In May, I wrote about people I admired, including Peter, a friend of ours who was battling leukemia. Two weeks ago, he finally succumbed. This is an account of his wake and funeral.
We received the news of Peter’s passing on the evening of August 16 (Friday, the night before my recital). My husband had just gotten off his mobile phone after speaking to a friend, when his phone suddenly (ie, by itself) started dialing Peter’s number. My husband quickly ended the call, as he had not intended to call Peter. But he changed his mind and called anyway since he had not spoken to Peter in nearly two weeks. Peter’s widow (whom I shall name Mrs. P) took the call and gave him the sad news. It turned out that Mrs. P had been trying to call my husband but couldn’t get through to him, and my husband’s phone history did not register any call from her. I guess Peter wanted to let my husband know in Peter’s own time.
Thus, right after my recital, my husband and I went straight to Peter’s wake. Like most cultures, Japan has its own traditions in bidding farewell to their dead. In most cases, the Japanese observe Buddhist ceremonies (such as chanting of special prayers by Buddhist priests and the deceased receiving a new name). In Peter’s case, we observed only the secular rituals.
At the funeral home, staff members were on hand to guide everyone on what to do. It’s such a relief not to have to think of what the proper rituals are supposed to be. I should know, as I went through that when my mother passed away nearly 16 years ago and we had to listen to everyone’s idea of a proper ritual for the dead (all based on their own superstitious belief). Here, the staff members take care of that, and they were as unobtrusive as possible. They handed each of those who were present at the wake a white carnation which we placed on a table in front of Peter’s coffin. On another table were placed some of Peter’s favorite things that Mrs. P selected to accompany Peter in the next life. These things included his brushes and paints, a couple of fishing rods, a couple of books, some beret and Japanese bandanas, music CDs and two pair of shoes. After placing the carnation on the table, my husband and I spent a few moments with Peter.
The wake was only for family and very close friends. Peter and Mrs. P had no children, so family consisted of Mrs. P’s brothers and their families, and a niece and a grand-niece (ie, the niece’s daughter) of Peter who flew in from half way across the world. My husband and I felt privileged to have been invited. I learned that evening that Peter was my husband’s very first friend after my husband arrived in Japan some 40 odd years ago.
Peter’s two relatives did not expect to be attending his funeral. They were originally scheduled to visit in October, when Mrs. P, ever hopeful, expected Peter to be in better shape to receive them. But his grand-niece, who was quite close to Peter, couldn’t shake off the feeling that they should not wait and should visit soon. If it weren’t for the fact that flights to Japan were full, they would have left a day earlier and be in Tokyo when Peter took his last breath. But, he died on their way here. Nonetheless, it was providential that they were at least here for Peter’s funeral.
After relatives and friends have had their moments with Peter, we had a simple dinner at the funeral home in his honor. Everyone got to know each other better, as well as spoke about their memories of Peter. The dinner was generally lively, just like Peter and how he would have wanted it to be.
After dinner, we moved to a tatami room that acted as the visiting room. Mrs. P asked my husband and me to join the funeral the next morning. In Japan, it is common to have the funeral the day after the wake (which is usually a one-evening affair). As the funeral and cremation were scheduled for early morning, we stayed the night.
At exactly 8 am the following Sunday morning, the staff led us back to the room where Peter was laid. Mrs. P’s eldest brother delivered an emotional eulogy. Following the eulogy, each person present stood up, walked to the coffin, took a white carnation, silently said his or her goodbyes to Peter, placed the carnation on the table in front of the coffin, and bowed to the rest of the mourners.
After we have paid our respects, the staff moved the coffin to the middle of the room and asked each one to choose something from Peter’s belongings and place it inside the coffin. Mrs. P encouraged us to participate. All the while, she also spoke lovingly to Peter while packing his favorite things with him. After these belongings have been placed inside Peter’s coffin, the staff asked us to place the white carnations inside the coffin. When this was done, we were asked to fill the coffin with flowers from the massive flower arrangement that served as background to Peter’s coffin during the wake. Only Peter’s face remained visible, beautifully and peacefully surrounded by flowers. After Mrs. P’s loving, final farewell to him, the coffin was sealed.
At the ground floor, the ladies were directed outside the funeral home to stand near the hearse, while the men were asked to carry the casket to the hearse. Mrs. P was escorted to sit in the hearse while the rest of us got unto an air-conditioned mini-bus that brought us to the crematorium, which was just a few minutes away from the funeral home.
At the crematorium, each of us was asked to again place a white carnation on a table in front of the coffin. The carnations, together with a bouquet of flowers, were laid on top of the casket. Also on the table was the urn where his cremated remains will be placed.
We then accompanied the coffin to the furnace. I expected to see fire when the furnace door opened, but there was none. After the furnace door closed, we were escorted to a waiting room on the second floor. Various beverages including beer were served. We spent the time getting to know each other even more. I learned that Peter’s niece is a Type 1 diabetic and that although she generally does not eat a lot of carbs, she partook of the sushi and tempura served at dinner at the wake. I would not have guessed she was diabetic if her daughter did not casually mention her mother’s high FBG. To all nervous Type 1 diabetic would-be moms, I can tell you not to worry so much. Peter’s niece has two beautiful, smart and outgoing teen-agers.
After nearly an hour and a half, the crematorium’s staff asked us to return downstairs. But first they asked Mrs. P to identify Peter’s remains. I guess they meant Peter’s glasses or remains of his fishing rods, and to confirm that he came out of the furnace he went into earlier. They wouldn’t allow Mrs. P’s brother to do it for her, but gently insisted that Mrs. P herself (accompanied by her brother) make the final confirmation.
In the meantime, we were escorted to a small waiting area. I could smell burning. The smell wasn’t offensive at all, just the smell of burning. When Mrs. P and her brother, accompanied by a staff member, appeared, they came with a rolling table with a tray of bones and an empty tray. Yes, bones, not ashes. I was expecting ashes, but my husband told me the Japanese usually do not ask the bones to be ground to dust.
After a few introductory words, a staff member set aside the bones of Peter’s skull on the empty tray, then asked us to line up in twos. We were asked to pick up a bone, two at a time, with chopsticks and transfer it to the urn. I believe that two people were supposed to either pick up the same bone at the same time or pass one bone from one person to the other, in either case using chopsticks. But we did not do either. Rather each one simply picked up a bone and gently placed it inside the urn. I figured that since none of the mourners was Japanese, the staff did not see it necessary to correct what we were doing. It taught me that not all Japanese are punctilious about procedures. By the way, the ritual explains why, in Japan, no two people hold anything (especially food) at the same time with chopsticks or pass anything from chopsticks to chopsticks – this is considered a major social faux pas.
After we all had our turn, a senior staff member carefully placed the remaining bones inside the urn. He identified some of the bones, such as the knee and a neck bone (which I understand is the most important bone). The last bones to go in were Peter’s skull bones. Once the transfer was completed, the staff took out a brush and a small pan, and collected every single speck visibly left on the trays and deposited them into the urn. Then, he covered the urn and handed it to Mrs. P.
After the cremation, we went back to the funeral home for lunch. At the head of the dining table were Peter’s self-portrait on an easel and a small table with an offering of food and drinks. Like most Buddhist societies, we offer food and drinks to the deceased so he or she wouldn’t go hungry or thirsty in the afterlife. We ate and drank to Peter’s memory.
Finally, we went home.
Peter’s memory and his last days
Peter was a well-loved man. He was a kind man with an infectious sense of humor. His niece told stories of how, when he visited home, he would regale them with tales of his travels and exotic Japan. He also adjusted quickly to technology and loved to talk to people, including his grand-niece, on skype.
The past seven years of fighting leukemia could not have been easy for Peter and Mrs. P, especially in the last couple of years when his kidneys failed. But both of them managed to find humor in his situation, and was even able to travel to Thailand more than once when his dialysis requirements improved. Mrs. P told us that during one trip, when the airline staff saw Peter’s condition, they were bumped up to first class. They certainly enjoyed it.
Peter’s condition deteriorated in the past few months, although he tried to be upbeat. But his doctor said that the only treatment left for him was either not approved in Japan or was waiting approval (sorry, I can’t remember which). In any case, he could only get the treatment outside Japan, such as the UK. He thought that it was time for him to go and for Mrs. P to move on with her life. He ultimately asked Mrs. P to “finally let him go” (Mrs. P made him promise he can’t go unless it’s with her permission). It was a difficult decision to make, but she did let him go.
One of the last things they did was to visit a fishing tackle shop. Peter used to fish and collected fishing rods and reels. Mrs. P arranged for medical transport and help so he can visit the shop. He spent about half an hour in the shop and was ecstatic to see all the fishing gears and equipment. I’m sure he couldn’t have asked for better last few days in this plane of existence.
Two weeks ago, on my late mother’s birthday, he went peacefully.