I had the privilege of accompanying a family to the crematorium this afternoon, after the funeral of their 82 year old mother/grandmother at the chapel. She was a Christian, who died last Tuesday in the hospital.
I always say a final prayer over the body at the entrance to the oven. Then the men with white gloves and limousine driver hats shove the coffin in and close the golden doors and push a button. Then...we wait.
It takes about an hour to thoroughly burn the body of a non-obese adult. There are waiting rooms upstairs at the crematorium. As the priest, I'm always expected to lead the group, which includes maybe 10-20 relatives and close friends. A close family member carries the blown up photograph of the deceased.
The staff always tells us to watch our step on the escalator. Why is that? Does any sighted person actually stumble when getting on to an escalator?
As we enter the waiting room, we are handed a paper o-shibori, I guess because even being around a dead body is icky. Various cakes, chips, rice crackers, as well as bottles of drinks are on small tables around the room. Oolong tea, orange juice, beer. They come around later with pots of hot green tea.
This hour of waiting with the family is different every time. Sometimes, the family is shaken and subdued. Sometimes there's a lot of tears and sniffles. Sometimes they want to tell me about the person who has died. Sometimes they want to talk about anything else. I've had some really fun and interesting conversations at such times. Occasionally, it can be quite jovial and raucous, almost a party.
Once, I even got an acupressure treatment right there at the table.
The worst, though, is when a child has died. Bleak, raw pain, more or less well masked by the formalities of conversation. Once in a while, I get the big questions. Is my baby in heaven? Is he lonely? Why did she die? Will I ever feel all right again?
Today was a little...businesslike. The woman who died was a dedicated wife and mother and then grandmother, who spent her life supporting and caring for her dentist husband and all those around her. Her best friends were her classmates at the girl's high school she attended. They went through the War together, working and sleeping at a factory more often than studying. Three of the ladies were there.
I enjoyed talking with her granddaughter, a first year high-school student and cellist. We swapped orchestra stories. They are practicing every day during the summer, from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The girl's father and mother were moving around most of the time, making arrangements for the post-cremation dinner and taking care of other business, I guess.
Finally, an announcement tells us it's time to go back down. I'm in the lead again.
We return to the oven, and the men with white gloves pull out the fireproof slab. I'm always surprised at how little volume of bone there is. They transfer it all to a stainless steel box, and take it to another table where there is a ceramic urn with the person's name on it.
Family members pair up and use oversize chopsticks to pick up a bone fragment and put it in the urn. Two people, two pairs of chopsticks, one piece of bone. That's the reason why you can never use chopsticks to pass food directly to another person in Japan. You invite the spectre of death if you do that.
Finally, after using a powerful magnet to suck out all the coffin nails, the main bone packer guy goes through a practiced shpiel about what bones are what. He arranges the skull parts to go on top. He always points out the top spinal vertebrae, which is supposed to look like Buddha sitting lotus position. (Today, he stopped himself and said, "Oh, but you guys are Christian" which was actually a wrong assumption. Besides me and the one going into the urn, I don't think there were any Christians present.)
Sometimes they even put the person's eyeglasses in the urn. If I go to heaven, or the Pure Land, or get reincarnated or what have you, do I really have to keep my physical defects? I want to come back with an Adonis body, serious abs and 20-20 vision.
Then they close up the urn and bow for about the 18th time. And, with urn and photograph in hand, everybody loads up the microbus to go have dinner.
May the souls of the faithful departed, by the mercy of God, rest in peace.