A Japanese funeral

The funeral of my mother-in-law in Japan took place on 12 and 13 July, 2012, in Kawagoe-shi 川越市, a town some 30 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, and the deceased was the widow of a younger brother of a major rural landowning family. This, together with the deeply religious nature of the family in general and my mother-in-law in particular, meant that the funeral had to be celebrated with corresponding dignity, with both social and religious proprieties observed to the letter. As at any funeral (and I have in recent years experienced those of both my parents) there was a degree of sadness, but all had lived their lives to the full and survived to an old age.

I left Oxford on an overcast day in an unusually cold and wet summer; I arrived with the temperature in the low thirties and very high humidity. On entering the house, my first duty was to pay respects to the deceased, whose corpse lay in the main room, in front of the tokonoma 床の間 (alcove), in a rectangular coffin covered with white silk brocade. Above the head, two hinged flaps opened to reveal the face. A dagger in a brocade scabbard lay on top of the coffin, to be used to ward off any evil spirits. The head of the corpse was to the north, for which reason a bed should never be thus oriented, so that guests to our house in Oxford are often surprised to find their pillow at the opposite end of the bed to where they would expect it. I was told that the corpse lay on dry ice, and the air-conditioning in that room was on full blast for the duration of its stay. Before my arrival, family members had prepared the deceased for her journey to the afterlife, and placed several things in the coffin to ease her progress, including food and money. A devotional manual was visible through the opening.

A single sheet of plain white A4 paper had been taped on to the beam above the tokonoma, and another on to the elaborate butsudan 仏壇 (Buddhist shrine) containing the family's ihai 位牌 (ancestral tablets), both being in the same room as the coffin. A sheet had also been taped in front of the kamidana 神棚 (Shinto shrine) in the adjacent room. The purpose of this was to signify that whilst the corpse was in the house, these things were hors-service.

I performed a simple ritual to be often repeated in the coming days: kneeling on a square cushion in front of the small altar before the coffin, lighting an incense stick, attracting the attention of the deceased's spirit by striking a gong, and then putting hands together (gasshou 合掌) for a moment of prayer.

Dinner, and then sleep. It was my wife's duty to keep her mother company during the night, so her futon was placed in the same room as the coffin. Mine was in an adjacent room. Incense had to be kept burning continually until the cremation, so the funeral directors had provided coils of slow-burning incense for use throughout the night to enable the deceased's companion to get at least a few hours' sleep – the Japanese are very practical people, and think of everything.

The main ceremonies began the following day with the wake. This was not the boozy affair suggested by the English word, but like the funeral itself, was conducted with the utmost decorum. The coffin was taken to Kawagoe's municipal funeral hall 川越市民聖苑やすらぎのさと, a large modern building in the Musashino 武蔵野 farmlands equipped for five simultaneous celebrations, although ours was the only one taking place on that day. It was essential that the close family members arrive in advance of anyone else, as otherwise it would have been considered discourteous.

Adjacent to the hall in which the ceremony took place was a suite of rooms equipped with lavatories and a small kitchen, where guests could change, rest, provide themselves with refreshment, and chat before the service. It was in these rooms that after the service, futons were to be laid for my wife and her cousin to keep the last night's vigil before the funeral the following day.

At the end of the spacious entrance lobby to the ceremony hall, there were tables where some half dozen local friends of the family (all male) were sitting at tables with paper and writing instruments. It was their job to record the names of the mourners, their addresses, and the amounts of money they were pledging as gifts to the family. These amounts corresponded to a "going rate", which varied according to their wealth and the closeness of the family relationship, a typical sum being ¥10,000 (£80). In the following days, it was my wife's job to transfer all this information to a spreadsheet, as my brother-in-law is a technophobe.

All those who attended the ceremonies were dressed alike, the men in black suits and white shirts, with black shoes and socks and black ties; the women in black dresses and with black accessories, wearing no jewellery except for a single string of pearls, preferably black ones. Everyone was thus attired. There were no exceptions.

At the appointed hour, 4pm, the Buddhist priest and his attendant arrived. Actually, he was the son of the chief priest of the local temple, as the job is hereditary; the chief priest would officiate at the funeral the following day. As he entered, the master of ceremonies, an official of the funeral hall who acted as a sort of compere throughout, directed us to put our hands together, and then to put them down once he had reached his place. He sat on his platform with the ritual objects in front of him, with the coffin beyond, and on a higher level a photograph of the deceased, surrounded by vases containing hundreds of white chrysanthemums, sprays of purple orchids, and white lilies. Wooden tablets bearing the names of the family members were arranged among them, that bearing the names of my wife and me, as close family members, being placed on the highest level beside those of my brother-in-law. The whole array was immense, occupying the entire end of the hall and rising to quite some height.

Behind the priest was a table on which three censers had been placed, together with pots of incense. In the main body of the hall, the mourners sat on chairs, family members on the right, others on the left. The five principal mourners sat apart on the right, facing the priest at right-angles to the rest of the congregation.

The priest signalled the start of the ceremony by striking a large gong once, then again, then many time more accelerando and diminuendo, with two final loud strikes to mark the end of the announcement. Incense was burned, the ritual objects were manipulated, invocations were made, and scriptures chanted. The local temple belongs to the Tendai 天台 school (whose head temple in on Mount Hiei in Kyoto), a tantric school characterised by its use of elaborate rituals as a conduit to the beyond. The priest performed a number of mudras in rapid succession (mudras are stylised hand gestures that give direct access to deities and channel their powers far more effectively than verbal imprecations).

Towards the end of the ritual, which only lasted some 45 minutes, the priest began to chant a scripture, marking the rhythm by striking a very large wooden crotal. At this point the master of ceremonies directed the congregation to pay their respects, starting with the principal mourners. In groups of two or three we rose, approached one of the censers on the table behind the priest, bowed towards him and the deceased beyond, and with a ceremonial rosary in our left hand (I had bought mine in the Shanxiansi 善現寺 temple at Yiheyuan on my last visit to Peking), with the right hand took a pinch of incense, raised it towards our forehead, then placed it in the censer; this was done three times. Then with hands together, holding the rosary, we prayed briefly before returning to our places. Before sitting down, we bowed deeply to the congregation, and when members of the congregation had paid their respects, they bowed deeply to us.

When all had payed their respects, the priest concluded the ceremony, and the congregation went to another room for a meal whose cost had been paid by the deceased, and which had been prepared by a cousin who ran a catering business. He was sitting at my table, and a look of pride crossed his face as he saw the relish with which I ate – it was delicious, and I was very hungry.

The meal ended, and with it the first day of the funeral cermonies. It was now getting dark, and we returned to the house (except for my wife, who was to keep vigil at the funeral hall with her cousin). There, near the front door, was a traditional pail containing water and a ladle. On a small table there was a dish of salt and some napkins. Before entering, we ladled water over our hands, and then sprinkled salt on to ourselves to cleanse the gross contamination that had resulted from our contact with death.

The following day we rose early. The funeral itself was to start at 10am, but again it was necessary to reach the funeral hall in advance of the guests. We took our places, and the procedure was very similar to that of the previous day, except that now, only family members were present, sitting in the right half of the hall. And the two principal female mourners, my sister-in-law and my wife, were now wearing black kimonos rather than dresses. The ceremony also seemed similar to the untutored eye, except that towards the end, the priest rose with a large folded sheet of paper from which he read an announcement of the kaimyou 戒名 (canonical name) by which the deceased would henceforth be known for ritual purposes; it would be the name that would appear on her tablet in the butsudan.

Running straight on from the main ceremony, a lesser ceremony was conducted. This was an abbreviated form of the ceremony which would normally take place seven days later, but which in modern times has been brought foward so that the mourners do not need to return and take yet more time off work. One difference in the abbreviated ceremony is that when offering incense, the mourners take only one pinch and not three.

The abbreviation of the ceremony did not seem to have reduced the priest's fee. I understand he received ¥500,000 (£4,000) tax-free for the two-day event, and wonder how this compares with what my old college friend the Rector of Carshalton gets for a funeral.

The priest then stood aside, and the altar and associated paraphanalia was moved away. The flowers were also removed, and taken to a room nearby where the heads were plucked off. The lid of the coffin was removed, and the flower heads brought back on trays. In turn, we gently placed handfuls of them around the corpse, starting with the area around the head, and continuing until the whole coffin was full, leaving only the face visible. This was the only point in the two days' ceremonies at which people showed emotion. Japanese attention to detail was again evident: the funeral directors had removed all the anthers from the lilies, so that the mourners would not stain their hands or clothing with the heavy orange pollen.

The coffin lid was then replaced, and the coffin taken out to the hearse. My wife was concerned that the small urn containing the ashes of her mother's amputated feet should not be forgotten, as they would have to be united with those of the rest of the body after cremation. We then proceeded to the crematorium, the hearse leading the way, the priest driving himself there in his Prius fully robed, and the rest of us following in minibuses, a drive of some 15 minutes.

We entered what appeared to be a large atrium, in the rear wall of which were what looked like the doors to lifts that one might find in a large office block. In front of one of them was an altar arrangement, before which the coffin was placed, this time not oriented right to left, but lengthwise. The priest conducted a brief ceremony. The mourners were then asked if they would like to take a final look at the face of the deceased. A few did, and the flaps in the lid were opened for that purpose. The doors in the rear wall then opened to reveal not a lift, but the cremation oven itself. Some of those who looked first into the coffin, and then into the oven, were of advanced years and failing. I wondered what was going through their minds as they stared into the abyss.

The oven was only slightly larger than the coffin, and I wondered what arrangements would be made for a deceased sumo-wrestler. The walls were not yet glowing red as the coffin was slid in, but they sometimes are according to images that I have found on the internet. I think it was an electric oven, but I have read that they are usually oil-fired.

We were led to an upstairs room while the body was being cremated, and were told that the process would take an hour and fifteen minutes. During this time we chatted, and tea, beer, and snacks were provided. We then went downstairs for the bone-picking.

Fresh from the oven, the white, fragmented bones of the deceased were wheeled out on a large stainless-steel tray to an area of the atrium where another altar had been erected, and aligned feet first to a circular white porcelain urn. They seemed to have cooled, but I have read that they are sometimes still hot. Standing either side of the tray, in turn and in pairs the mourners then picked a bone with metal chopsticks, and placed it in the urn. This is the only occasion in Japan when it is acceptable for two people simultaneously to hold an object with chopsticks. I suppose the chopsticks are made of metal because wooden ones would catch fire if the bones were still hot. My wife and I took part of a tibia, I believe, and did not drop it. This was a relief, as to do so is considered most unlucky, and one wouldn't want things to get any worse than they already are. I later learned that my skill at using chopsticks had been noticed.

When all had picked a bone, proceeding from the feet to the head so that the body would stand upright in the urn, two attendants completed the process, carefully placing the curved fragments of the skull on top. With what looked like a paintbrush and a stainless-steel dustpan, one of the attendants carefully gathered up every speck of dust, to make sure that nothing was left behind, and tipped them into the urn. The lid of the urn was then carefully fitted, the urn was placed in a square wooden box, and a cover of silver brocade was slid over it.

The mourners were then driven back to the funeral hall for a final meal together. My brother-in-law carried his mother's ashes, and I carried her picture. In the dining room another altar had been erected, upon which the ashes were placed, with the picture behind.

After the meal things gradually modulated into a lower key, and we dispersed. My brother-in-law drove his wife and me home in his Prius, she in the back, holding the picture, me in the front passenger seat, bearing the urn. My wife and her uncle and aunt returned in a taxi. Before entering the house we again performed the Shinto de-contamination ritual with water and salt. The ashes were placed on an altar which had been set up in the main room of the house, where the coffin had lain, and will stay there until the 49th day after the death, when another important ceremony will take place as they are interred in the family tomb at the local temple. For this my wife will again have to go to Japan, and will be joined there by at least one of my sons; I will be remaining in Oxford.

David Helliwell
18 July 2012