Oct 18, 2013

Let's Go to a Japanese Funeral

I'm getting the whole life cycle here. First my supervisor got married, now she's having a baby, and I attended my first (and I hope my last) funeral in Japan.

A fellow teacher's mother passed away from old age. Not only did the teacher's co-workers and students attend, but also the PTA (parent's) board, who bought a bouquet of flowers for his family. There is a strong sense of community in Japan, and this is when everyone pulls together.

Arrangement example found online; I did not take any photos at the funeral.

The funeral took place in a ceremony hall, as most temples lack the space to accommodate the large group that attended. We sat in chairs, as opposed to kneeling on tatami mats at a shrine, which is also not likely climate-controlled. It was much more comfortable for guests this way.

After giving a donation averaging at 5,000円 ($50) in a special black-and-white knotted envelope, we were led to a small room adjacent to the large viewing area that had already filled with people. In the smaller room, a TV screen showed us the events going on on the other side of the wall.

Everyone wore black, conservatively dressed in suits and leather shoes. The middle school boys (members of the teacher's baseball team) wore their school uniforms sans black jacket. It was rainy and dark outside since a typhoon had rolled in two days before.

During the ceremony, everyone was silent as the priest chanted the 40-minute prayer for the departed. Some businessmen held prayer beads around the wrists of their joined palms. I watched two of my students' heads loll forward and jolt back as they tried to stay awake.

After the chanting had ended, the priest said more than a few words, including instructions on how to pray properly once you approached the large, golden steps surrounded by giant floral arrangements and a photo of the departed. The priest hit the drum and the baseball boys jumped.

Everyone filed towards the main display to offer their prayers. After everyone in the main room had gone forward, the smaller room filtered out to follow suite. The old men were really pushy and shoved to get in front of the line. I was taken aback by their behavior, especially being Japanese!

When I reached the main display I bowed towards the woman's portrait, scooped up two pinches of ash to sprinkle on the incense burner, and prayed with my hands together for an earnest moment. Upon exiting in line, the departed's family bowed to everyone who in turn did the same. Their backs may give out after such a workout!

My fellow teacher gave a small smile and said, "Ah, Pa-to-ri-shi-ya sensei, thank you." I bowed to him and the other members of his family, and followed the crowd out as the ceremonial hall employees passed out French cookies.

Yes, that's right: everyone received a box of French tea cookies and a thank you card for their support at the funeral. Inside the thank-you card was (wait for it).... beer coupons.

Conclusion? Japanese funerals = tea cookies and beer. What better way to get over the grief?


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