We recently had the privilege of taking part in a funeral for a church member who passed away. Over the past four years, we've attended several funerals, but this one was special. The lady who died (Oba san*) had been a really integral part of the church, and was like a mother or grandmother to most of the rest of us.
I have two memories of her that I especially cherish. The first is that when my back was injured, she faithfully prayed for me every day for more than a year until I was finally able to come out to church again.
The second is very recent. Oba san's Okinawan accent was really thick, and I'd always found it difficult to talk with her, and understand her Japanese. However, about a month before she passed away my language abilities had finally reached a point where we were able to communicate much more easily. One day after church, we had a twenty minute conversation, almost entirely without the use of my dictionary.
After our conversation was complete, she excitedly beckoned Tsuneko sensei over. "I had an entire conversation with Valerie for the first time!" she exclaimed, beaming.
Since she had such a close relationship with the church, we were invited to participate in all aspects of the funeral, including the parts that are usually reserved only for relatives. It was a really special time, and I thought I'd record some of my impressions here.
The funeral service started off at 10 in the morning. From a Canadian's perspective, the service wasn't that much different than a North American Christian one, except that at the beginning we were each handed a flower. Near the end of the service, everyone came up to the casket, row by row, and placed their flowers on a table in front of the casket. We made a bow of respect to Oba san's body, and another bow to her family, before heading back to our seats.
After the service, there was another (optional) procession up to the casket. I went up with Barb (see our July 2013 newsletter), who was having a hard time of it because she used to be neighbours with Oba san. When we went up, we took a flower from the table, and placed it into the casket around Oba san's body. Some people kissed her, others stroked her hair and said goodbye. That was a little outside of my comfort zone, so like some I elected to simply bow again.
Next, we headed off to the crematorium. There, we were guided into a small side room, where the casket and body were waiting for us. Pastor Higa said a few words, we sang another song, and once more we all went up to the casket to touch the body (or bow) and say goodbye. Peter had played violin during the funeral service, and was asked to play again at the crematorium's ceremony.
After this, the body and casket were wheeled out of the room. We followed, and watched it rolled towards the cremation chambers. There was a line of them, and one had been designated for Oba san. After her family wheeled the casket in, the door shut, and her eldest son said, "Goodbye mother" as he pressed the button to start the incineration. It was an incredibly poignant moment, and tears sprang to my eyes.
After this, we trooped over to a waiting area. Some people elected to stay and eat lunch at the crematorium's canteen, a few of us elected to go out to eat. Two hours later, we all gathered in the waiting area, where the crematorium staff soon called us back to the small side room where we'd had the goodbye ceremony.
There was a table with Oba san's bones and ashes on it. We each took turns using some special, long chopsticks to pick up her bones and place them into an urn. Everyone took part, from the five year old child, to her seventy year old children. When it was my turn, I chose two bones from her back. It was an incredibly potent and cathartic experience.
(This picture is from the internet, and not a picture from Oba san's funeral, but this is what it looked like.)
After all of the bones and ashes were deposited in the urn, a man from the crematorium wrapped it in a silk cloth, and placed it in a box for transport. We followed the box out of the building, and to the church's mausoleum.
Ancestor worship is a big part of the religious practices in Asian culture. Each family in Okinawa has its own mausoleum, complete with altar for offerings, and they are often located together in a park setting. Seaside Chapel has its own mausoleum, where church members can be buried, in a mausoleum park. However, church members don't want to be worshipped by their descendants, so unlike the others, the church's mausoleum has no altar. Instead, it's engraved with scripture, and is located right at the entrance of the park, as a witness to all who enter.
Oba san's removed the urn from the box and wrapping, and placed it into the church's mausoleum. Afterwards, Higa sensei said a few more words, and we sang a song. With that, we dispersed.
It was an incredibly beautiful day, and I came away with a new respect for the Japanese mourning process. By the end of the day, we experienced much more closure than after attending North American ceremonies.
We're so thankful for Oba san's life, and her amazing example of faithfulness.
* Not her real name.