For some people death begins as a game. As a child, the ultimate challenge among my friends was to lie down on the horizontal slab of a grave in our decently moldy local English cemetery. This sinister rite of passage always took place at night, preferably with a full moon.
Hammer’s horror films were popular at the time, with actor Vincent Price playing Transylvanian nobleman Count Dracula, with a smirk and a bloodless face. The count always wore a dashing cape, the black exterior symbolizing the night, the red silk lining, the bloody veins of the young women. Or so I liked to imagine.
Our visits to the cemetery filled the silent boneyard with adrenaline-pumping laughter. In recent years, however, living in Japan, my relationship with the deceased has become more suitable.
The Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) devoted no less than three essays in his book “Ghostly Japan” to aspects of death and devotion, noting that the scent of incense burned in the presence of the deceased “Protect both the corpse and the newly departed soul from malicious demons.” He added that the peasants often burned incense “to drive out goblins and evil powers presiding over diseases.”
Incense was burning at my father-in-law’s feet when we arrived at the hospital where he had just died. Her figure, wrapped in a thin blanket of white silk, was arranged in front of a bronze statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. After the cremation, a tray with his cremated remains was rolled onto the living room floor, where a small group of family members were waiting. The heat of the metal surfaces could be felt several meters away. Like customary decrees in Japan, pairs of giant chopsticks were provided so that we could lift bone particles into an urn.
Once at home, the remains were placed in front of the family altar, alongside the food offerings favored by the deceased. These included a green tea caddy, an orange, a packet of rice crackers, and a Snickers bar – the latter being a favorite after retirement. Recently, his yet sturdy 83-year-old widow insisted that the design of his burial plot must have enough space to accommodate her cat’s remains.
With the rituals removed, Japanese funerals are much less solemn than you might think. Since such events are mainly devoted to remembrance, it is customary at receptions for guests to sit in groups and exchange fond memories of the deceased, while people pour beer and sake and everyone has a snack. side dishes.
Eliminating the dead, however, has always been a problem in Japan. The symbolism of fire – the purifying flame – exerts a strong influence. So are the benefits of physical reduction of matter in a highly space and cost conscious society. While visiting the cremation grounds of the Monto Buddhist sect at Kirigaya in Tokyo, Isabella Bird, in her 1878 travel account “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”, observed that this profitable practice, still rare at the time, “brought it to life. within the reach of the class most burdened with ordinary funeral expenses.
The normal lot of the poor at the time of Bird’s visit was to be buried before burial in a crouching position inside a cramped pine tub surrounded by bamboo.
The real estate values and house hunters’ considerations apply almost equally to finding an affordable resting place with the right location. Squeezed as much for space as for money, many Tokyoites have given up the ghost, so to speak, and have turned their gaze elsewhere. Hachioji, an hour by train west of central Tokyo, has become the quintessential bed town for the dead. To cope with the overflow of the capital, more than 20 cemeteries have been dug on its bamboo terraced slopes.
Kamikawa Cemetery, a well-appointed place with over 10,000 graves overlooking a mountain and valley, is one of the most popular and therefore difficult to access necropolises in Hachioji. Family plots in Kamikawa range from humble dedications in carved stone with simply expressed aspirations – “peace”, “love”, “tranquility” – to the pride of a monument filled with a granite table , benches for visitors to sip their tea and a letterbox to deposit their calling cards. It would have cost more than 50 million yen ($ 450,000).
Individuality appears in death as in life. A nearby dance teacher’s grave is distinguished by a giant marble fan; a tennis enthusiast’s tablet was designed in the form of a racquet, and one man, clearly proud of his professional and academic accomplishments, chose to include his resume on his marker.
Tradition inevitably has the last word, but even secular customs have come under the scrutiny of contemporary values and sentiments. In the early 90s, I attended what may have been one of the last such ceremonies on a remote island in Okinawa Prefecture. In an annual practice, daughters-in-law were to exhume their in-laws’ remains from their urns, remove any lingering shreds of flesh – in this case with a scythe – and then wash them in awamori, a strong liquor of Okinawa. Naturally, local women eventually rebelled against this bone-washing ritual, causing the custom to disappear.
For some people, filial duties can be just too much to bear, the expectations of ancestors a little too pressing. This may explain why, as Japanese newspapers report every year, hundreds of funeral urns are found among the lost items left on trains.
Stephen Mansfield is a Japan-based author and photojournalist.