Packaged cremated remainsCremation was once reserved for nobles but is now mandatory in most of Japan. It is also only one part of the expensive funeral process. Cremation generally takes about an hour, with an extra thirty minutes or so added on to give the remains time to cool. The ovens reach a peak heat of 500 to 600 degrees Celsius, which is substantially cooler than in the Western process. In Japan, it is important to preserve some bone. There will be no sterile handing-off of a small urn, no dispensing of powdery ash into the ocean.
While the flesh dissolves, unseen attendants keep watch. Some monitor the security of the building by means of cleverly hidden cameras, in case a grieving family member returns to the oven unaccompanied to try to rescue the body. After about an hour, an attendant will go to a hidden chamber behind the ovens and look through a tiny fireproof window to see just how much is left of the cremated corpse, making adjustments as necessary.
"There’s a window?" I ask.
"There has to be," Takahagi nods. "What if there is a problem and the body is only half-cremated when the family goes to pull out the bones?"
"The family retrieves the body?"
"Of course. You can’t let strangers handle something so personal."
A priest chants sutrasIn the morning, I find my way to the local crematorium…. It is a stark, one-story building concealed inside a coil of trees and bamboo, in a remote part of town accessible only by automobile. The brooding copper brow of a roof hangs low over a dark, marble entrance.
Automated doors slide open, and an attendant, wearing what looks like a conductor’s uniform complete with cap and gloves, glides out of the entryway. I give him my spiel. I’m here from America, obviously, and want to know more about the inner workings of a crematorium, as I missed my grandmother’s cremation. He nods, as if this is a perfectly reasonable request, then advises me to wait. A mourning party is scheduled to arrive in five minutes and he must prepare.
I watch him wheel a specially designed handcart out to the sloped sidewalk. The cart is a marvel of engineering with hydraulic lifts and an automated conveyor belt. When the hearse arrives, with its gold-and-black headdress elaborately carved like a temple roof, the attendant bows, and easily extracts the coffin from the back.
It is quiet inside the marble hallway. Two rows of indoor streetlamps shine a luminous pathway on the floor. A priest and the party of mourners follow as the attendant gravely steers the coffin through this solemn space. The women are wearing black kimonos made of silk so heavy it seems to ooze like ink in the atmospheric light. I watch as high doors open at the far end of the hall and swallow the mourning party. The quiet returns once they are gone, save the faint sounds of a chanting priest and a ringing bell.
I retire to a small cafeteria, which is selling noodles and tea and offers a view of a rock garden. It is a pleasant enough space, resembling a hotel or, perhaps more accurately, an airport lobby, down to the video screens displaying the names of those whose remains are ready for pickup. In the distance I can hear the hum of other guests who have rented out a private waiting room with tatami mats and zabuton pillows. They are cloistered together, perhaps eating a specially designed funeral bento, so designated because it contains nary a speck of meat—only fish, rice, and vegetables. In another wing, someone is cremating a pet dog.
The glove-and-cap-clad attendant comes to get me, checking his watch. The crematorium has been carefully designed to function as a series of systems, he says brightly. There are multiple pathways that enable him to direct all parties through the same ritualized experience while avoiding undesirable traffic jams. He has fifteen minutes to give me a tour.
He leads me from the main hall into the second room—a sort of intermediary chamber—where a shrine is laden with numerous bouquets of yellow and white chrysanthemums and a portrait of the man who has just been sent to the crematorium. In a third chamber, the steel jaws of twelve small ovens are clamped shut. Because the crematorium regularly processes more than one body at a time, heat-resistant digital screens above each oven display the name of the temporary occupant so that there will be no confusion. The casket is slid inside under the somber gaze of the mourners, and the head of the family is charged with locking the door and pocketing the key—the only one, he is told, that can open this particular oven. Before the mourners leave the stark room for the waiting area, they hear the breath of gas and the snarl of fire as the casket, flowers, and body are consumed.
Funeral bentoDuring the funeral, Takahagi, in his elegant robes, plays a small gong, while his father ecstatically shouts to my grandmother’s soul that she is dead and must leave us. I love the sutra-chanting the most. The priests—Takahagi, his brother, and their father—listen carefully to each other, taking turns to space out each breath so that there is never a break in the sound. Then my mother sings an operatic aria. Now it is my grandfather’s turn. He pulls a slip of yellow paper from his pocket and begins to address my grandmother’s bones.
He thanks her for taking away his heart murmur when she died. He is feeling much better now. He is sorry that he had to leave her body alone in the house when he went out to dinner, but it really wasn’t necessary for her ghost to have locked the doors and windows, making it difficult for him to reenter. He knows that she would like to stay and continue to watch over her children, but it is time for her to leave, and anyway, everyone has attended a prestigious university. Then he begins to cry. The air grows thick, as though the molecules themselves are swollen with emotion.
The weeping is contagious and soon I too am afloat in grief. My grandfather—that hard, hard man—loved my grandmother deeply.
"You know you are really poor when you have no one at home waiting for you," my grandfather says.
Over the next few days, people ask if this is my first Japanese funeral; when I say that it is, they nod and watch me carefully. I have been let in on a secret. When I visit a department store, purveyor of giddy electronics that delight us in the West, I notice specially designed funeral and memorial bento boxes for sale, sans meat. I see men on the bullet train wearing black suits and the telltale black tie; white ties are for weddings. I know where they are headed, what they will be charged with doing. A group of women pass me in Tokyo station carrying a rectangular box whose shape I recognize.
Tradition isn’t without some comfort. Once a year during Obon, souls come back to visit for the day. Then graves are swept free of debris, families prepare special foods, and young people dress in summer kimonos and dance together in a circle. I like to imagine that my duty-bound grandmother, though her remains have been divided, will come back to see my grandfather, who will be waiting—and longing—for her.