Confronting the reality of death

Japanese funerals and cremation rites show death realistically.


Recently my wife’s father died at the age of 87. He’d been living with us for many years. His death was natural, without pain, and it was no surprise.

A nearby funeral hall took care of all the arrangements. First, shortly after a doctor confirmed his death on a late afternoon, they came to our house, packed his body in dry ice, and left him lying in his bed, covered with a silver sheet.

The following morning my wife’s brother and one of his two young adult daughters came from Tokyo and held a brief wake. Then the funeral hall people came to get his body. That night my other niece arrived.

Early the following morning we went to the funeral hall, where we placed flowers in the simple pine coffin. Then the coffin was loaded into an inconspicuous white hearse, which we followed to a nearby crematorium.

At the crematorium we viewed the body one last time, and then the coffin was closed and loaded into a furnace. My brother-in-law pushed a red button to begin cremation.

We waited about 90 minutes, and then we were ushered into a small room where my father-in-law’s bones were lying on a stainless steel tray. The technician described various bones, beginning at the feet and working up to the top of the head. Each of us took a pair of large chopsticks, picked up a few bones, and put them in a large cup, which was then placed in an urn.

These events had quite an impact, especially on my nieces. They had talked with their grandfather just a couple of weeks before he died. After he died, they saw his dead body several times. Finally they saw the remains of his skeleton. As they picked up pieces of their grandfather’s bones, they had to confront the reality of death and, I think, reflect on the value of life.

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