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Two Funerals and an Extra Bottle of Shochu

Osamu Dazai that great misfit Japanese novelist who took it upon himself to confirm his importance to Japanese letters by committing suicide wrote, “The gods spare no love for a man who goes burdened under the bad karma of having to sell…details of his family in order to make a living.” Bearing this in mind, when I relate this tale of two funerals and a bottle of shochu, I will keep certain familial details vague; and besides nobody pays me for writing these articles.

My Japanese family was double booked for funerals last night (no, I’ve not married into a priestly family) and so after reassurance by the clan that I wouldn’t have to fill the customary envelope with big bills personally, I volunteered to make up the numbers for a family funeral in Yamanashi prefecture. My wife’s mother’s good friend’s brother (yes, it sounds tenuous to me, but apparently a vital bond) died very recently and so my mother-in-law couldn’t make the Yamanashi ceremony. And thus I was roped in to swell the ranks of the Numazu contingency heading for Yamanashi.

The first thing you have to understand about being dead in Japan is that it is a drawn out affair. The details vary from province to province but generally speaking it begins with a family/neighbourhood/close friends gathering within 24 hours of the mortality when those invited get to view the body and go over the arrangements for the rest of the funeral. Then there is the first funeral ceremony usually held at night (otsuya in Japanese). The second ceremony is the following morning (otsoshiki in Japanese). In this second round of formalities the body is cremated. Traditionally, at this point the ashes are taken home by the nearest kin and kept for 7 days. After the seven days have elapsed there is another ceremony when the ashes are laid to rest in the family grave. However, since the majority of people selfishly don’t time their death to allow their ashes to be added to the family grave on a Sunday; people nowadays break the 7 day rule. And it doesn’t stop there. Every year the anniversary of the death is marked by a visit to the grave and the seventh anniversary of the death demands further formal effort on the part of the family. And of course, that brief review doesn’t even cover the annual public holidays when the whole nation is expected to pay their respects to dead family members. Considering the average Japanese Joe has a virtually zero interest in religion, philosophy or metaphysics it’s remarkable how much fuss they make about observing these religious rites. It sometimes seems to me that it is only the dead that keep religion alive in Japan.

Anyway, let me return to the story. I went along to the first ceremony (otsuya). We arrived at 6.30pm at a sprawling municipal building and after negotiating 3 car parks we arrive at a side entrance. As we entered there was a line of 3 desks manned with funeral attendants in black suits and white taxi driver gloves busily taking the envelopes filled with cash and handing out tickets. After handing over a small fortune we went into the main room which was about 20 metres long and 15 metres wide. As we entered at the back of the room we were gang bowed by a line of 10 or so black suited people. After, we were ushered to our designated seats (men to the left and women to the right) and waited in silence. Meanwhile there was a steady stream of people passing down the central aisle who paid their respects by putting some incense ash nearly to their foreheads, bowing to both sides of the aisle and departing. They weren’t family or close friends so they got off with only a 30 dollar donation and a brief wait. We on the other hand had to sit it out.

I killed the time by mentally noting the details around me. The old men doing their obsequies had an infinite variety of short haircuts with sweep overs and tufts and bald patches that caught my attention as did the altar in front. I presumed it was a Buddhist altar but I couldn’t spot any Buddha icon. Instead the huge central altar consisted of a big temple carved in expensive wood. In front of the temple were two curling dragons flanking the steps up to the temple. On the humps of the dragons were lanterns. A big photo of our Yamanashi ojisan was placed in the centre of the altar. In the picture he was wearing a red beret or kagool cap backwards very similar to Samuel L Jackson’s fashion circa Jackie Brown. On either side of the photo were platters holding fresh fruit. And in front of the altar was the open coffin.


Just after 7pm three old ladies turned up and after a minor tussle over seating arrangements parked themselves left of the altar and in front of the seated guests. They had delicate silver bells with long stems and small wooden gavels. The doors were shut and the procession of those paying their respects was halted. The three crones began chanting in a Macbeth type of way and kept up an amazingly syncopated rhythm with bells and gavels, hardly ever hitting the notes at the same time. It reminded me of my worst DJing moments.

After a very long 15 minutes everyone silently sighed in relief when they ceased their experimental tinkling and chanting. There wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Then announcements came over a PA system and 2 monks promptly appeared. The senior monk wore a black kimono and orange cape rakishly slung over one shoulder. The junior monk had a similar get up only with a less flash cape. The top monk placed himself in front of the coffin and his side kick took up his position to his left. These two really showed the old witches how to do it. The old man lead with a gravely Tom Waits style delivery and the younger monk accompanied him with drum and ringing bronze beaker. The quality of the instruments were amazing – such a piercing and pure note from the beaker and such nicely resonant thuds from the upside down wooden drum.

I know all religions like to repeat themselves but it seems Buddhism has really taken repetition to heart. A hymn or prayer is over in 3 minutes or less, whereas the sutras that the two monks performed got the 12 inch extended remix treatment. After three numbers I was beginning to alternate between drowsiness and being bored out of my mind. The crowd was prevented from nodding off by the sporadic call to put palms together and do a nodding prayer. A few also choose to chant along to keep their minds from wandering.

I think it took an hour. I can’t be sure as all the slow gargling chanting had discombobulated my mind. It felt like 2 Chinese speech festivals back to back. My hopes rose when the chanting ceased, but were soon dashed when number 1 monk rose and stood and gave a speech from the far front left. Obviously, I had no idea what he was talking about (later I was informed he was explaining the new Buddhist name the deceased had been given) but I couldn’t help but notice his peculiar style of oratory which involved his eyes alternating their attention between some bloke’s shoes in the front row and the door on his far left.

After an interminably long ramble the monk ran out of steam and two family members replaced him front left. A woman in a black dress suit and mandatory taxi driver gloves swiftly produced a mike. At this point I was considering how to follow Dazai’s example but luckily only one family member made a speech and it was mercifully short. Once they had sat down it was like spring. The place lit up with life. The entire hall cleared quicker than a pub that has stopped selling booze; and a half dozen old men hot footed it outside to have a much needed cigarette while they waited for their wives to pick up their memorial gifts and have a wee.

From entering to exiting took about 2 and a half hours.

Naturally, as readers of these blogs have come to expect, the funeral didn’t pass by without my making some type of faux pas. After surviving the ceremony I thought I was home and dry but of course not. On leaving I bowed to the principal mourner and said, “gososamadeshta” (thank you for a nice meal) instead of “gomenasai” (I’m sorry). At the time only my wife had noticed my gaff which I had immediately corrected. However later that evening when the family gathered in a local restaurant to compare notes on funerals, my wife nicely recalled the incident to the gathering.

In high spirits they all thought it a capital fine blunder and toasted my stupidity. It helped lift the spirits of my mother-in-law who felt the ceremony she had attended was far too short and envied our marathon experience. The family bottle of shochu was uncorked and greedily imbibed. It seemed the release from formality and the fact that my wife’s ageing parents still had enough vim and vigour to withstand three days of dead people’s stuff and even manage two separate funeral ordeals at the same time made us all feel quite happy. And such good cheer spilled over into a second bottle of nasty tasting shochu being ordered.

I got home nicely plastered and opened my ‘memorial gifts’ from the funeral. These gifts had cost my family 500 dollars so I was expecting something up there like an mp3 player the size of my fingernail. What I got was 10 sachets of sugar and 3 packs of green tea.


For more bizarreness from Japan check out Trippy Traveller in Japan