Saturday, September 15, 2007

49 Days

This afternoon, I had a conversation with a student which digressed into a talk about how bodies are handled after a person dies in our respective cultures. I have had this sort of conversation with a few students before and they are generally surprised that few Americans, if any, display the body of their deceased loved ones in their homes during the funeral services since this is usually how things are done in Japan.

Most of my students aren't aware of the common use of funeral homes in the United States for the handling and display of remains. My student today told me that it's not uncommon for the family to put make-up on the deceased and prepare the body for presentation to fellow mourners. While I felt having to perform this task was a great burden emotionally on the family, she felt it was a way of expressing your love and tender feelings toward the person who had passed away. To be honest, I'm not even sure it's legal in the U.S. for people to handle or display dead bodies even if they should want to in accord with spiritual practices.

While students are unaware of funeral customs in the U.S., they are downright shocked that people do not give money to the family of someone who has died. In Japan, those who come to pay their respects give envelopes containing cash to the family. While I've never attended a funeral in Japan, I have been asked to contribute money to a cash pool to give to co-workers who had had close relatives pass away. I'm unclear on what the purpose of this money is or why exactly it is given but the students who I've discussed it with have said it's to help the family deal with any financial hardship related to the death. This could mean the cost of the funeral, burial plot, or the loss of income from the person who died.

From a different student, I also know there are certain customs regarding how the cremated remains of relatives are dealt with. One of my students complained rather bitterly about having to do some sort of ritual where she had to transfer the bone fragments and ashes of her mother-in-law, who she had detested when she was alive, from one container to another on the first anniversary of her death. I asked her why her direct family members, such as her son, didn't do this but she said it was her "duty".

One of the most interesting things for me when I find myself in one of these conversations is learning about some of the Japanese views of the afterlife. Since the Japanese aren't generally a religious bunch, their beliefs can be relatively eclectic and draw from various religions but largely from Buddhism and Shintoism. Few of them are Christians but I have met several who profess to be Christians and they are all relatively devout but not the least bit preachy. They tend to say they are Christians and have read the bible and that's the end of that.

In terms of views of the afterlife, I've gotten mixed opinions. One of my students told me that some Japanese people believe death is a metaphorical crossing of a river from one side to another. Another told me that she felt death was the end of the road and all that you are is gone with your last breath. Today, I was told that the first 49 days after death are very important and many Japanese people believe that the spirit remains on the earth during this time and prepares for its next incarnation. When I told my student that many Christians believe that your spirit pretty much directly goes to heaven (or hell) and that those in heaven can watch over or look down on the goings on on earth, she felt that was an odd way to look at things. The whole notion that you die and you shoot up to heaven or down to hell seemed rather simplistic and childish to her.

Of course, I'm sure that a lot of Christians might find the idea that your spirit needs to lounge around on earth for awhile getting its act together for the next life seems pretty wrong, too. I asked one of my friends in high school, who now has a Christian rock band but wasn't especially religious when we were growing up, what he thought of reincarnation. He said something along the lines of, 'recycled souls...I don't think so.' I guess he figures God didn't need to re-use old material like we re-used glass bottles or tin cans.

Most of my students assume I'm a Christian because I was born in the U.S. I'm guessing that this is because 80% of the people in the U.S. consider themselves one flavor of Christian or another even when they aren't practicing members of their faith so they are going with the odds. I don't tend to discuss my spiritual theories with them because they don't ask and it's all rather complicated. I have enough trouble explaining what I think to native speakers, let alone to non-native ones.

Suffice it to say, I don't know who is right but I'm generally inclined to believe we're all a little right and all of us mostly wrong. When it comes to the nature of our disposition after death, I often think we're like the parable of three blind men and the elephant. We grope around and reach conclusions but we lack whatever it takes to really understand what it is. I'm pretty sure though that that's the way it's supposed to be. If we knew what the game of life was all about, it wouldn't be worth playing.


lostinube said...

One of the things that really makes me uncomfortable with Japanese funerals is that apparently the direct family has to be there during the cremation -- they have to wait until the body is "done" and then pick the remaining bones from the ashes with chopsticks.
Having grown up in Hawaii, I was always accustomed to the idea of bringing money to a funeral -- generally people will bring envelopes with cash and a card and drop them off when they sign their names after they arrive at the service. One could trace that back to coming from Japan or other Asian countries since Hawaii has such a large Asian population but now it doesn't matter what religion the person belongs to. It's simply considered polite to bring something for the family.

Shari said...

The thing my student had to do with the bones on the first anniversary of her mother-in-laws death involved transferring bones with chopsticks. I had forgotten about that until you mentioned it.

I guess that having to pick up the remains with chopsticks and waiting for the cremation to be completed sounds bad to us but there are some cultures where it must seem really morbid to fill the dead body full of chemical fluid and lay it out in a room for people to hang around/view.

I didn't know that it was customary in HI to bring money to a funeral. I think that, in the minds of people who live on the mainland, giving money is associated with happy occasions rather than sad ones so it has a bit of a mild overtone of feeling like "celebrating" a death so it strikes us s a bit odd.

Thanks very much for taking the time to add an interesting comment!

Luis said...

Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Japanese people "have" to pick the bones out... they have to only insofar as it may be expected of them and they accept the imperative. But it's not like you can't refuse or that the bones won't be collected and given to you in an urn if you refuse the task.

As for "recycled souls," I think your Christian friend misses the point--the idea is not that souls are hard to come by, but rather that repeated lives allow for souls to learn and grow more and more. But then, maybe the point was not to set your friend straight, but rather to gauge pre-existing impressions.

I always thought that the film "What Dreams May Come" had a fascinating look at the afterlife. Just saying.