Quote-“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Issac Asimov.
Death comes in strange guises. Her impact is often unpredictable.
She provides a fascinating way to understand cultural differences.
Last night my Japanese daughter-in-law was describing her daily English class. Evidently they were discussing Oscar nominations and wins. One of which was a Japanese film called Departures.
So, along with critiques of red carpet dresses and diva behaviour that accompanies this event, death raised her head.
I should have realised that a Japanese film would have a twist – they often do. I was imagining a film about airport departures and thinking how glad that I was to have my family home again after their many years of travelling. My musings were cut short by a description of the workings of an embalmer, and practise of the pronunciation of the word ‘undertaker’.
Suddenly ‘Departures’ took on a whole new meaning and the conversation veered into a funeral my daughter had attended when she was younger. Her best friend was killed in a car accident, and preparation of the body for the ‘ceremony’ was detailed. Her parents chose her special outfit – her Kentucky Fried Chicken work uniform. Her head was swathed, presumably to hide head injuries, and her makeup was perfect.
The ‘long box’ was open. People at the ceremony filed past and placed white flowers around her.
When they’d finished, the coffin was closed. The undertaker secured all but one of the screws to close it for the final time.
There was a window to allow a view of her face. Once everyone had looked through, the family fixed the final screw.
They then carried the coffin to the oven and placed it in position to push it in. The family then all pushed the coffin into the fire. The oven also had a window which allowed attendees to see the process.
My daughter described how while the coffin burned, she could see the body dancing with the flames.
The family were asked to return after 3 hours to collect the ashes in the ‘pot’. Some sections of the head had not completely disintegrated and were pulverised by the undertaker in front of the family, until it could all fit into the urn.
The urn was then taken to the family burial plot – a small box in a special wall which costs a minimum of $40,000 to buy. A drawer was pulled out, and the urn deposited with other deceased family members.
I found it hard not to contrast aspects of this with how such care is taken for our sensibilities in Australia around death, which was why, during the last floods my dog and I acted the way we did when we found an odd looking cardboard box on the beach. Marked with the name of a crematorium it was clearly someone who had taken an unexpected ride in the floodwaters. A few phone-calls later this departed ancient one was reunited with her family. They were incredibly grateful, though I suspect she is out there riding the waves, forgetting she was 94 when she died, and laughing at all of us.
Of friends who have died recently, one was too sudden for any preparations. We were all still in shock when her coffin rolled through the curtains at the crematorium. My daughter could not comprehend why we would need curtains when Japanese curiosity dictates that every aspect of the funeral is completely visible so that it can be shared.
Another friend who died a few weeks ago did have time to plan her death. It was harder for most of her friends to deal with the ‘death party’ I arranged for her while she was still strong enough to enjoy it. She had wanted to be there for her funeral to see all her friends, so a last party was called for. She couldn’t walk, so her four strong sons carried her – Cleopatra style – to her beach to meet her friends who had gathered for this last celebration of her life, and we drank and danced late into the night.
When she died, her sister and I laughed through our tears as we helped make her up at the undertakers, and lamented the choice of lipsticks available for her last ride.
We had helped her, when she was still able to make decisions, weeks before, choose her cremation outfit. Her favourite seagreen chiffon evening dress, and a gorgeous hand -beaded designer cardigan that she didn’t want us all to argue over after she had gone – as if we would!
As her coffin slid gracefully through the billowing curtains, unlike the Japanese, we tried not to think of what was on the other side. The curtains blanked out more than the view.
Her ashes were collected days later. Her sons had planned to take her out on a boat and scatter them at her favourite beach, but the urn fell over in the car on the way, so her eldest son had to “pick Mum up with the dustbuster – but don’t tell the other boys!”
It may be a macabre thought- but I think she was happy with her last dance, and at least a part of her is still riding around in the back of a brand new BMW keeping an eye on her eldest son.