In Life And Death

by industriousants

In our four years here in Japan we’ve seen some friends and acquaintances pass away; a student’s father, an old high school classmate, our elderly neighbour. When someone close to you dies, it’s always shocking, wether you expect it or not. But likewise, I find the death of acquaintances or friends of friends to be unsettling, because it manifests so much pain in the people you know and love. You want their suffering to subside, so you suffer a little with them. Everyone involved is so helpless to do anything and for some it can make being around the surviving family uncomfortable. You don’t know what to say and you don’t know what to do for them. It’s amazing that something as normal as dying feels so unnatural.

That said, the older I get, the more accustomed I seem to be getting with the concept of dying. I am happy for that, because obviously it is going to happen to each and every one of us. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that right now, but maybe when the day comes where I lose own parents or friends, it will be  harder to deal with. For the time being though I feel like I can mentally cope with this process, at least when it happens to others. I am grateful to my mom and dad for never trying to protect me from the concept of mourning or trying to sterilize death. I remember being shown pictures of my grandfather’s funeral in India when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The pictures were of my uncles, literally holding their dead father’s body. Some were posed pictures with my grandfather positioned on someones lap. Others were shots of them carrying the body in their arms from one location to another. The funeral viewing was held in someones home and friends and family dug the grave themselves.

At the time I was a bit taken aback by those shots. It wasn’t so much the sight of the body, but of the act of people touching and holding it. I’d been to a couple funerals in Canada, but holding the body was completely out of the question. In fact at my Grandma Lieberman’s funeral (not a real grandmother, just a very close friend of the family) we were specifically directed not to touch the body, because it had gone through Jewish rites of purification. It was interesting to see my Indian family members pass around the pictures of Papa, because they didn’t seem to be perturbed at all. Instead they made comments about the flowers, about how good he looked in his suit, about the friends in the background who had been able to attend the ceremony. They brought up funny memories, they reminisced. There was no discomfort in the experience.

Recently, a close Japanese friend of mine lost a very dear family member to sudden and tragic circumstances. It was hard on their family and by the time I was made aware of the situation some time had passed. We spoke at length about what happened, how the funeral arrangements had unfolded, how the family was holding up. I felt blessed that my friend would share such intimate details with me. I learned that in Japan it is custom for a family to tend to the body themselves in preparation for the funeral. Washing it, applying makeup, doing their hair and dressing them in a favourite outfit. These are all things that the family is welcome to do themselves. My friend spoke tenderly about touching the face and body of her loved one. The family does not leave the body alone and stays with it to the very end. They sleep beside it at the funeral home, laying out futons on the floor next to the coffin. They stand by it when friends and family arrive to pay their condolences. When the body is finally cremated, they pick through the ashes with chopsticks and pass the bones to each other, placing them carefully in an urn to later place in a grave. For a culture that in life seems to emphasize personal space and privacy, departing takes on a stark contrasting level of intimacy.

I thought that it was a beautiful thing for my friend to have the chance to be so close to her loved one in the final days before the cremation. Maybe not everyone would agree though. Some might find the whole thing a little morbid. It’s the Christian thing to say “It’s just a body, it’s empty, nothing is there anymore”, as if that line of thinking is supposed to somehow soften the blow of all the memories and sadness we feel when we see the dead face of our friend or relative. As many times as I have uttered those same words myself, more recently I feel a change of heart. I can liken my sentiments to the feelings I have about a house. This year, Matt’s parents will be selling their North Dakota house to the city so that a levy can be built on their land. Flood waters reek havoc on their town every year, and finally a buyout was arranged to try and remedy the situation. His family has lived in that house for 35 years. All four brothers were raised there. It’s the place where Christmas presents were unwrapped, grandchildren learned to walk and where we were married in the backyard. The house will likely be destroyed, the pool filled in, the old oak tree in the back cut down. Sure, it’s just a house, but it conjures up deep feelings to know that it will be torn down after it is vacated. So then it wasn’t really just a house. It was also a home and it’s sad to think that no more memories will ever be made there again.

And of course, we can all say that it’s just a body, but it could also be a sister or a friend or a colleague. It’s hard to separate the relationship between the structure and core so suddenly because over time they become one in the same. The body and the house are the tangible symbols of the intangible life and spirit within that meant so much to us. Saying goodbye to just a spirit might make us feel empty. We can’t really put a face on it so to speak. So can it really be so wrong to mourn the passing of both?

I think having a child has made me understand the long healing process after such a profound experience a little bit better. When it comes to birth, it  takes a long time to shape that new little person inside of you. It is beautiful and uncomfortable and physically altering. It’s a special 9 months. After that life comes into the world our bodies are shocked by their absence and repair themselves slowly. Honestly speaking though, they are never quite the same again. If any mother out their says otherwise, they’re lying. 2 years after Noah’s birth I am finally able to fit into my old jeans, but under them hidden stretch marks remain, amongst other physical changes. Still, I can live with this because it is a small cost to pay for bringing Noah into the world. Should I not expect the same from death? Our relationships with people are beautiful and messy and soul altering. They are special. When our loved ones leave us we are changed  by the impact they had on our lives and their sudden absence from it . The pain softens bit by bit, and slowly we get back into our daily routines, but we can never be the same. They are gone, in body and in spirit, and when they left a little piece of us went with them. Is this too costly a price to pay for what we got in return? And further still, was there more that we could have given them before they left? I guess we all have to answer those questions for ourselves.