When we arrived at the crematorium we were ushered into the main lobby, a large open room two stories tall with lots of smooth, bright grey faux stone, concrete and brushed metal surfaces. It was the type of official building which has been mass- produced all over Japan since the economic boom of the 1970s and 80s left the country like a cicada shedding its outgrown carapace only to die a short while later with a final annoying chirp of nostalgia for its larval months spent growing slowly beneath the surface of the earth.
I had come up the mountain with my fiancée in her family’s Toyota minivan. But the rest of the family had taken the charter bus with the rest of the guests from the funeral home where we had spent most of the last two days commemorating the death of Grandma Nakamura (Naka-baachan). And of course, Naka-baachan herself rode up in a shiny black hearse—the only non-domestic (read: Japanese) automobile in the funeral party. Surely Toyota, or our hometown Hiroshima auto company Mazda could have delivered on a simpler, less tacky limousine—perhaps inflected with those touchstones of Japanese auto design which I have so come to appreciate since I have lived here. Where was the eco-friendly swoop of the hybrid drive vehicle chassis? Or the intensively focus-grouped hyper-meaningless brand name— “Prius,” “Delica,” “Acura,” “Noah.” If nothing else, the Cadillac hearse that carried Grandma Nakamura’s body up the mountain to the crematorium that day was a symbol of Japan’s creeping capitulation to an increasingly unwieldy economic system of foreign origin.
The overriding question that kept haunting my thoughts that day was this: why do we do the odd things we do, which perhaps we have been told to do for generations, but which we can only pretend to understand even partially? Shouldn’t all culture be a choice rather than an obligation? Or perhaps culture is simply the choices we make again and again, regardless of the harm we do, the pain we cause—regardless of the better options available. Having a Cadillac Hearse at a Japanese funeral might then be the antithesis of culture? And so what is the result? Certainly it is something much more fascinating and much more painful.
That day, my future in-laws, the Japanese side of my family kept telling me how unusual it was for a non-Japanese to be participating in the rituals I was participating in. So, by the time the Cadillac made its appearance around lunchtime for the long drive up the mountain to the spanking new cremation complex, it provided its own sort of relief or companionship—at least I wasn’t the only misfit. At least I wasn’t an awkward Cadillac or a corpse.
Naturally, I hadn’t expected to be attending a funeral while I was here. I was in Japan for two months to help my fiancée with the plans and preparation for our wedding, which would be held the following February. Additionally I was working on my Master’s Thesis in the history and philosophy of education. I hadn’t packed a suit, let alone a black funeral suit. But luckily in my current slightly slimmer state, I was able to fit into a suit belonging to my fiancée’s father from his chubbier days—navy blue, with black shoes and a black tie and a white Oxford shirt—what the Japanese call a “Y-shirt,” a quaint mutation of the more familiar loan-word “T-shirt” only with a differently shaped collar and not to be confused with a “V-neck” shirt, the Y-shirt’s more casual cousin. I only felt a little bit like a clown. I suppose I wasn’t sticking out any more than usual. And if I was, it wasn’t because of the suit, it was because I am not Asian but have round blue eyes, light brown hair, pink skin and am slightly fatter than the average Japanese. So, although my shoes and tie didn’t match my suit, at least they gave enough of a hint of my involvement in the funeral party that no one gave me any guff. I imagine it was one of those situations when the Japanese propensity for neutral-to-accepting, or at least initially welcoming silence worked to the advantage of funeral-goers who were certainly shocked to see me there in the second row among the recognizable family members paying my respects by pressing my palms together in front of my nose and bowing murmuring the occasional namu amida butsu (“hail enlightened Buddha!” which sounds a lot more like nom mom daboots when you chant it correctly).
The light in the bone collecting room was a recessed fluorescence—blue reflected off of grey green slate and the odd wooden detail. The long steel tray upon which the results of an hour and a half of Naka-baachan’s cremation was one of two pieces of furniture in the room. The tray sat in the center of the room on a specifically purposed electronic forklift apparatus. Pieces of hot bone were still smoking on the tray’s surface. The other piece of furniture was a flimsy looking laminate wooden side board, which seemed to have been attached to the forklift in some fashion carefully calculated so as to protect it from being damaged by the heat still emanating from the tray itself. The design of this room had clearly been well thought out—two automatic doors, high ceilings to allow the smoke to clear without the disturbance of a loud ventilation fan. There was an economy of design and simplicity to the room, which lent one the feeling of flirting with austerity, like splurging on an expensive yoga mat. And yet no attempt had been made to reconcile the somewhat jarring effect of the juxtaposition of industrial/clinical steel with the smooth slate and fake wood décor. Perhaps no need for such a smoothing over was seen as necessary. In any case, the bone collecting room, for me, was a place where I found myself sprinting towards the very edge of wild discomfort. My Japanese relatives leaned in to get a better look at Grandma Nakamura’s remains and I could see the thin white smoke wafting up into their faces, as if it were a Viking’s smorgasbord. One could just pick out the charred dark familiar forms of nails and staples half hidden among the ashes. The burnt smell was more than noticeable, but not entirely overwhelming.
Soon an attendant, still pulling on a pair of white cotton gloves asked if it would be all right to orient the family to the layout of the Grandma Nakamura’s bones. Three sets of oversized bamboo chopsticks—like flatter versions of the type you would use for stirring sautéed Chinese cabbage rested somewhat menacingly on the sideboard where my Father-in-law and his brother had placed a large and a small urn. When everyone nodded in understanding to the attendant he began indicating with an outstretched arm, hand cupped, politely indicating the foot bones, the large leg bones, flat hip bones, spine pieces, ribs, what remained of the arm bones, shoulder blades, and finally the skull pieces, flat and cracked, but smooth and clearly recognizable at the end of the tray closest to the door through which we had all entered.
The attendant led us all in a few perfunctory namu amida butsus gloved hands clasped in front of his face just below his nose. And then he asked very politely if it would be OK if he broke up some of the larger bones into more manageable pieces. It was only then that I began to understand the task ahead of us. Luckily my father-in-law and his brother seemed to know what to do, and as each bowed in the direction of the chopsticks, which rested awkwardly though not precariously against the otherwise useless wooden railing of the sideboard. Hands clasped in a quick prayer, I took a big step back from the tray of bones so I could brace myself against the wall. I was a little light headed. I unlocked my knees and thought about the Cadillac Hearse, which was probably parked back down at the funeral home at the base of the mountain. I longed for the cozy hotel-style room where we had all held vigil over Naka-baachan’s intact corpse. The sushi dinner and coffee breakfast we had all enjoyed in her presence, the incense and the bowl-shaped bell on its ornate cushion were all coming back to haunt me as I breathed deeply while trying desperately not to smell the smell of Naka-baachan’s fresh ashes.
The attendant began the task of setting out Grandma Nakamura’s hot bones within easy grasp of her two sons, who had already picked up the long flat chopsticks. They each took a turn placing a large piece of leg bone into the bottom of the larger of the two urns. The smaller frailer bones of the feet had not survived the crematory blaze. Then their younger sister and each of their wives took their turns. Then the next generation—my future brothers in law and their wives and cousins, some holding their own children in their arms as they grasped the ceremonial chopsticks— took their turn selecting bones and pieces of bone from the array the attendant was preparing for our convenience. The attendant would sometimes tap and work at the larger pieces of bone with his chopsticks in order to break them down into an appropriate size. But certain larger pieces—notably chunks of Grandma’s lumbar vertebrae—remained intact. I had to concentrate hard in order to dispel the climactic images of Raiders of the Lost Ark—those melting Nazis—from my imagination. Grandma was not a Nazi, nor was she absconding with relics from the middle of the Egyptian desert. On the contrary, Grandma Nakamura WAS the relic now, or at least her bones were. Nor was I playing a particularly triumphant or adventurous Indiana Jones. I waited to be felled by a poisoned dart, or for some high priest to rip my frantically pumping heart from my chest.
After my fiancée took her turn with the chopsticks and the bones, it came to me to take the next chunk. I was hesitated as I was becoming slightly nauseous from the smell of the smoke, and I wasn’t 100% certain that my knees wouldn’t buckle when I tried to move away from the sturdy slate wall I had been steadying myself against. But I did it. I even had the wherewithal and Boy Scout capital-‘R’ Reverence to take the rosary my father-in-law had lent me out of my jacket pocket to use to mumble my own quickly improvised Buddhist prayer. When I had finally taken the chopsticks in my hand, the overriding fear was, of course, that I would drop my piece of Naka-baachan back on the tray with a clang, signaling once and for all my status as an oaf and a barbarian—an outsider without the requisite chopstick skills. I was afraid of not being able to pick up my designated piece of bone immediately, of fumbling, as I do so often when I eat ramen with chopsticks. My nausea grew at my new awareness of the fact that the most similar experience I had previously had to my current task had been eating fried chicken feet at a dim sum restaurant in Vancouver. This was not a meal, I had to remind myself, despite the smell, vaguely reminiscent of overcooked tofu. Naka-baachan is not food. When I picked up my designated bone fragment I carefully held my left hand just beneath it, again, just in case I were to lose my grasp. I must at all costs, I thought, prevent the bone from clattering back on to the stainless steel surface of the cremation tray. But in retrospect, I wonder exactly what I would have done had I actually dropped the bone into my own hand. As hot as it was, I likely would have burnt myself and dropped the bone again, and then dropped the chopsticks, and then dropped to my knees weeping some unintelligible apology to my shocked and disgusted future family. So, the left hand held out as a safety net, while it is an instinct which suits normal chopstick usage, as a means to catch the odd errant dribble of sauce or dab of rice, was perhaps not the best move given the present circumstances in the bone collecting room.
In any case, I was able, with an intensity of concentration, which I can only hope my Japanese relatives perceived as reverence for the dead, to lay my apportioned segment of the remainder of Grandma Nakamura’s leg to rest in the bottom of the large urn. I then set the chopsticks awkwardly aside on the wooden sideboard with the small useless railing, and sighed deeply as I bowed relieved and exhausted, hoping that I would soon have a chance to change out of my borrowed shoes, which I could feel bruising the balls of my feet.