My First Japanese Funeral and the Joy of Teaching

While this may have very little to do with fantasy writing, I felt the need to talk about a personal experience I had this weekend. For the first time, I went to a Japanese funeral. My wife’s grandmother died earlier this week. She was 99. I met her several times in the past, but she was at the stage where she didn’t remember much. Still, it’s always sad to lose someone.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d been to a memorial service before in Japan, but it’s very different. First, we had to put flowers in the open casket. Someone said some words and then we moved it out of the house together. Once we went to the crematorium, we had a brief service and then a small brunch of rice balls. After sitting for a long time, the part I was dreading came up. In Japanese ceremonies you have to pick up the bones with chopsticks and move them into the urn. This part was worrisome for me because I didn’t want to make a mistake in front of all of her family. As a foreigner, I feel like I don’t really want any attention put on me in a time like this. I guess it’s inevitable since it was my first time doing such a thing. Luckily, my wife said I did great and everything went fine. On the ride back from the parlor, I was tasked to carry the bones and ashes. I’m not sure why (maybe because a man usually does so?), but I was honored to do so.

Then the actual funeral happened. But before that, I had a sort of surreal moment.

My wife’s sister has two sons. Sometimes we play cards and watch TV, but this is probably the first time I really connected with them. We were sort of playing this game that was like basketball, but when you don’t have a net, we just threw it at this hole in the ground. While we were playing, I tried to add a little dazzle by dribbling in between my legs a couple of times, something I haven’t admittedly done since probably high school. He was pretty impressed with this and asked me to teach him how to do it. I’m no basketball coach by any means, but my wife and I showed him how to do it. He practiced over and over for what seemed like an hour. When he finally got it right, he looked so happy. Even when we left he told me, “Philip, thank you for teaching me basketball” (in Japanese of course). There aren’t many times as a teacher (my day job) when someone has actually thanked me for teaching them something. At this moment, I felt like being a teacher is pretty cool. I guess it felt surreal because in between mourning the passing of someone, there was this reminder that life can sometimes throw curve balls at you. What I expected to be a somber day, actually had moments of connection, understanding, and acceptance.

As the funeral commenced, there was a lot of chanting and hitting a wooden drum. We all sat on the floor in which I tried to sit properly in the upright pose called “seiza.”  My legs have never been so numb in my entire life. They actually went beyond numb and started to stab with pain. It was really weird. Later, some her family remarked how impressive it was I sat like that for so long.

 All in all, a Japanese funeral feels more like a combination of celebrating life and taking care of your loved ones one last time. The hands-on approach felt very foreign to me, where I feel like in Western funerals many of these same matters are handled by professionals. I was glad to be there to support my wife and her family and she seemed glad to have me there.

So I guess I learned that even in death, we can bring people together. That we should celebrate life while we have it and not take anyone for granted. That nothing is truly final and that we live on through those that love us.