It’s been a tough week.
Last Sunday, May 28th, at 7:05 PM, Grandma passed away. We didn’t know until about an hour later. She was surrounded by no one.
She was admitted to the hospital last Friday after she caught a cough that had been going around the family. All of us had been able to deal with it, but with her frailness on top of an existing lung condition, it had been too much. I helped her into the car and went to the hospital with my girlfriend’s mother, Grandma’s daughter. Our talks in the car were pleasant enough. But Grandma, passed out in the back, loomed like a specter. It had never been this bad.
We knew it was coming. After her lung condition four years ago, she’d been given two years to live. Even knowing, it was still hard. It was still, in a strange way, unexpected.
On Sunday morning, my girlfriend’s sister came with her daughter Suzu from Sendai to see her. Grandma loved Suzu more than anyone else, it seemed. Every day she’d ask if Suzu was coming, even though Suzu would only come once or twice a week since she’d entered preschool in late March. Around 1 PM, my girlfriend and I came and visited, and chatted even though there wasn’t much to say. Grandma kept staring at the ceiling. She was very tired. We left saying “mata ne“. I wish we’d taken a picture together.
Everyone knew it would be soon, but we didn’t think it would be this soon. My girlfriend’s brother drove up with his family from Utsunomiya, a nearly four hour drive. They were so convinced that she was fine that they left around 7 that night to go back home, long drive ahead of them. She passed soon after.
I sat watching Netflix with my girlfriend around 8. We heard a knock around 8:30 and her father and mother saying that they were driving to the hospital. We should stay here. Something had happened. There wasn’t much time left, it seemed. The sun had already set.
When we got the inevitable call that night, there was no time for feelings. I wasn’t aware, but there was a lot about to happen. It was about 9.
In the three months I’d been here, there had been a few people that seemed to be around constantly. Family or friends, it was hard to tell. But these six people–two older couples and another two elderly women–came that night. They were close. Grandma was always a talkative one, and between these six and Suzu, more than the medicine and the breathing apparatus, they were the ones that kept Grandma alive as long as she had been.
As they had been filtering in, we had been trying to set up a bed for Grandma’s body to lay down on. It had to have white sheets. A white pillow as well. We needed to clear the doorway of things so that her body could come back into the house. And while all this needed to be done, the constant movement this required kept everyone busy. There was no time to feel sad. Just time for work.
My girlfriend’s parents and some men in suits arrived. It was around 10:30. Everyone went into the house. I stood with my girlfriend outside by the van that carried her body. “I didn’t want her to be alone,” she said. It was cold. The people returned and carried the body down from the van and into the house through the doorway we’d cleared earlier.
She looked calm. Asleep.
They set up a small table next to her body with a candle, some green incense sticks, a black pot full of a greyish sand-like substance, and a bowl that rested atop some small pillows with a padded stick next to it. In front of it was a zabuton, a small pillow to sit on. Next to her face was what looked like a bowl of water and a large cotton swab.
Everyone came, one-by-one to light some incense on the candle, put it in the pot, take the stick and strike the bowl, which made a calm ringing sound. Then they would put their hands together in prayer, closing their eyes. After a few seconds, they’d get up and take the cotton swab, dip it in water, and rub the wet part on Grandma’s lips. I went last.
When everyone was done, the parents went into the living room to discuss the finer points of the funeral. On the 31st they’d meet with the monk who would preside over the ceremony. There would be an event that night. The funeral and cremation would happen on the next day, June 1st.
While this was happening, two of the women and I stayed in the room with Grandma, making sure there was always some incense lit at all times. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be, so I just tried to stay out of the way. Some people cracked some jokes to lighten the mood, but I stayed quiet. I didn’t know what kind of jokes were appropriate to crack.
My girlfriend asked if I wanted to go someplace else for the last week. Lots of people would be coming. It would be busy. I wouldn’t get much work done. All of these things eventually turned out to be true. In spite of it, I wanted to stay. I wanted to be there. She was, after all, my future grandmother-in-law.
When all was said and done, the clock read 12:30. My girlfriend and I decided it would be best to head to bed. She would take Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off, but she had to work Monday morning. She needed all the rest she could get.
Monday and Tuesday
I was originally planning to pass a document to the Shichikashuku Board of Education on Wednesday morning. But Wednesday was looking to be busy, and it was just better to get it done and over with. So I left the house Monday morning at 8 to catch the bus.
Even though it was only 8 AM, the house was full of people. Neighbors and friends who’d come to pay their condolences. Word got around quick.
When I came back around 2 in the afternoon, the house was still full of people. An okuribito came by earlier to clean up Grandma, put some makeup on, and dress her in a beautiful white-pink kimono, before putting her into a pink coffin with a little door on top that could be opened to a glass window to see her face. She was beautiful. The room she was in was completely changed too, with white paper over the walls and any extraneous objects moved.
In addition to the small table with the pot of incense, there were now other ceremonial objects too. The fabled bowl of rice with chopsticks together raising straight up. This is the reason you’re not supposed to stick your chopsticks into food, especially rice, and leave them there. Additionally, there was a plate of dango. Behind these lay gifts that people had brought for her. Mostly food packaged up. Some beer.
When I asked my girlfriend why there was so much food in a Japanese funeral, she said that all this food was like a feast to have before the long journey into the afterlife. One last meal before the road. And that, for people like her grandmother who found it hard to eat in her last days and weeks, who had probably been very hungry, having food would be a relief. Finally they could eat again. Whether or not these were the actual reasons for the tradition, she couldn’t say, but this is what she’d understood.
I wore pants and a dark, long-sleeve shirt. As is pretty common in Japanese culture, I talked about the weather a lot and complained of the heat. Everyone said I didn’t have to wear such heavy clothes, but I chose to anyway. Most of my shirts are yellow or red or other bright colors, with most of the darker clothes being heavier. I just didn’t feel like those bright clothes were appropriate.
I had to clean up the room I had been sleeping in for the past three months and move back up into my girlfriend’s room. With all the people coming, that would be the house everybody would be staying in. Cleaning up kept me busy. I felt awkward in the main house with everyone around, not sure what to say or do, kneeling and bowing with everyone else once someone came in.
I vacuumed and opened the windows and put the futons out to get some air. I drank a glass of wine. I packed up all my clothes and put my suit aside. I’d need it for the funeral. I didn’t bring my black tie with me, so I’d need to get one of those at some point. Everything is pretty standard in Japan, funerals and all. When my girlfriend came to check if the house was sufficiently clean, I mentioned that I probably shouldn’t have opened the windows to air out the futons. She agreed. No idea why airing out the futons felt wrong, but it did. Like normal life wasn’t supposed to be happening right now.
We had vegetables and beer for dinner. Apparently in the days between someone’s death and their cremation, you’re not supposed to cook any meat or fish. Using dashi and eating leftover meat and fish is fine, so it’s not as if it’s a vegetarian diet, but nothing new should be cooked. When I said I’d try to remember that, someone mentioned that I didn’t need to bring that culture back with me to the States.
Before bed, I went over to Grandma, lit some incense, rang the bowl, put my hands into prayer, and wished her a good night.
Wednesday night was the first official ceremony. My girlfriend’s sister and brother were back with their spouses and kids in tow. Before the ceremony, we helped bring Grandma’s casket from the house to a car to take her to the Memorial Hall.
The Hall itself was a large building which looked a lot like it was used for weddings in addition to funerals. Inside we went to the second floor and waited. The ceremony wouldn’t start for another hour and a half, so we stood and greeted people as they came in and drank water and coffee.
In the main room were about two hundred chairs, split down the middle by a central isle that led up to a picture of Grandma with six bowls in front of it. Behind the picture was a platform with some sacred objects for the monk’s use. All of that central area was surrounded by ample walking space. Against the back wall in the center was Grandma in her casket, with large, beautiful flowers all around. On the back wall hung an even bigger picture of Grandma. She’d chosen that picture herself about twenty years ago. She looked much younger. Perhaps that’s how she’d always imagined herself.
In spite of the colors of the flowers, and the pink of the coffin, the room itself was largely gold, like the inside of a shrine. It was elegant, and bright. But it didn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, everything in that room pointed to Grandma.
When the ceremony started, I sat down with my girlfriend’s family. Though we weren’t married yet, I’d been with them for the past three months. I was still shocked that I was there, and was grateful they’d let me in on this intimate ceremony. Almost all of the two hundred seats were filled.
The lights dimmed. The monk came out and chanted words that even native Japanese speakers couldn’t understand while hitting different drum- and bell-like objects. After he was done, he gave a long speech about loss and dealing with what life throws at you. Then we went up to the bowls in front, picked up some powdered incense, and put it into the bowls. At the very end, my girlfriend’s brother, her sister’s husband, and I went to help bring Grandma downstairs.
Everyone followed us into a large room to have dinner and drink. So much food. In spite of the beer and wine, nobody said “kanpai“. We talked. After about an hour, people started to leave. Eventually, the only people that were left were family. Tonight, my girlfriend’s mother and father would stay there with the other siblings, keeping the incense burning all night. This would be the last full day that everyone could spend with Grandma’s body.
My girlfriend, her brother’s family, her sister’s family, and I went home. At home, next to the front door sat a table with a plate of salt, a bucket of water with a ladle in it, and an empty bucket. Anyone who’s been to a Japanese shrine understands the purification ritual. Before we were to enter back into the house, we needed to take a ladle of water and wash our hands above the empty bucket (for the water to fall down into), and put some water into our mouth to purify it as well. After, we take the salt and throw it onto ourselves. My suit got a little salty, but that’s the way it is.
That night the six of us ate and drank together and played with the kids. We talked about our futures as the two one-year-old children ran around.
I woke up slowly on Thursday. Every day this week had been sunny, but today was notably dark. Cloudy, with a chance of rain. Around 10:30, I had to get dressed in the same black suit as the night before. We made our way back to the Memorial Hall.
Though the time was different, the actual funeral ceremony started in much the same way as before. There was a lot of waiting. Then the lights dimmed. The monk came out. Chanted. Everyone went up and put some powered incense in the bowl.
But it was different. Everything felt more final. This was it. And this time, things did go a little differently. My girlfriend’s father gave a speech, largely about the facts. She’d passed away from inflammation of the lungs at 7:05 PM on May 28th. She was 84. It was cold, to cover up the pain.
Then my girlfriend’s sister gave a speech. Where the father’s had been facts, her’s was emotion. And it hurt. The memories flooded in. About how Grandma loved playing with her daughter, Suzu. About how when she was younger, Grandma would always make her hats and clothes and that she would treasure them. I couldn’t help but think about the memories I had with her as well. How even in her frailest moments, she always offered me a drink or some ice cream. How much she loved my younger sister and thought it was great how good my chopstick skills were. How she used to be so grateful when I’d bring her to bed on her wheelchair. How she’d always tell me to sit down and eat, and always with a smile on her face. I’m not a very emotional person, but I was crying.
My girlfriend’s family and I went and placed flowers all around her body. And then everyone else did as well. At the end, I helped carry her body and casket out into the car with everyone following.
Shortly after, we followed the car to the crematorium. It started to pour. Namida-ame, it’s called. Rain of tears. Everyone packed into this one tiny room, put their final bit of incense into the bowl, and said their final words.
A man in a suit with white gloves asked if it was fine to put her in the incinerator. My girlfriend’s mother replied affirmatively, though what else was there to say? A large iron door opened. The casket was placed into a large, iron, CAT-scan like tunnel. Then the iron door loudly shut.
As we all left the room, you could hear the fire start.
Everyone went to another room to wait. It would take a half hour or so. People sat and ate little sushi-filled bentos and chat and drank while they waited. The rain lightened. Eventually, when everything was ready, we all went back to the main room.
There, in a large metal tray, sat the ash and remaining bones of Grandma. In the middle of it was an urn on stilts. On the side of the tray were these large, heavy wooden chopsticks. This is where another Japanese chopstick-use prohibition comes from. In normal life, it’s a social faux pas to pass food with chopsticks. Because during this one time, family members are supposed to pick up a bone together with these chopsticks and put it into the urn. Everyone picked up a bone and put it in. When that was finished, the remaining bones and ash were put into the urn by the men in suits and a white cloth was fastened around the urn itself.
I can’t help but think about how personal this experience is, and how culturally different it is from where I come from in America. How throughout all of this, you get so intimate with the remains of someone you cared about. You can’t help but consider your own mortality. Can’t help but see yourself in that ash and bones. Always knowing that’s how it will end.
But this closeness is good. It’s something you can’t run from, in spite of how many people do. Discussing death isn’t quite as taboo. It isn’t something that’s hidden away from and talked about in murmurs. It’s visceral and real. And, above all else, normal.
We left the crematorium to return to the Memorial Hall and eat. The urn holding Grandma sat against the back wall, like before. In front of us were large platters of food, too much for anyone to eat. We all filled up our glasses and shouted “kenpai,” the funeral kanpai.
We ate and chatted and drank a little too much. And then, when all was said and done, we went home. We purified ourselves at the door again and put Grandma’s urn in the room where her body was, surrounded by all that food. And there she sits.
Life has largely returned to normal. People are still coming by, but not like early this week. Just family friends who’d come by normally. Making sure people are taking this alright.
Everyone’s tired, but doing fine. It’s odd to have Grandma gone, of course. This was originally her house, after all. She was a part of our daily lives. Between Suzu starting preschool and coming over less, and me leaving for America in two days, it’s going to go from loud to quiet quickly. Even more so if my girlfriend can follow me to the States in the coming months.
Maybe because it was expected, or maybe because this whole week was dedicated to memorial and healing, but it seems as if mourning is over.
Of course, in Japan, there’s still more to happen.
Periodically throughout June and July there will be small events, like moving the urn to its final location and additional small ceremonies. And then in one year from her death, there is the important act of returning to her grave. Though it’s important to continue going back, it’s most important to do it on the first anniversary. My girlfriend notes that even if she’s in America, she’ll have to come back for it. It’s that kind of important.
But that’s life. Everyone deals with it differently.
. . .
I’ll always remember Grandma. She accepted me and welcomed me into her home from day one. She always offered me these little vitamin drinks and ice cream bars. I learned the phrase 「大したもんだ！」 from her. She talked with one of those heavy Miyagi accents where すし(sushi) was pronounced すす(susu) and half of her words were unrecognizable. She put soy sauce on pretty much everything. And even when life was hard and she was hospitalized multiple times, she always smiled cheerfully.
I’ll miss you.