Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hatched, Matched, and Dispatched

I had a crash course in Japanese funereal traditions (Japanese Catholic, that is) through my mother’s funeral. My father and brother hired a well-known funeral home that had worked with the church where we wished to have my mother’s service. Catholic or not, in Japan, people have two services: a wake and a funeral. The wake is a shorter service in the evening so that people who work during the day can come and pay their respects. The funeral is during the day, typically the day after the wake, and is more of a formal service. But because most people have work, the wake tends to get bigger attendance. Then there is the cremation. Everyone is cremated in Japan. But there is a service that occurs at the cremation place that involves families and close friends also—like a burial. It is part of the ritual. Deceased are then place in a grave after 49 days, if you are Buddhist, or whenever you feel ready, if you are Catholic. After that, most people create a small shrine in their home to pray for the deceased and make food and flower offerings to remember them.

In between receiving flowers and visitors, we were having meetings and making list of things that had to be done. Through a fog of double jet-lag, I found a drawer full of old photos of my mother and pulled some, which my brother scanned and made into a photo book for people to see. My sister-in-law went through five (yes, five) of my mother’s address books and notified the people in them, which took about three full days. She also walked to neighbors’ homes to let them know that they might see some activities. My brother ran numbers and went over the schedule with the funeral director and figured out who needed food and car service when and to where. And my father, who was still in shock, was making final calls on these decisions with us and answering the phone which seemed to ring off the hook. I’m certain it’s the kind of chaos people experience around the world in preparing for a funeral where you are going from feeling in control while making decisions to getting the wind knocked out of you in between when you are reminded why you are making those decisions. In our case, it seemed extra strange that my mother, who was always in charge of big events, was not there. Stupid to say, but it’s true. I felt suddenly in charge of all decisions that required the female touch like the colors of the flowers at the church.

My first unexpected emotional moment came when I’ve requested to have “Ave Maria” played during the service since my mother loved it. We were told that we could either speak to the organist or play a CD and just in the midst of trying to decide, a phone call came in from a woman who is a professional cellist whom my mother supported. She called to offer to play, along with her husband who is a violinist from Finland. They just happened to be in the country when this news came and they wanted to do something. When my brother told me, I welled up. I’m not sure why that particular thing hit me but I felt like my mother sent them to me as if to help put some professional touches on her funeral. The time frame of planning a funeral can be tight at times, but in our case, there was almost a week from the day that she died until the wake which was helpful in digesting things and thinking of these kinds of small touches.

My mother dedicated her life to helping people. She belonged to number of organizations such as College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) and Japan America Women’s Club (JAWC) who supported artists and contributed to other international relations. And because of that, she has worked with the Royal Family quite frequently in coordinating their appearances for benefits and other events. She had a close relationship with the Empress, the Crown Princess, and Princess Akishino (the bride of the second born son of the Emperor) for years. Two days after her death, flowers were sent from the Empress and Princess Akishino to our home from the palace as well as a message from the Crown Princess which was sent over the phone through the head of the house. The day that most of us were running errands and my father and my niece were home to receive visitors, a phone call came in. It was the palace. The lady said, “Princess Akishino will be stopping by to pay respects. She should be there in about 10 minutes.” In exactly 10 minutes from the time my father hang up the phone, the door bell rang and when he opened the door, Princess Akishino was standing there alone. To be discreet, she had come with just her driver in a regular car and had the him wait across the street. She spent about 15 minutes by my mother’s casket, spoke to my father and my niece and ran across the street to hop back in the car. My father and my niece stood there for a minute trying to figure out what just happened. This is also the same princess who paid a visit to my mother in the hospital in disguise and sent sandwiches and soup to our house after my mother’s passing. We always knew my mother was a big shot, but it was starting to seep in just how big. Did I mention we received about 40 flower arrangements from the likes of her childhood friends, colleagues, a well-known traditional Japanese musician, a top ballet dancer, Mr. and Mrs. Toyota (as in “who could ask for anything more?”), and the Ambassador of Peru? Emails and telegrams were pouring in from around the globe and we couldn’t help but start laughing every time the door bell rang. It was surreal.

On the day of the wake, a team of people flooded our house. The makeup artist from before came to put final touches on my mother with my approval, they cleared the room of flowers to make way for the casket to get loaded onto a vehicle, then rearranged the room with a space for an altar. We were all dressed in our funereal attire (which for men is black suits with black ties, and for women is black dress/suit, often with a string of pearls ) to send her out of her beloved home for the last time. We stood out front and watched the casket get carried and loaded by formally dressed men and got into various cars to church. My father sat in the passenger seat of the hearse, me in the second row next to the casket and my uncle, my mother’s only living sibling, sat behind me with a large framed photo of her (which is also something we do culturally). My brother drove his own car with his kids and my aunt, and my sister in law followed with my father’s car with my husband and my daughter.

The ride to the church was quiet. I was thinking about this being our last ride through Tokyo together and while that was unbelievably sad, I also felt ready to send her off. I wore my mother’s pearls and felt honored to be in the company of two men who adored her. Once at church, we were first invited into a tiny chapel where a Jesuit Brother who we’ve known for ages gave us all a blessing and a prayer. Then we went up to a waiting room to start receiving visitors. As we entered the room, a group of people rose and bowed deeply to my brother who was leading the way. They were all people who work for him at IBM who his assistant arranged to come and help at the reception desk out front. It is customary for people to write their names, addresses, and the relationship to the deceased as they arrive so that the families can track who came. It also typical for people to bring monetary gifts, but in our case, my father announced ahead of time that we are not accepting any money. For all this, you need several people running the table. After speaking briefly with my brother, they scattered to take their posts. My brother looked like a mob boss. Fitting for the son of a big shot, I suppose.

As people filed in, the funeral home staff (with their ear pieces like secret service) came in and told my father, brother, and I to get up stairs to a private room to receive yet another flower arrangement from the Palace. Royalty don’t just wire a florist to do these things, they send an official messenger to deliver it personally and you have to be there to receive it. We waited and there was a knock on the door. The staff opened it and announced the first messenger. A young man, dressed in a morning coat and pin striped pants, appeared with a beautiful Japanese chrysanthemum arrangement in hand and said something like, “Her Highness, the Empress graciously offers you this arrangement for Shigeko Katano. She sends her deepest sympathies.” We bowed deeply and my father said, “We humbly accept the gift.” And took it. The messenger then opened up a beautiful fabric pouch and pulled out a long marker with her title written on it with calligraphy to be displayed with the flowers and handed it to us. After he disappeared, another messenger—who was in a regular suit, because his rank is lower—delivered another arrangement, but from Princess Akishino. A similar message was delivered and we accepted. These flowers were placed to frame my mother’s casket in the church. The funeral director said he has rarely seen anyone who received flowers from the palace twice. “Medals of honor for her hard work,” my brother said.

The view of the altar. You can see the mums from the palace on clear pedestals. The one of the right is the Empress' flowers.

We went into the cathedral to take our places in the front pew then the service began. A Japanese Catholic wake is not a full mass but has similar components. There are scripture readings and a sermon and prayers by a priest. The priest (who is Argentinean) was someone who visited my mother two weeks before at her request because she felt depressed. They had a good talk , as she said to me, and he promised he would come back to see her again. And because of this, his sermon was very personal. My oldest and youngest nieces served the mass (as they often do) which was a suggestion by the priest. My middle niece, who was the closest to my mother and helped to take care of her opted out because she did not think she could contain herself—and she was right. During the opening hymn, incense was lit and holy water was pelted in that stirring, Catholic pomp and circumstance and I, a non practicing Catholic, got suddenly overwhelmed and felt a physical feeling I’ve never felt before. Her casket was surrounded by white and lavender flowers framed by two of her angels in the church where she was married and it was stunning. She would have approved.

My brother doing a reading with his daughters on his sides

At the end of the ceremony, each person brings up a flower prepared by the church to the table placed in front of the casket and takes a moment. They then come around to the back of the church and pay respects to the family in a receiving line. The immediate family is to stand there and bow deeply to each and every person who passes by to thank them for coming. There were 465 people attending that night. That is how many times we bowed. There were many familiar faces I’ve not seen in a long time, including some of my classmates from grade school, their mothers, my kindergarten teachers, and cousins. Many were people I did not know personally but they were kind enough to say “I’ve heard so much about you from your mother” or “She was so proud of you.” Many also asked with great concern to please take good care of my father. It was a long night of emotions I’ve not felt but I put on a professional face to try to represent my mother well.

Us three

The funeral ceremony the next day was similar except that it was a full mass this time with four priests. There was a eulogy delivered by an American woman who is the president of JAWC with a translator—I found it fitting that my mother got a bilingual eulogy. In Japan, eulogies are delivered by a close relative or friend, and never by a family member. This stems from an old cultural modesty that one does not speak of their family fondly to outside people. Also, typically, eulogies are delivered as a letter to the deceased as opposed to it being a speech about them to the congregation. I found it impressive that the funeral director was well aware of this cultural difference and when he heard that it was going to be delivered by an American, he quickly made a decision to place her at a lectern as opposed to a spot facing the casket.

After another long receiving line (of about 300 people this time), we were gathered around the casket with just relatives and close friends and were told to place flowers in it and things we wanted to give to her. We had selected a couple of books my father knew she loved, photos of people she adored, some sheet music of songs she taught to her English students I found in her teaching material, a drawing from my daughter she liked, and a small stuffed rabbit (as she was born – and died – in the year of rabbit and owned a huge collection of rabbit things). We placed those items in and the people placed flower after flower in the casket until you could only see her face. They then closed the lid, and asked some male members of the family to help roll out the casket in a procession. My father led the way with the framed photo in his arms, then the casket accompanied by my brother, my uncle, my male cousins and other close friends. I walked behind the casket and everyone else followed. As the front doors to the church opened, the light poured in and I could see my father in a silhouette and when I got outside, I was astonished to see most of the 300 people lined up across the way to send my mother off. She was loaded into a hearse with my father in the passenger seat, then the rest of us got in hired cars (all in accordance to the Excel spread sheet made by my brother) to go to the cremation house.

My father leading the way

This was the part I was dreading to be honest. I have never been to a cremation ceremony and I was asking my brother what to expect so I could prepare myself. We arrived at this beautiful building with all marble interior and were escorted into a large room. Four men in uniform and hats greeted us and asked us to gather around the casket. They removed the lid for the last time and the priest who accompanied us from the church gave his final blessing. Then the funeral director asked us to take a moment to say good bye. People looked in and said few things to my mother—I heard my uncle say to her, “Thank you for the great memories. I’ll see you again.” I blew her a kiss and thanked her, and my daughter waved good bye. The uniformed men slowly closed the lid and we lined up behind the casket in front of what looked like the door of an old freight elevator which was the crematory oven. You could hear the low hum of the fire and all four men turned towards us, took their hats off and opened the door. One of them turned to us and said “This is your final farewell” and they slid her casket in, bowed, and closed the door. The man reached over an pushed a button and that was that. We stood, took a moment of silence, and were led to a waiting room.

It’s an odd thing to be sitting in a room with drinks and light snacks while waiting for your mother to be cremated. But we all chatted fondly about her and let out some smiles and laughs. About an hour later, the funeral director came to get us and we headed down to the same room. The door of the oven opened up and they pulled out the tray. As my brother described to me, there were ashes and just a small pile of bones that looked like sea shells left. In Japan, we cremate just so that there are some remains. The men ceremoniously gathered around the tray and placed the bones in a large steel box and moved it over to a table. We were then asked to come up, two at a time and using long chopsticks, pick up one bone and place it in an urn. This is why it is considered bad form to pass a piece of food from one chopstick to another at a table. My immediate family (including my 10 year old niece), my uncles, aunts, cousins and some of my mother’s closest friends all picked up pieces of her and placed her gently to rest. My delicate American husband and my daughter stayed in the waiting room during this part of the ceremony. The man then went through what he had set aside. First, he picked up a small bone that was her Adam’s apple—it’s called Nodo Botoke (throat Buddha) in Japanese because for men, it actually look like a Buddha with his hands in prayer position. Then he picked up what was left of her lower jaw, then her left ear, right ear, then finally part of her skull. He gently placed all of these pieces on top as if to recreate her face a bit and asked for her glasses that we held onto. As he opened them up and placed them in there, a lens popped out. We all paused for a second, looked at each other, and told him to just put them in there as is. “That was totally Mom, winking at us,” my brother said later. It sounds grotesque but it was oddly peaceful and interesting. This ritual really let you know that this person is gone and is now down to these few pieces of bones. And doing this as a family gives you a kind of a bond you can’t get through anything else. The lid to the urn was closed respectfully, then it was placed in a black box with a white cross on it for my father to carry. And it was over.

We then went to a restaurant where we had reserved a private room (you don’t want to just walk into a place wearing all black and carrying someone’s remains). The restaurant prepared “kage-zen” which is a meal to offer to the dead (which we are also allowed to eat at the end) and we placed it in front of my mother’s photo. It was a nice meal. My father seemed relieved that all that was behind him. It was good to see him giggling with his kid brother and sister. I felt exhausted, drained, and relieved also.

Ma and her food, of which my middle niece ate every bite so as not to make her cringe from being wasteful.

I learned a great deal that funereal ritual, no matter what the culture, is constructed with people’s care and thoughts and experience. It is the hardest ritual to go through, and yet within it, there are things to help you give closure, comfort, and family bond. I have this experience under my belt now. And what’s most important, we all learned that my mother was a giant who touched so many people so profoundly—that was a gift.

When I was getting married, my mother said to me and my husband that there are three major events in one’s life: when you are hatched, matched, and dispatched. She told us that since the first and the last were out of our hands, we must choose very carefully as to who we married. One of her many proverbs. My husband blurted this phrase out, after she was dispatched, and we both giggled for a second.


  1. Hi Mimi, Janet was dispatched in fine style. Thanks for sharing the details of such a personal day. Love, Katie

  2. I loved your mom. She was very kind to us. She took us out to eat a few times in Japan (we are friends with the Burns/Wells). I have to chuckle because she was always a little shocked by how much we ate! I can remember her face when she asked if we wanted one dish or the other, and we always said BOTH! The gentle way she corrected our butchered Japanese phrases, and the gifts she always had for us, she was always smiling... She was a very special lady. Thank you for sharing these details. Steph Heames

  3. This is a lovely and thoughtful post. Thank you for such an eloquent description of such a personal time in your life.

  4. Thank you, Mimi, for this. How powerful. For those of us who knew your mother and so wished we could have been there to share a last smile with her, or at least bid her a last farewell, it helps to fill an aching void. You were blessed with a wonderful mother, and she with a wonderful daughter, of whom she was very proud.
    With love to you all,


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