Death stands at the center of life in Japan. In every last household here, the departed enjoy pride of place, their framed portraits and memorial tablets serving as shrines of a sort. My Japanese wife, like most of our neighbors, sets out fresh food and tea for her long-dead parents every morning and regularly travels two hours, by bus and three trains, to the family grave, where she fills in her late grandmother on the news of the week. Even after a funeral is concluded, the priest will return to the house, at prescribed intervals, again and again for years to come, and each time, family members are expected to travel long distances, dressed in black, to listen to high-speed, more or less indecipherable chanting.
Death is also very big business in Japan. That Buddhist priest gets paid handsomely for each of his pro forma visits. Headstones can cost up to $20,000, and the living are urged to purchase a Buddhist name to protect a departed loved one in the afterworld. Even the least expensive options can set them back thousands of dollars. Everyone I know invests in a sleek and well-organized three-day set of funerary rites that can easily cost more than a new Toyota.
Like most of us during the pandemic, I have felt death breathing very close to me, for season after season, often waiting to greet me suddenly around the next corner. And with many of my elders reaching their 90s, the end is no longer an abstraction. Twice in recent months, I’ve found myself in the same light-filled church, watching slides click over to the sound of half-wistful music as I play host at memorial services. In Kyoto, where I have based myself for 34 years now, I have attended funerals for my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and my wife’s uncle. Yet the proximity of death has also made me more grateful than ever for life—for health and sunshine and a new day—as I take less and less for granted.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve turned for companionship (and comic relief) to the classic movie Ososhiki (The Funeral ), about a husband and wife who organize the funeral of the wife’s father. Juzo Itami, already famous in Japan for his acting, often on TV, made the film in 1984. Son of a well-known director of mock-samurai films, Itami couldn’t help but relish the way death dramatizes the treacherous gap that separates public emotion from real feeling, in Japan perhaps more than anywhere. Every time I experience a death in Kyoto, I don’t know how much to be impressed, how much startled by the part-joyful, part-mournful routine that follows: we all enjoy a lavish dinner with the dead body in our midst, taking care to serve the corpse beer and its favorite kind of sushi. Then, after the cremation, we fumble with chopsticks to pick out the bones, which professionals at the funeral home have thoughtfully laid out in the shape of a human skeleton.
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