Paying your last, last, last respects


When Kazuko, my next-door neighbor, came to my “genkan” at 8 in the morning, I knew something was wrong. She never comes to my house before 9. “Amy, your landlord has died,” she told me.

Mrs. Nakagawa was 84 years old and had been “hanging on,” as they say. Her posed funeral photo had already been taken: a head shot of her in kimono to place above the home shrine from the day she died. I never quite understood this custom, but soon I would come to understand it fully.

Two days later, we were at the funeral home, where the body lay in a casket in the middle of a cold room. After the ceremony, we all took flowers from the displays and put them around the body, and paid our last respects.

There were no pallbearers — just one white-gloved attendant who used an electric casket-mover on wheels. Everyone watched and bowed as the casket was placed into the hearse electronically.

Next, everyone boarded a chartered bus to go to the crematorium. Once there, we watched as they unloaded the hearse , the electric gizmo whirring along under the weight of the casket . More bows. We followed it inside, where we gathered for another short prayer and to pay our last, last respects while looking at the deceased’s face through the window of the casket. More bows.

We followed the whirring casket again, this time into a big lobby with eight elevators. The attendant stopped the casket in front of the elevator labeled “Nakagawa” in Chinese characters on an electronic panel overhead. We stood in the back of the lobby while the immediate family stood in front of the elevator. When the elevator doors opened, they pushed only the casket inside. One last prayer, one last bow. Last, last, last respects.

The attendant closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let out an eerie bellow to the heavens while the rest of us bowed our heads. When I looked up again, the elevator doors were closed. The oldest son pushed the button and we all turned around to leave.

No, not leave. We would wait. And while we waited, we would eat lunch.

During lunch, in a private room overlooking a Zen rock garden, every 15 minutes an announcement came over the loudspeaker that a cremation was finished.

When the Nakagawa name was called, we were directed into a room where, in the middle, was a stone table still hot from the oven. Nakagawa-san was, well, gone. Except for a large set of hipbones.

“Now for an explanation of the body,” the white-gloved attendant said while moving his hand gracefully over the remains. Everyone gathered around the table as if it were a museum exhibit. There were “oohs” and “ahs” as people nodded their heads and feigned interest as the attendant showed where the feet and head used to be. There were very few bones left, but he identified them individually and set them aside.

Then the two sons were called to do “hashi-watashi” by together placing the first bones into the urn with large chopsticks made especially for the occasion. We all took turns, each putting a bone inside. The last bone was the “nodo-bodoke” (Adam’s apple), which was put into its own special tiny box.

When the formalities were over, people lingered around the bones, some using the chopsticks to scout around in the remains. “Look at this big one!” said one of the old ladies. Everyone seemed to take an interest in the big bone, speculating as to what part of the body it was.

I sure don’t want my friends and family fiddling around with my bones when I’m dead. Nor would I want them to remember me like that — just hips. It’s just not a good last image of someone. Which is why they take that “funeral photo” and hang it above your shrine.