Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

'You're empathetic, but there's that distance': A German undertaker in Japan

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

As Japanese mourners file into the funeral parlor, shrouded in silence and laden with flowers, Felix Steinkemper, dressed in a dark suit, stands ready to assist.

It’s a scene the 30-year-old German undertaker has witnessed hundreds of times: the open casket, the quiet sobbing, the intermittent sighs and the final farewells.

In contrast, it’s likely the first time the congregation of mourners have set eyes on a non-Japanese undertaker. Since February of this year, the Dusseldorf native has been working at Nojiri Hall in Fushimi, a city just south of Kyoto that’s famous for its sweet sake.

Prior to coming here, Steinkemper worked as an undertaker in Germany for six years. In 2015, he took time off and visited the country for the first time, working on a farm in Mimasaka, Okayama Prefecture. On his return to Dusseldorf, he embarked on a degree in Japanese language, culture and history that he has nearly completed.

As part of the course, the majority of the students do a foreign exchange at a Japanese university, but Steinkemper was determined to go his own way.

“I didn’t want to go to a Japanese university,” he says, explaining that he thought they would be too strict and the system too rigid.

His next move was a little unorthodox — he still took a year off but instead of an academic exchange he came to Japan on a working holiday visa.

“But you can only do that until you are 30,” he notes. Steinkemper managed to secure a visa before time was up and was eventually able to fulfill a goal that very few exchange students in Japan have accomplished: to work as an undertaker.

Granted, it’s a niche goal.

From Germany to Japan

Steinkemper’s route to securing a job at Nojiri Hall was circuitous and, in the end, depended on a bit of luck and meeting the right people. He contacted undertakers across the country and landed an interview for a position in Nagoya in the spring of 2018, but that didn’t pan out.

In September, he arrived in Japan with a recommendation letter from a Japanese professor and a resume that detailed his work experience in Japanese. That got his foot in the door in Gifu Prefecture, where he worked at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) during the winter.

From Gifu, his next job took him to the western outskirts of Kyoto, where he worked in a nursing home for the elderly.

While working at the nursing home he asked the boss of the staffing agency if there was the possibility of work as an undertaker. As luck would have it, the manager was friends with the owner of Nojiri Hall and he arranged an interview.

This time he fared better in the interview, which was conducted in Japanese. It helped that the boss at Nojiri had an interest in Germany and Steinkemper was initially hired in February as a part-time assistant. When a younger co-worker left unexpectedly in April, Steinkemper was brought on full-time.

“Now everyone is used to me, but I really noticed that in the beginning they were asking so many questions,” he recalls.

Early on there were also occasional instances in which Steinkemper was asked to take a back seat, not because of his Japanese language ability or lack of experience, but rather out of consideration for members of the deceased’s family.

Since he went full-time in April, however, he says he does nearly everything himself. Even his older colleagues have taken a shine to him.

Steinkemper knows he stands out, but he adds that mourners “have other things to worry about.”

Here vs. there

As to how Steinkemper became an undertaker in the first place, he says he was curious about the profession, as many people might be, but his curiosity turned into a full-blown interest. Still, an undertaker?

“In Germany, it’s quite hard to find people to do the job,” Steinkemper points out, adding that he’s constantly being asked how he can be around so much grieving.

“I met a guy some weeks ago and we talked about this question,” Steinkemper recalls. “He said, ‘I can’t imagine that someone could do this for a long time.’ But it’s the opposite. You get used to it. You are empathetic, but there’s also that distance.”

Maintaining emotional stability is a skill for sure, but performing that role in a different culture is a talent. Many of Steinkemper’s duties in Japan are ceremonial. For example, he needs to be on duty up to two hours before a wake or funeral prayers, and guide mourners around the parlor. However, he also takes part in aspects of the funeral itself, and to that he has had to learn some new rules.

One difference between how things are done in Germany and Japan is in how the ashes of the deceased are dealt with. In Germany, it’s forbidden by law to remove the ashes from the crematorium, although that law is subject to change in accordance with customs in other European Union nations.

In contrast, the Japanese will hold on to the ashes and even use them in other rituals.

“What we do is clothe the body if it’s not yet clothed, put it into the coffin and organize the ceremony,” he says. “The crematorium part (of the funeral) is not our job (in Japan).”

Also, Steinkemper says that in Germany the undertaker is responsible for washing the body and even cleaning blood from any open wounds.

“Either they don’t care or they don’t have time at the hospital,” he says. “But, in Japan the deceased’s body is so clean.” This means that at Nojiri Hall, as with most funeral parlors in Japan, there is no need for a special room that’s fitted out like an operating theater in order to prepare the deceased.

Navigating the living

As with any new job, Steinkemper has had to learn to navigate the structures and the customs that come along with it. Nojiri employs 12 full-time staff, who range in age from their 20s up to their 60s.

Steinkemper says his younger co-workers have been particularly helpful and perceptive in guiding him through cultural norms. For example, after a recent staff night out courtesy of his boss, one of his younger colleagues reminded him to go to his boss the next day and thank him again.

“I didn’t know to do that,” Steinkemper says. “I had thanked the boss the previous evening. So, of course, I went to thank him again. I’m very grateful to have co-workers who are understanding enough to know this and point it out.

Learning is also a two-way street. Steinkemper says the boss’ son, who is in line to take over the family business, is keen to know how things are done differently in Germany so that he may improve upon the practice in Japan.

In Germany, for example, undertakers commonly use a lightweight stretcher that can come apart, with belts to secure the body. Steinkemper points out that it’s impossible to maneuver a standard stretcher with wheels into a residence when the body is being waked at home, so the stretcher is usually left outside and two or three people carry the body in by hand.

Steinkemper recalled a recent incident where they were transferring the body of an elderly man from his home by hand. Steinkemper was able to hold the head, but the corpse was heavy and the transfer was awkward.

“His daughter was visibly upset and apologized to her father,” he says.

If they’d had access to the German stretcher, it would have been much easier to secure and move the body.

Steinkemper will see out the remaining months of the summer at Nojiri Hall, and in the autumn he’ll return to Dusseldorf to finish his studies and complete the highest level proficiency exam in Japanese. He’ll also return to his job tending to Germany’s dead on their final journey from this world. No doubt, he’ll be able to approach his role with a new understanding after working in Japan.

“I think you can learn a lot from these situations,” he says.