A Buddhist Japanese-American Family
Though her death did not come as a surprise, Akahana Ito was 53 when she died in her own home, surrounded by her
husband, sons and daughters-in-law. After a long illness and many medical procedures, her family was exhausted, but
supported immeasurably by the hospice staff during the last month of Akahana's life.
Soon after her death, Akahana's husband and sons left the room so that her daughters-in-law could bathe her the last time. They placed on her lips matsugo-no-mizu, the "water of the last moment," and when they had dressed her in a gown, they placed a knife on her chest to drive away evil spirits. Meanwhile, her husband and sons covered the family altar with white paper in the hope of keeping away the unwelcome spirits of the dead. After several hours of sitting with her, Akahana's family called the funeral home.
Akahana died on Monday morning, her wake was held on Wednesday evening and the funeral service was Thursday morning. Akahana and her husband Fujitaka had talked about their funerals and had set money aside to pay the costs. Like many Japanese Buddhists Akahana and Fujitaka planned to be cremated, but also knew that the cremated remains should be buried near other family members, in the section of the local cemetery where the cremated remains of several generations and branches of the Ito family were buried.
Fujitaka and his two sons went to the funeral home to finalize the arrangements he and Akahana had discussed. Akahana would be embalmed and she would be dressed in one of her favorite formal kimonos. At the wake, Japanese friends and others who knew of the custom presented the family with koden, condolence money in a small envelope. A helper recorded each gift and its amount in a register book for the family. After speaking with family members, friends were shown to an adjoining room in the funeral home where a wide variety of food and drinks were served. The Itos were well-respected in their own temple community, as well as among a large group of business leaders, so people continued arriving at the funeral home throughout the evening with the last visitors not leaving until after 11pm.
On Thursday morning, Fujitaka arose early to meditate and prepare himself for the funeral. After bathing, he took from his closet a new white shirt, as well as a tie and suit tailored especially for this occasion from a fabric in a funeral-only shade of black. He and his sons drove to the funeral home chapel, meeting the priest from their Buddhist temple as they arrived. As the funeral began, the priest chanted selections from the sutra, passages from the scriptures ascribed to Gautama Buddha. As he chanted, mourner's placed incense in the urn in front of Akahana's casket at the front of the funeral chapel.
During the service, the priest also gave to Akahana a kaimy-o, a new name given to prevent Akahana's return in the event her name was called. As the funeral service concluded, the black-clad mourners were ushered to the front of the chapel. Each bowed gracefully and then took a red rose from a large vase and placed it in the casket near Akahana's head. Family and close friends then accompanied her to the crematory.
An ancient Japanese custom called for the family to return to the crematory to place the bone fragments in a large urn. A set of chopsticks was given to every family member, but each bone was picked up together by two family members and placed in the urn, a reminder that no one moves through loss on his or her own. Because Fujitaka remembered the tradition from his grandparents' funerals in Japan he asked his family to join him in honoring the custom.
When the urn was filled with Akahana's remains, it was covered with a white cloth and taken home to await its burial. The urn was placed in front of the now uncovered family altar, and fresh rice and fruit were placed at the altar every day to assure Akahana's spirit was well-fed for its journey.
On the 49th day after Akahana's death, the family gathered again-this time to bury the urn in the grave chosen by Akahana and Fujitaka. Several sutras were read by the priest who joined the mourners and the urn was placed in the grave. In August, six months after Akahana's death, her family joined with the rest of the Japanese Buddhist community around the world to mark Obon, the annual festival of the dead. Like many others in their community, the Itos planned to remember Akahana as they did all of their ancestors, on the first, second, sixth, twelfth, and thirty-second anniversary of her death.
Buddhist customs vary widely between regions, sects and families. To learn more, consult the following resources.
- Hanh, T. N. (2002). No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. New York: Riverhead Books.
- Stone, J. I. & Walter, M.N. (Eds.). (2008). Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Thompson, C.S. (2009). Holding on While Letting Go: Dealing with Death Through Kuyo Egaku in 19th Century Iwate. Japan Studies Association Journal, 7, 1-28.
- Truitner, K. & Truitner, N. (1993). Death and Dying in Buddhism. In D.P. Irish, K. F. Lundquist, & V. J. Nelsen (Eds.), Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death and Grief: Diversity in Universality. (pp. 125-136). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.