My wife's Mother
died this afternoon:
Great Grand Mother:
Eighty-two years old.
This evening my wife, her younger sister and her two sons, one son's wife, and I are in a room at a funeral hall. Grand Mother, lying on a futon, is dressed in shining white kimono, her hands in prayer, clasping lavendar-crystal beads and two sun-flowers. The Jodo-Shinshu family-priest comes. We kneel together on cushions while he chants the death sutra. He turns and speaks words of comforting joy to us. The two grandsons (my nephews) will spend the night here, replacing each single stick of incense as it burns out.
This morning two lady attendants have come to help us prepare Grand Mother for the coffin: her daughters put new, white tabi socks and fresh rice-straw sandals on her feet for her journey to and beyond the river, and in a paper purse four paper coins for the Tillergod. We cover the bottom of the shining white, wooden coffin with green tea and anise leaves, gather round, lift and place her inside. An extra pair of rice-straw sandals, a hand fan, a doll, and a photo of her flower garden we place on her lap and legs. (The doll was brought from the United States by her father when she was nine years old: a girl with opening/closing blue eyes, wearing a short, light-red corduroy dress with matching jacket and cap, a white lace shawl, and--on a red ribbon around her neck--a coin purse embroidered with golden thread: on her feet, a pair of our daughter's baby socks.)
The attendants place paper-wrapped blocks of Dry Ice beside and above her head, likewise fold and place swaths of cotton vertically and horizontally, and diagonally across her chest...until it looks as though Grand Mother is floating, sleeping--maybe dreaming--in a heaven of layered clouds. One by one we moisten her lips with an anise leaf dipped in spring water, then place the windowed-cover on the coffin and carry her to the funeral altar in another room. Grand Mother is ready for her journey to The Pure Land.
Tonight we are gathered for a family and friends Sayonara Wake. Two of our three sons (one is in California) and our daughter have arrived (after work in Osaka and Tokyo). Great granddaughter Lynn (2 1/2) and her mother--wife of our eldest son--wife's parents, her brother-in-law and his young son, the parents of our second son's wife (she is taking care of one-year-old great grandson, Shion, in Tokyo), and the parents of one nephew's wife are here. So, too, are some of Grand Mother's nephews and nieces, and three of sister's dancing-school friends. We chat, some of us remembering when we last met: six years ago during Grand Father's Funeral.
We sit on cushions on the tatami-mat floor. The priest enters. We stand, bow to him, sit again. He takes a seat in front of the altared coffin, lights incense, rings the brass bowl, and begins chanting the sutras. When finished he stands, turns to us, bows, and speaks other words of comforting joy. We stand and bow as he leaves. Then we go to a lounge for coffee or tea while the attendants prepare the room for the Sayonara Feast.
Most of Grand Mother's nephews and nieces go home to their families (they'll return tomorrow with their spouses and now-adult children and their spouses and children). The rest of us sit around low tables laden with all kinds of sushi, snacks, juices, beer, sake, tea, and Kentucky (yep!) Fried Chicken. I stand and say to all, "Toast: Let us live until we die!" All laughingly agree; we drink...and dig in. In time, our eldest son, his wife, daughter Lynn, the parents, and the friends go home until tomorrow. Sometime after midnight we get out the futons and crash (two large rooms). (There's also a bath and shower, a toilet, and a kitchenette.)
It's 11:00 this morning. The priest returns, wearing colorful, formal robes. We stand, bow to him, sit again. He takes the seat in front of the altared coffin, lights incense, rings the brass bowl, and begins chanting the sutras. While he chants we (sister, my wife, me, our eldest son, sister's eldest son, our other children, nephews, nieces, spouses, sons' wives, parents, and friends) one by one rise, bow to everyone, stand behind the priest and, with hands in prayer...and tears...and bows to Grand Mother...sprinkle a few grains of incense on the burner. All have prayed and offered themselves in symbolic sacrifice.
The priest departs. Attendants come in, clip and place the flowers in baskets, and remove the coffin's cover. We gather around and cover all but Grand Mother's face with the flowers, and with received-from-abroad condolence message-prayers and personal message-prayers we have written on paper bamboo leaves. The cover is replaced, the window closed. We put on our shoes, leave the room...go out to the waiting mini-bus. I carry Grand Mother's altar-photograph, sister carries the plaque inscribed with Grand Mother's new, eternal name: Disciple To The Law Of Light.
We follow the hearse to the crematorium. We follow the trolley-carried coffin to the front of furnace #4 (of 15). We take our tearful last look at Grand Mother's face while the priest chants the final blessing. The male attendant rolls the trolley into the furnace, closes the door, places his cap over his heart, pushes the button, and bows with all of us as one: Sayonara, Mother! Grand Mother! Great Grand Mother! Sayonara!
We return to the funeral hall for a formal Japanese bento (box lunch): yellowtail, tuna, and squid sashimi, sweet & sour shrimp, baked red-snapper, candied chestnuts, boiled vegetables, vegetable salad, pickled ginger, clear fish-flavored noodle soup, white rice, beer, juice, and tea, melon, chocolate, and hot coffee. My wife and her sister give short speeches of gratitude to everyone.
After about an hour and a half of eating and chatting, all return to their homes, except we children and grandchildren; we must go back to the crematorium. There we select (with long wooden chopsticks) pieces of bone, still warm--from the feet, legs, pelvis, spine, arms, hands, ribs, neck, jaw, and ear canal--and place them, topped with the skull pate, in a white ceramic urn. The lidded urn is put into a white box which is then wrapped in a white silk kerchief. (I don't know what happens to the remaining bones; I suppose they are returned to the furnace and reduced to total ash which is then . . . ?)
We go back to the hall, have coffee or tea, change from black to casual wear, receive the bill and the official documents, then take the bones to the family-temple for a renewal blessing by the family-priest. Our eldest son goes home to his wife and daughter. Our second son and our daughter go back to Tokyo. Our nephews go to their homes, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya. My wife and her sister take the bones to the family home to remain for forty-nine days until we inter them in the family tomb. I come home and write of these infinitely finite moments.
Gone! Gone! Gone to the Other Shore!
Landed at the Other Shore!
Namu Amida Bu...
Namu Amida Bu...
Namu Amida Butsu...