“She waited for you,” the priest told me. I believe she did.
It had been a long trip to get there and Obaachan had been on a long journey in this world. My grandmother was 111, though the priest pronounced her 113 by the Buddhist way of counting age, adding one for the time in the womb and another on New Year’s day. Her old body had finally broken down and she had developed gangrene in her feet from poor circulation. Amputation would be the normal procedure, but given her age and drastically deteriorated mental condition, her doctor recommended we let it run its course, meaning let her die from the blood poisoning that would soon set in. I asked what would happen if we chose surgery. He told us that she might not even survive the anesthesia, let alone the surgery or the rehabilitation. Her dementia had progressed rapidly and was no longer capable of deciding herself, and I couldn't just let her go so I went to Japan to see her.
With a heavy feeling that this was my last time to see her I made the long trip across the ocean. When I finally arrived in her room and saw her, my heart sank as she appeared to be unconscious. Her breathing was raspy from the sound of the phlegm collecting in her throat. I stared at her for a while thinking that I had come for nothing. But when I called her, “Obaachan,” she opened her eyes and looked into mine. “It’s me,” I said. “Stephen.” She recognized me and her eyes closed. We did this a few more times before she appeared to fall into a deep sleep. Wanting to get away for a moment from the enormity of the situation I went outside into the falling darkness wandering through neighborhoods filled with sights, sounds, and scents of home – fish grilling, television news, students bicycling home.
When I returned her condition had markedly changed. The nurse said that she was rejecting food and even water. The doctor was called and after examining her told me that she was nearing the mountain top—an unfamiliar expression but one I instantly understood. He left the room and I waited alone by her side. The only sound was the rhythm of her harsh breathing. After a few hours I grew weary and fell asleep.
A short while later I awoke to a strange silence. I knew that it was over. Her long time in this world had ended. I sat in the awesome silence for a moment and then knew that I needed to swing into action and walked down the hallway to inform the nursing staff. They rushed into medical emergency mode, which was strange to me, but I realized that they had to do it. Finally, they accepted that she had passed away and the process of dealing with her dead body and spirit began.
Unlike the beautiful ritual depicted in the film Departures, the washing of the body and dressing in a white kimono was done quickly and efficiently. The funeral people had lots of questions for me, because as her only grandson, I was the closest kin, the Moshu, and responsible for all decisions. These included the day and time of the funeral, presents for those who come, type of casket, size of altar, quality of flowers, lunch menu, and on and on.
I knew little of the Buddhist rituals and legalistic procedures so the funeral home people kindly explained everything for me. First we had to put the body in the casket, find a nice photo to put in there and some money to pay for the toll across the River of the Three Hells. Then we had to transport the body up to the mountain village where she was born and where all the ceremonies would occur. We were in the coastal city and it would have been easier to remain there but the village temple had offered to do all the rituals for free because my family had once donated the land on which the temple was built.
By the time we arrived there it was midnight and Tsuyu began, the ritual sitting with the body. It was mid-winter and kerosene stoves were lit to warm the chilly temple. Hot tea was served and we huddled around the stoves to feel the small circle of heat that emanated from them. The priest came and chatted briefly with us. He was especially warm with me, assuring me that she had waited for me and then let go. He then turned to the altar, bowed, and read a Sutra. With me leading the way, we all offered incense and looked at the body.
Afterwards, we talked with the priest of obaachan’s kaimyo, a new name to prevent the return of the deceased if their name is called. After he retired for the evening, the family talked money—how much for this, how much for that. Relatives in far off cities were called and we all wondered who would be able to make it there on time and who would send their regrets. Gradually, futon were brought out and one by one people lay down to get a few hours of sleep before morning.
The old wooden temple never did warm up much in the night but most of us managed to rest before the warming rays of the rising sun came into the temple. Preparations began for the Ososhiki, the funeral, on the following day. Like many families, we had opted for the Kazoku-So, the downsized family version.
We were not expecting them, but several relatives surprised us by showing up at the temple the next day, just on time, rushing in from the airport or train station in rented cars and taxis. There was a nice, warm family feeling as well as the realization that certain members were not talking to certain others.
The funeral went smoothly for the most part, with one aunt providing some comic relief. Unaccustomed to sitting on the floor for so long, her legs fell asleep, and when she got up to offer incense they collapsed from under her and she went sprawling across the tatami mats. Everyone did a good job in suppressing their laughter. It reminded me of the film, The Funeral, that shows so well how younger generations of Japanese not only can not sit on the floor for long periods of time, but no longer understand or are able to perform the traditional rituals in funerals.
As I gazed at the lifeless body I recalled the time that I lived with Obaachan in my youth. Everyone marveled at her Seimeiryoku, her vitality, and I was fortunate to have absorbed some. She taught me about the beauty of Buddhism, and the original meaning of Dharma, which she explained as a way of being for each living thing, to be discovered and accepted. I needed to accept who I was, be grateful for it and responsibly do what I could with what I had—which was a lot.
Obaachan also talked about the beauty of Jesus Christ. She insisted that my father, who never professed to be a Christian, was actually Christ-like in many ways. I knew him as a man scorned by society as a fool, and Obaachan affirmed that he was indeed a fool. But she called him “Obakasan” – a wonderful fool, foolish enough to try to live by ideals and the highest values, for which he suffered severe consequences.
The funeral ended with family members placing flowers on Obaachan’s body, especially around her face, before the coffin was closed. We then moved to the crematorium. We watched as the body was rolled into the oven and the switch turned on. I had a strange sense of detachment; none of this was horrifying. I sensed no life in the body, no Obaachan. Whatever form she was now in, it clearly was not attached to that body.
I wondered if she was now with God and remembered asking Obaachan, “Where is God?” She pointed to her heart and said, “God is here.” Then she pointed at my heart and said “God is there too.” I understood that God was in all of us.
We were told to return to the crematorium at 1:30 and moved to a restaurant for lunch. Surprisingly everyone seemed to have an appetite and devoured the sushi I had ordered. As the moshu, I had the responsibility to give the formal address. I thanked everyone for coming, some from far away, and I narrated a simple story of Obaachan as I knew her, from a gifted girl who was held down and held back, often told by adults, “You should have been born a boy,” and how this injustice remained with her till near the end of her life.
I recalled with appreciation her open-hearted acceptance of my American father into the family, telling my mother, “as long as he respects us, it doesn’t matter what his race or nationality is.” I reminded people of her golden years after the war in which she had three babies in succession to care for, my sisters and me.
After lunch we returned to the crematorium and gathered around as they rolled out the body, now turned to bone and ash. Each family member received a pair of plastic white chopsticks and we were directed to begin at the feet and pick up the bones and place them in the urn. The order was important to replicate the standing person’s body.
As the moshu, it was my honor to place the final bones on top, a piece of the skull and then the adam’s apple. The urn was then wrapped in a white cloth and given to me to be taken to the temple. Back at the temple, we chanted again. While we were chanting I noticed a poster on the temple wall. I showed a picture of a young woman saying grace before a meal. Under the picture were these words: Arigatou kara hajimeyou. Let’s begin by giving thanks.
After the funeral I chatted with the priest. He was content and repeated, “She waited for you. It was good that you came.” Everyone seemed content at the way Obaachan’s life had been lived and ended.
But we still needed to deal with the ashes. It was a little complicated because the family’s tombs were in the Jodo Shinshu temple. So we needed to negotiate with them to have my grandfather’s tomb opened and the ashes taken out and transported to the Nichiren temple. We needed to decide dates for all the upcoming rituals, the first being the 49th day memorial service in which the ashes would be moved from temple to temple. And then there was Obon, and the first, third, fifth year memorial services as well. The priest assured me that he would take care of everything and I departed for the airport to catch my flight. Everyone remarked on how Obaachan had taken good care of me until the very end, dying at the right moment to allow all rituals to be completed in time for my scheduled departure.
I realized that perhaps this was the Dharma that Obaachan had taught me. Her last years, and perhaps her whole life was an expression of the way of being that was hers till the end—always giving. This is the way I remember her and the way I want to live.