A different kind of Funeral

July 28, 2011–Okazaki City, Aichi Prefecture, Japan

Greetings readers, long time no see, I hear that the weather over in America right now is blistering hot, I hope that all of you are doing your best to stay cool and dry during this heat wave.

Actually, I’m currently in Japan right now in a (rather large) prefecture called Aichi Prefecture. You guys might recognize the name, Aichi is home to the global HQ of Toyota Motors and was the location for the 2005 World Expo all those years ago.

Although I’d visited this prefecture numerous times in the past as a tourist, I found myself over here for a completely special reason this time around: to attend my grandmother’s funeral.

Japanese funerals differ from American ones in a great manner. In America, when a loved one dies, there’s a huge funeral ceremony that ends in the burying of the casket and that’s it. It’s up to the loved ones from there whether or not they want to visit and how often. Japan’s a country that believes that our ancestors help make a family who they are. Thus, after every funeral, there are ceremonial rites to help the spirit on its way to an afterlife and every year, there’s a festival named “Obon” in August which invites spirits of the deceased back to the living to honor them for a week.

But not only that, as I’ve grown to see more and more as I’ve stayed here, the Japanese have a firm belief that the spirits of those that passed are watching over us and guiding us in several ways. In certain ancestral homes, there’s often a shrine to the family spirits, and every gift given to the family must first be honored in front of the ancestors before the actual family can enjoy them.

For me, attending a funeral of any kind, let alone a Japanese one, was a first. I’d always seen funerals as a sad occasion, a time to mourn a loss. Instead, in the Japanese funeral, I found a ceremony that honored the living and helped them to pass through to the next stage of their lives.

To be honest, I first hesitated when considering whether to write this blog. My grandmother touched the lives of many people over her 86 year life, and emotions ran very high during the funeral ceremonies. Yet, the more I thought of it, the more I realized that it was stupid to be sad. Funerals should be times to mourn the loss of a loved one, but also to take a step back and admire one’s accomplishments in life so why hesitate?

I think what struck me as the most emotional time during a funeral was the cremation. Pragmatically, because of the lack of land to bury bodies, most Japanese families choose to have their remains cremated. The living family members then carefully place the burnt bones in the urn that will later be buried in the family grave.

At first, and to many of you reading this blog from the States, that may seem quite ghastly to be honest. Who wants to see the dead charred remains of a loved one? But lemme tell you, it wasn’t disgusting at all. In fact, there was something very touching and heart-warming about having your closest and most loved family members finally carry you off into the final resting place for your physical self.

And in writing this, perhaps you’d like to know more about my grandmother, the whole reason why I’m here in the first place.

My grandmother was a kind-hearted, warm lady who I regrettably did not see enough of during my life. As I had moved to America when I was five, we really didn’t have many chances to go back to Japan. Japan was just too far and too expensive to take a casual trip to every now and then. Even now, I look back and am saddened at the fact that my grandmother only got to see me really two times since I moved to America: once when I was six and the next when I was 14 and now, as a 22 year old in spirit.

One of my biggest regrets in life, even at the age of 22, was the fact that I never even knew grandmother’s first name. For me, she’d always been, and always will be, Okazaki Obachan, my grandmother from Okazaki, Japan. Yet, she didn’t hesitate to have a huge influence on my life to make me who I am.

My fondest memories of my grandmother came in two forms. In first grade, I visited Japan for the first time since I moved to the States. At the time, my grandmother owned a liquor business in Okazaki, a family business that had been handed down generations in the town. I remember fondly that one day, I was helping my grandmother with the store and someone paid a ¥500 coin for something (rougly $5). My grandmother, noticing that I had never seen a ¥500 coin, handed it to me, saying it was a gift. I still have the coin in a piggy bank at home, but, looking back, I admire her the fact that she could notice such small things in her grandson. Maybe I was being a bit obvious, I guess I can’t really remember…

Like most grandmothers, she also loved to spoil me. One of the clearest memories I have was of her taking me to a department store to buy me my first game boy. It was a special edition green one, and back in the States, no one had ever heard of such a thing. Another fond memory was when, for my 10th birthday, I opened a package from Japan to discover the newly released Pokemon Gold game lying there. Apparently, my grandmother, knowing I loved games and seeing the hype about “Pocket Monsters” had lined up all night on the release date of the game to get it for me. Perhaps that’s why when they remade that very game last year, I was one of the first in line to get it…it brought back a lot of fond memories.

As I said earlier, I’m of the opinion that it’s a person’s actions and ability to positively (or negatively) affect people’s lives that define who a person is. For my grandmother, the memories, (what’s left of them anyways) are all I have left, but that’s what I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.

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