Goodbye Ishida San Part 1 (2009-04-29)

(Note: I got permission from Ishida-san's wife to take pictures of the funeral and to post them here.  One of the photos shows the deceased's face, if that bothers you, don't click on the above picture.  Also, I've split the photos in two days 'cause there're quite a bit to post)

Ishida-san, who's been battling cancer since July last year, passed away April 21.  He was only 64. (sigh...)  KL and I went to his funeral last Friday and although it was a very sad occasion, it was also an interesting learning experience.  The funeral was a scaled-down version of the traditional one, but all the main rituals were held.

At about 8:30am, a mutual friend picked us up at the station and drove the short distance to the housing development where the Ishidas live. There's a small cottage right around the back of their apartment building which could be converted into a funeral parlor for the complex's residents.  It was shortly before 9am when KL and I arrived at the cottage.  After taking off our shoes at the entrance, we entered the small room in slippers, signed in at the reception, and were warmly met by my friend, the grieving widow.  She led us to the altar right away where she asked us to view Ishida-san's face through the window in the simple casket.  KL broke down instantly and I followed (and I told myself I wasn't gonna cry).  Then my friend asked me if I wanted to take pictures?  Wow, did I ever!  She said it's ok to do so, other relatives were doing it too.  But I did use discretion of when to take more pictures during the service, afterall, I don't think it's too good to snap away when people were picking up Ishida-san's bones with chopsticks.

The funeral may not follow tradition steadfastly (as that it wasn't held at a temple) but some rituals are straightly observed.  Every single woman was dressed in jet-black and all men wore black suits, white shirts and black ties, no exception.  KL and I did make a small faux pas by not bringing a string of beads but we didn't know we needed to.

The funeral commenced sharply at 9am when a monk walked in and sat before the table at the altar.  He then began to say prayers in his unique monotonous tone as if he was chanting.  This went on for the full hour that the funeral lasted. During the hour, everybody got up twice and in pairs to the small table behind the monk to say a short prayer with their beads in hand and drop a pinch of "stuff" (no idea what it is) onto a piece of burning coal which generates instant aromatic smoke. (when a single attendee walked up the incense table, a staff would go up immediately to make up a pair)

About ten minutes before the hour was up, the ritual got interactive and er...for lack of a better word, interesting.  It started when a band of male staff came in the room and the "emcee" announced the funeral was near its end and asked us to help put the folding chairs away.  Then they quickly disassembled the altar, slid the casket to the middle of the room and removed the lid.   Ishida-san's family then put some of his favorite clothing and items in the casket which would be cremated with him.  Then a glass of sake and a leaf were passed around so that every attendee would daub a drop of sake on Ishida-san's lips.  While this was happening, the group of staff were plucking every single flower off the stems of all the bouquets in the room and gathered them into three wooden trays at breakneck speed.   When they finished, we were asked to strew those flowers all over Ishida-san's body.  Imagine three men circulating the room with trays of flowers and people hovering over the deceased to garnish his body, and I say this out of no disrespect to the funeral or the ritual, but it was kinda chaotic amid an almost revelrous atmosphere!   When Ishida-san was sufficiently swathed with blooms, we waved a final goodbye to him and the lid was closed.

Sharply at 10am,  men were asked to help move the casket to a hearse which was waiting outside, so KL volunteered to be the impromptu pallbearer.  My friend and her son rode with the casket and the monk and the rest of us got into a van to the crematorium.

The crematorium is much bigger than I expected located just 25-min away.  When the casket was unloaded on to the curb of the building, everyone was asked to "push" the coffin into the cremation hall symbolizing the sending away of the deceased.  The actual cremation hall is built like an assembly line capable of cremating eight bodies at one time with eight double doors opening to the incinerator room behind them.  Right before our designated double doors, the staff there slid down the lid of the casket to review Ishida-san's face and asked us to say our final farewell to him, then he closed the lid and slid the casket onto a roller bed through the doors.

The MC then led us to a room on the floor above where we waited for less than an hour for the cremation to complete.  During that time, we were served snacks and drinks including beer!  At around 11:30am, we were informed to go back to the cremation hall to finish the last ritual of the funeral.

We gathered around a table in a corner of the open area outside the double doors and a staff brought us the remains of Ishida-san on a metal tray.  After he placed it on the table, long chopsticks were passed around so that a pair of mourners would pick up a piece of bone and put it in the urn.  When it was KL and my turn, two thoughts raced through my mind: what if I drop the bone?  What if I grab too hard (due to nervousness) and crumble the fragile bone?  I almost held my left hand out under the bone in case I did!  Fortunately none of that worries happened (or we would be dead meat!). 

After each person had a turn transferring a piece of bone, the staff swept the rest into the urn with a metal dustpan and a large brush.  He set aside some pieces belonging to the skull and explained to us what each piece was (he praised that Ishida-san had a beautiful lower jaw bone =_=), then he added them to the urn, lidded it, placed it in a wooden box, carefully wrapped it with a white cloth, and encased it in a brocade-like cover.

Led by my friend and her son holding the urn and Ishida-san's picture respectively, we headed back to the cottage to have lunch!  But KL had to go back to the office and he caught a ride back to the station.  The second half of the day continues tomorrow.

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