Saturday, April 28, 2007


Agni: Letter from a Japanese Crematorium

I was honored to learn that Agni is not only publishing my essay, "Letter from a Japanese Crematorium" in their Spring 2007 issue, but also that the lovely staff there had put Letter from a Japanese Crematorium up online so anyone can read it.

I thought it might be interesting for some folks who are curious to see photos of some of the places I mention. The essay essay details the events surrounding my grandmother's funeral, and a trip I took to a Japanese crematorium: cremation is mandated by Japanese law. This was really my first true Japanese funeral and I was startled to learn just how intense a process it is.

My grandmother died last year, at age 97, of old age. This photo shows us together a number of years ago. I'm two-and-a-half here. People generally look at this photo and declare: "Wow! You were a huge kid!" I really wasn't. But my grandmother was only 4 foot 8. I swear I'm pretty normal sized!

My grand father spent his early years in a temple; his birth father was a priest. Later he was adopted by an uncle who had no sons. I think my grandfather really thinks of his uncle as his father, but the early temple training stays with him. He climbed into this chair before my grandmother's funeral and announced that he had the right to hold this horse-hair whip because the temple had once belonged to him.

I like this picture of my grandfather with the wife of my mother's cousin, who is now the head priest of the temple. They aren't smiling. It's hard to get people of that generation to smile for photos--not so much because they are attending a funeral, but because this "formal" face is what you do for a photograph. I'm forever trying to capture people in candid moments.

My lovely young cousin has a flair for fashion. He's posing here in his street gear, with just a corner of his "hearse" visible in the picture. He's since sold the hearse (I learned from my trip this past April to Japan) and traded it for another black car that he says gets better gas mileage.

Presto changeo. My cousin is now in his stylish priest robes.

He's also got a wonderful voice. I took this picture on another occasion--I think for some memorial--in which he beat the drum you see hanging and chanted along with it. He's got quite a lot of presence.

My cousin's father, the head priest of the temple. I'm enormously fond of him. He's wearing his "under-robes" in this photo, and putting some finishing touches on the ceremony for my grandmother. He likes to tailor his services for individuals. He says there is a standard script to follow, but he likes to make sure that everyone receives individual attention. He, like his son, has an amazingly beautiful and reasonant voice.

It's always fascinating to watch the priests prepare. There are so many robes and layers to what they wear. But I was really amused to find these over-robes and rosary sitting next to the PlayStation controller. One of my young cousins is very addicted to video games.

My grandmother's bones fit into these 3 boxes. My grandfather wanted my mother to take the little red box (with the Adam's apple) back to America, but she said no as it's illegal to transport human remains into the country. So, the Adam's Apple is home with my grandfather. I just went to the first year memorial service for my grandmother and some of her bones were buried on the family plot. We think. We're not entirely sure. Only one of these boxes was put into the grave (or, we think it was one of these boxes). I don't know what happened to the rest of the bones. At some point I'll ask and find out.

It's not uncommon for bones to be kept at the temple for a time. This can happen if a grave isn't ready (ie, the tombstone hasn't been carved, or the plot paid for), or if someone just can't afford a plot in the first place. My cousin tells me that the "sophisticated" temples in the cities will charge "rent" to house boxes of bones like these. But our family temple doesn't do anything like that.

Some bones are held in these little cubby-holes, which are set up to receive prayers. It's eerie being in this room. I never understood what was in it as a child--no one would tell me. Finally I found out as an adult and understood why I was discouraged from going into this part of the temple.

I didn't take any pictures of the inside of the temple during the funeral, except for this shot of the altar. You can see the boxes of bones sitting up on the altar before the Buddha.

Here is a view of the temple, taken from the side of the altar. This scene has nothing to do with the funeral, but I thought it'd give you a sense of the interior of the temple. It's not terribly old by Japanese standards--I think over 100 years. My family keeps telling me that they plan to tear it down, and build a new one.

A ramp connects the temple to the house where the family lives. My cousin is greeting a danka-san, or parishionner in this photo as he is on his way to the temple. (Side note: It's not uncommon to connect a temple to living quarters in this way. It is convenient; this way, priests don't have to put on their shoes, go outside, then take off their shoes again. Shinto shrines, by the way, were originally not connected in this manner to the house of the priest. To do so would be a defilement. But things have changed, and now some Shinto shrines too have adopted this kind of connecting "ramp.")

Here I am in the hallway of a ramp connecting a Shinto shrine (near Nagoya). But, unlike the ramp connecting the temple to the living quarters, the Shinto shrine has a fountain of water just outside the door. This is so visitors, like me, can purify themselves before entering the sacred space.

I've now seen a few crematoriums in Japan, and they have all had this kind of sloping roof. It's wierd. Once you know what a crematorium looks like, you just know them when you see them.

A high tech trolley that easily slides a casket out of a hearse.

This isn't my photo of a hearse, but I grabbed it and put it over here so you could see how elaborate they are.

A not very good photo of the entrance to the crematorium. You can see the "columns of light" that are just inside the doorway. The design of the space is really, really effective. I wish I had more photos to show you of the interior, but I just couldn't bring myself to take any more pictures once I was inside. It felt too disrespectful. And by the time I was inside the crematorium, I was feeling very sober.

I mention the funeral bento in my piece. Here's a sample of one such meal. You can see that it has no meat in it, just fish and vegetables.

I took this photo on an occasion other than my grandmother's funeral. Here you can see what the "memorial dining room" looks like--the room were we take our memorial lunches. There are a number of priests in this photo. They have all removed their yellow and blue over-robes and are just wearing their black under-robes. They have a lot of layers to keep track of!

This isn't our family's burial plot, but one nearby. Ohigan, a twice yearly ceremony commemorating the dead had just passed when I arrived in Japan, and all the graveyards had been carefully cleaned, and decorated with flowers. There are a number of these memorials, the most famous of which is Obon.

It's a beautiful essay, Marie. Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal event.
Wow, Heather, thanks for reading so quickly and for the kind words. It means a great deal to me.
I really appreciated the pictures with this post, too. Some of them I had seen before. But the picture of all the boxes of bones floored me. Especially given the sports drink sitting there! It indicates that people actually spend time in that room. I can't imagine living or working in that kind of environment.

There is such a difference between my perception of how Japan treats death and my own understanding of it. It seems like death is accepted and even somehow welcomed in Japanese culture--not anticipated, but not avoided either. It just is. Here in the US it feels like there is such a fear of death. We do whatever we can to pretend it doesn't exist. I think this makes it harder for us to deal with it when it happens.

So I am always fascinated to read about other cultures' death rites. And that's why the picture of the bone boxes--is there a word for that?--doesn't creep me out now like it probably would have a few years ago.

(A few years ago, the thought of housing a lost loved one's remains in one's home seemed fatalistic to me.)

It's just interesting, and a little surreal, to think of departed souls coming back to visit their remains every now and then, all in the same little room. And to work, surrounded by that supernatural possibility.

I have never had a supernatural experience, but people I know and trust have. While I won't say anything like "I believe in ghosts", I do think there is something going on. And these priests are living and working in an environment where the line between life and death is blurred.

It's all just so completely, well, foreign to my own experience.

And so I enjoyed these pictures and this post, and of course the essay. You drew me in completely with your honest thoughts and descriptions.
Well, Heather, your reaction is similar to what I felt as a child. I'd go to a temple and think, "What? Do more people die over here?" After so many years in Japan, these things feel much more natural to me.

As for the sports drink--that's probably an offering of sorts. It's pretty common to take some kind of food or object that the deceased would have enjoyed to either the tomb or, in this case, the bone "house."

The most heartbreaking offerings for me are always the ones for children--pinwheels, toys, and even candy.
"It's just interesting, and a little surreal, to think of departed souls coming back to visit their remains every now and then, all in the same little room. And to work, surrounded by that supernatural possibility."

I go back and forth on what I feel about the supernatural--basically, I don't really believe in ghosts. And yet, I will say that anything "strange" or "inexplicable" that has ever happened to me has been in Japan. And the priests I know absolutely believe in the spirit world. That's actually probably part of what makes the priests in my family very good at what they do. If they ran the temple purely for monetary reasons, then they'd be doing it without heart.

My mother's cousin, though, will run off your ear about the things he's witnessed and the very important work he feels he does in putting tormented souls to rest. It's humbling. And I believe that he believes.
Oh, wow, I forgot about the whole offering part of it. Or I didn't think someone would offer a sports drink. Thanks for the clarification!

So is much time actually spent in those rooms, or do the priests avoid it as your family suggested that you avoid it when you were a kid? in Augusta (well, neighboring Columbia County technically) it's time for Pinwheels for Prevention. Do you have that in New York? Local businesses put pinwheels out in their yards, one for every child that was known to have been abused in the area in a year.

It's sickening to see how many there are.

I remember seeing those little statues when I was in Japan--for stillbirths, I think? Regardless, I knew they were for a child who died, and that was heartbreaking too.

Abrupt topic shift: you're pretty well-read in social issues. I was wondering if you keep a list of books that you've found helpful. Right now I'm interested in reading more about comfort women, both Korean and Japanese, but really I'm interested in everything. Don't go out of your way or anything, but if you do happen to have some off-the-top-of-your-head recommendations, I'd appreciate it :)

(I think it would be cool if people kept "book lists" on their blogs of reference materials they found useful.)

Also, have you published a book?
What is the feeling we have when we enter a place where there has been much history, much life and death?

Is it psychosomatic emotion caused by our knowledge of what has come before? Or is there really something there?

It could be that something does happen to the world when we die, something we can't yet chart or measure or even perceive unless we have the sense for it.

It could be that our world is bumped up against another, and when the worlds interact and the real rules go out the window, we interpret that apparent logical impossibility through the lens of our own experiences and cultural lore.

People are constantly coming up with "explanations", but the truth is we just don't know! And it's so weird and frustrating and interesting.

I'm not actively seeking answers to all these questions, because like the question "Is there an afterlife?" I'm not sure it's possible to find them while I'm alive. But I'm open to possibilities. And maybe someday in the future humanity will better understand the world in which we live.

It would be cool if my awareness was still around somewhere to witness it.
Heather -- No book. Yet. I'm working on that! Right now in fact. Sitting here, working on the ending of the novel so it's as strong as the previous section!

As for book lists--I'm ALWAYS looking to see what people are reading. Perhaps in the 2.0 version of this site, I'll try to put up a comprehensive reading lists of books that I love and have moved me and why.

I'd recommend John Dower's "Embracing Defeat." It's a tough read (emotionally), but fascinating and makes you respect how Japan rebuilt itself after the war. Someone on Japundit has now twice mentioned Yuki Tanaka's book on Comfort Women. I haven't read it, but plan to. Honestly, people on Japundit seem to link to interesting articles and texts all the time, so though it's a patchwork way to read information, looking at people's references isn't a bad start.

There is also Yoshimi Yoshiaki's book, which I haven't read. I always see it at Kinokuniya, but I've admittedly been cautious around this subject. Japan is so personal to me, and it's only been since all these issues have come up on Japundit that I've tried to start to educate myself on the uglier parts of Japanese history. For me, the post-war period has always been personal--the stories of how my mother and her family survived. Obviously, the story of the nation is much broader than that and it's only recently that I've started to read about it.

No pinwheels here, I'm afraid! It must be a painfully beautiful sight where you are.
Very interesting, thanks for posting photos too. I spent 1 1/2 years in a Rinzai temple and those places can be really intense. Which Buddhist sect is your family's temple?
Hi Martin! Thanks for posting and for reading. My family is Soto--which you most likely already know is Zen. That's amazing that you spent so much time in a temple. I have heard how intense they can be.
Thanks for the recommendations! I look forward to reading your book when it comes out :)
Thanks for sharing the pictures and story with us. It was fascinating to read, and I appreciate how hard it must have been to write it.
Much love,
Hi, Marie! Congratulations on placing your essay, getting attention from Maud Newton, and for capturing these lovely pictures!

We'll talk soon...
Marie! I just saw this article on Maud Newton's blog! Congratulations, and we'll talk soon...
It's been a few years since you posted this, but I couldn't help commenting. I just read the Letter on the Agni site and I was so moved. Thanks for sharing these photos. I can't wait to purchase your book when I visit the US next month. I am an American living in China and I am always on the lookout for fiction related to Asia, particularly China and Japan.
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