mourning sorrow in the room the same way I had once felt the bubbly happiness of weddings that I catered; insurmountable, as if left alone it could consume everyone on the planet. I talked in hush tones with the teacher I came with, having already borrowed her tissues since I left mine in the not-black purse I abandoned in my car.

The lights dimmed and light, yet anguished music began to play ("Oh no," I started, grabbing more tissues), and the family walked down the aisle between the benches, turned to all of their guests and bowed before sitting. A brief movie began to play, highlighting pictures of the deceased man, smiling alongside his wife, his sons. 

The reality of death sunk into my bones and chilled my heart. He was here on this planet only a few days ago, feeling perfectly fine. He was probably stressed with work, but had weekend plans with his family. He had worried and loved and lost and regretted, but he had hopes and dreams and slept at night with the solid assurances he would wake up again. I saw my friends' shoulders shake at the front and tears blurred my vision. 

Sometimes, there's just nothing to say.

The priest walked in, followed by a man and a woman, all dressed in beautiful robes and glittering gold slippers - I couldn't take my eyes off of those slippers, I suddenly really wanted a pair - and thus began the very long ceremony. We received books to follow the Buddhist sutras and incantations, written in an incredibly old Japanese that my teacher assured me even she could draw very little of, but I listened and watched as kanji for "light," "heaven," "heart," and for some reason the number "five" often came and went, turning the pages as the chanting continued in the monk's drawn-out, exaggerated wail that vaguely reminded me of a bird like a stork or a heron. 

Once some of the chanting was over, it was time to take part in the incense bit. The family stood up and   went to the front where there were bowls of ash; they proceeded to take a bit of the ash in their fingertips, drop it into a bigger bowl, put their hands together and bowed their heads before stepping back, bowing, and returning to their seats. Which is pretty much what the rest of us did, but add more bowing to the family and the priests before the ordeal. According to my online research, usually people place incense and don't move around ash, but one of my teachers had said that Toyama has different customs, so maybe that's part of it.

We all sat again as an incredible amount of people filed through to pay their respects and drop ash into a bowl (there were at least ten lined up across the front of the room so it was a fairly quick process). I recognized a lot of people walking by; people from town hall, teachers from other schools, students of mine. How many people are affected by a single death in town. 

And then the priest continued chanting his sutras. One sentence stuck with me from this part: "Let your hearts become one." Before it was all over, he began to speak about life and death and a whole bunch of other ramblings, his eyes closed the entire time. Which seemed normal to me until it was about 20 minutes later and guests seemed to get a little restless and began talking in quiet undertones saying that they didn't know what he was going on about.

I was phased out for a lot of it. I kept watching the family, thinking of my own family back home.  Of my 66-year-old father and almost 60-year-old mother, neither of whom are no longer spring chickens (sorry guys) and how lost I would be without them in my life. I thought long and hard about how death was around the corner from us constantly, lurking just out of sight, and how we humans disillusioned ourselves into thinking we are immortal, or dismissing death's inevitability from our minds whenever the gloomy thoughts plague us. It makes sense, of course, that we don't like to think about death; think too hard and it could emotionally cripple us to the point that we would no longer be functional or useful. But how many of us take death seriously? I remembered that scene from When Harry Met Sally..., one of my favorite movies in the world. 

Harry: When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
Sally: That doesn't mean you're deep or anything. I mean, yes, basically I'm a happy person...
Harry: So am I.
Sally: ...and I don't see that there's anything wrong with that.
Harry: Of course not. You're too busy being happy. Do you ever think about death?
Sally: Yes.
Harry: Sure you do. A fleeting thought that drifts in and out of the transom of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days...
Sally: - and you think this makes you a better person?
Harry: Look, when the shit comes down, I'm gonna be prepared and you're not, that's all I'm saying.
Sally: And in the meantime, you're gonna ruin your whole life waiting for it.

Eventually, the sutras and the priest's discussion was finished, and it was time for my friend - the deceased's wife - to talk. 

I gripped my tissues hard in my left hand. I really couldn't take much more of this emotionally. Yes, I am generally a very sensitive person - I always have been, since I was very young. I remember crying over a worm that kids had killed on the playground when I was in kindergarten. I was lots of fun to be around. But I have always been empathetic to a fault; hell, I can summon tears just by thinking about something sad. I knew this next part would ruin me before the microphone was even turned on.

Listening to the now-widow's speech about what kind of man she had married, through teary words and a cracking voice, about how he would always say in the consistently cheery tone, "And we're home!" whenever he'd get out of the car, or how he would help go grocery shopping and buy snacks for the kids...I was a wreck. Tears flowed over my eyelids and down my cheeks, and I gave up on wiping them away. It was painful watching my friends dissolve into emotion before me and feeling helpless to do anything except sit there and cry across the room with them. 

Soon, her speech finished, and the now-sniffling masses stood to leave. The family left first, going around to the front, and we all herded after as I tried to inconspicuously shove my used tissues into the gift bag I got (stupid girl pants and their no-pockets bull shit).

As we filed after everyone else (being in the front of the room, we had to wait a little bit), I turned to my teacher and asked about hugging. Would it be weird if I hugged her? I explained to her how it felt cold to just see someone cry and not go to console them, but only bow and say a few words. 

"It's not usually done...but if it's her, I think it's okay." She said, seeming to understand that I come from a very different country where affection is shown under all kinds of circumstances.

We faced the family again right before leaving. I wanted to tell the sons to take care of their mother, but the words wouldn't come. I bowed a half-dozen times, and when I faced their mother, swept her into a one-armed hug, and held back tears as she returned it. It's definitely not customary, nor at all common to hug in Japan. 

But there are some customs that I just don't give a damn about. 

We got ANOTHER gift bag as we were leaving, and my teacher and I parted ways. 

Gift bag number two...cookies, tea, and some baked dry rice crisps. Much more to my liking.

After everything, I was left tired and feeling heavy. I went to my Kyudo dojo where my friends were practicing and told them about the wake and how sad it was. I hadn't wanted to go home right away, but would rather be among friends for a little while. One of my team members brought his kids to the dojo as he came to pick up something, so I chased them around and hid around corners and scared them when they came by. That lifted my mood a bit. Nothing like scaring off the looming threat of death by mindlessly running around with some youths. 

Finally, I came home, exhausted. I cracked open a beer in honor of my fallen friend. I can only imagine how the family feels. My thoughts are with them. 

A Japanese wake was not so different from an American one; a few customs here and there, are different, sure. But at the end of the day, a person who mattered to many has passed and left an undeniable sorrow behind him. The world will always be a little different without that person; will always be a little darker to those who had made him important in their lives. 

Anyway; until next time. I hope my next post won't take so long to appear, and will be a little happier. 

No comments:

Post a Comment