…because some thoughts are worth remembering
When I was young, I watched my mother prepare my father to attend funerals of his senpai (先輩), a Japanese term used to refer to someone more senior than you, whether in age, position, etc. First there is a decision whether he would attend their wake as well, how much would be the condolence money (crisp Yen bills withdrawn from the bank for this type of occasion, in an ornate envelope with our surname inked in Japanese calligraphy), properly pressed suit reserved for mourning will be laid out, his regular handkerchief would be switched out to a pure white one as part of the uniform, and unbox the more formal prayer beads from deep within the closet.
With all the “I”s dotted and the “T”s crossed, there is very little more that’s offered in terms of personal and individual expression of grief. That part rings true for the reactions we see in the U.S. There are often set phrases that are repeated over and over again: “my condolences”, “sorry for your loss”, “I am sorry to hear about your <insert appropriate relationship of the deceased to the person> passing”. And it’s a good thing that creativity is not expected of us, because simply, there are no other words we can offer to make things better. I’ve had several occasions where I could feel the sense of loss of my friends so profoundly that I would have use up all the concentration I could muster to not lose it myself, never mind be in any shape to offer them comfort. It made sense to me that people brought food when visiting the grieving family: casseroles can say a thousand words so we don’t have to.
As an adult, I have come to appreciate cultural similarities and differences, especially when I begin to understand how the practices serve the people in their cultures. It was only recently after experiencing some unexpected loss one after another when I began to understand what I thought were involved rituals that seem to go on forever in Japan. The funeral may end with a burial of the cremated remains in the family grave, but the official mourning rituals continue. Memorial services are then offered on the 7th, 49th and the 100th day. Within the year of the death, new year cards are replaced by mourning cards (that state why new year cards aren’t being sent out that year). Then the memorial service is held coinciding with obon, the festival of the dead (a period when ancestral souls are said to visit), not only during the first year, but also in the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and the 13th years, and beyond up to either the 39th or the 50th year in the Buddhist tradition as practiced in Japan.
Here are some lessons I finally learned from my childhood observing the rituals of mourning. I got the point that death is not something we “get over”, but we learn to live with. All the preparations that seemed to a child’s mind as chores keeping everyone unnecessarily busy, I now realize, is really a gift of emotional time we can be exempted from our daily obligations and responsibilities like a get out of free jail card.
We mourn in different ways and mourning takes time. Many of us aren’t able to engage in our day-to-day work, but we need to be called to do something to cope with our loss, like focusing our attention on these rituals the best we can. The custom of repeated services provides us with an open ended invitation to grieve and mourn the death as long as we need to. At some point, it becomes a day of remembrance and celebration of their lives, but the system doesn’t judge if or when that happens, because our hearts get broken and they don’t heal themselves magically after a funeral.
Photo: plum blossom, Tokyo, Japan.