A Japanese Cremation

I meant to write this a few months ago.  The experiences below do not relate to any particular family member.  We did, however lose my wife’s mother 5 weeks ago.  The following is a combination of my experience with the bone-picking ceremonies over the past 20 years.   I would not want to violate the privacy of anyone living or dead.

First, the burnable casket placed on a gurney once it arrives at the crematorium. Family members gather in front of the doors of the incinerator.  There is often a Buddhist priest or other spiritual advisor present to lead final prayers.   After the body is slid through the doors of cremation machine, the relatives retire to a waiting area.    There are sofas, chairs and small rooms if people want more privacy.   The remains of an adult take 1 1/2 to 2 hours, a child less than an hour and an infant as little as 20 or 5 minutes to finish the cremation process.  This allows some time for a light lunch catered in lunch  boxes, a beer and some time to sit and chat. 

Not all cremation halls are equal.  I was shocked at what hell holes some were.  It seemed they obviously weren’t taking care of remains to afford a coat of paint, decent furniture a few shrubs and a flower bed.  The crematory is selected by its conveniece of location rather than the financial resources of the family.  I have been to some beautiful ones serving poorer families and and real dumps for families with considerable wealth.  One of the nicest ones I visited was in Yokohama a year and half ago.  Shiny granite type floors, walls  cushy leather furniture and plushly carpeted rooms. 

After relaxing in the lounge and having a light meal, we hear over a load speaker that they crematory staff is ready for us to return.  For lack of better explantion, they are saying the body is done.

Here is a big difference between western cremations and Japanese cremations.  We in America receive ashes and the remaining bones are crushed and pulverized.  Conversely, in Japan, the bones are collected and the ashes of the deceased are not kept.  I have never been involved in any way with a cremation in the United States.  As far as I know, all my kin were embalmed and put six feet under in a cemetary. 

I have participated in about a dozen of bone picking ceremonies over the past 20 years.  Although a skeleton is a pretty generic looking thing, I have never seen any two sets remains look the same.  I have seen pearly white bones, brown bones and gray bones.  I was once told that cancer sometimes ravages the body so badly that the process pretty much disinigrates everything.  On the other hand, a strong 20 year old who died unexpectedly was amazingly intact.  A large portion of the skull remains intact and when you enter the room the top of the skull is usually facing you as the remains enter head first.   Assuming the bones are in relatively good condition, you will see the a complete skeleton except from the neck down the bone structure is completely collapsed and flattened with the skull retaining its shape.  One of the strangest bone picking ceremonies was for a delayed discovery unattended death.   Instead the crematory staff walked across the large lobby carrying two silver trays of bones right through other parties waiting for their cremations to be finished.  Prior to that we were ushered into a large room in front of an empty marble table.  I thought, this is peculiar.  There is no door for the cremains on a gurney to come out.  Then I heard the rattling of bones behind me and two men carrying the trays into the room.

 When the bone-picking ceremony begins, the bones of the feet are picked up first, and the bones of the head are picked up last.   There is a reason for this.  They want the deceased to enter eternity head first up in the urn.   Everyone picks up the small bones using long chopsticks and transers them to the urn.  There are about 8 pounds of bones or less.  The chopsticks are longer than the type people eat with.  After many years in Japan, I have enough skill to handle chopsticks as well as I can a knife and fork.   The Adams Apple bone or the hyoid bone are picked up last by the closest relative.   The final part some may find disturbing.  The skull being relatively intact is very brittle.  The crematory representative will the break into it with the large chopsticks.  He will break it down into 4 or 5 plate like sections.  This will line the the urn just below lip.  The remains are now appropriately right side up with the skull bones and the hyoid bone at the top. 

Finally, the urn is closed and placed in white silky box or cover.  The representative will also hand the next of kin a certificate of cremation.  From there the box will return to home and sit on the family altar or Butsudon(an expensive cabinet in many Japanese homes).  The time in the home depends on the situation.  It could be just a few days or about 40 days before it is finally taken to the family plot and interred inside until the end of time.



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