Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

NB The names and the gender of the characters in this posting have been changed. Might have been changed. Or not.

It all started with a phone call: “Rabbi, I am Uso, Makoto’s son. Can you do my father’s funeral?” I had never met Makoto even though the stories I had heard had created some sort of connection between us. Months before this phone call someone had told me that Makoto had made aliyah and now was back in Japan but had resigned after my arrival because he didn’t like who I am; that Makoto was in Japan but had resigned after my arrival because he couldn’t afford the dues; that Makoto was seriously ill; that Makoto’s health had improved and now he was out of the hospital; that Makoto wanted me to visit him at the hospital; that Makoto’s family, namely older brothers and mother, would not allow me at the hospital; that Makoto did not want to see me because he didn’t like who I am; that Makoto was in a hospice; that Makoto was dead, and this, being so final, had to be the one truth of the story.
Despite the bits and pieces that people knew or imagined about Makoto, whom everyone had seen for a number of years at services, none really knew him. Only one person knew his last name; for most he wasn’t but one of the many Japanese who would like to convert or who attend services at the JCJ out of curiosity, in the hope of getting a glimpse of the ancient esoteric knowledge we Jews allegedly own.
That phone call I received from Uso surprised me, mainly because I had heard Makoto had died already two months earlier. After a graceless attempt to express my condolences in a slowed down English, I asked the question I had to ask: “Where is the body?” to which “In our living room” was the answer. The sudden nausea attack caused by the image of a coffin sitting in a crammed Japanese living room, maybe even very casually being used as a coffee table, prevented me from saying anything else. Uso must have noticed the awkwardness of that moment as he added: “No! No! We have cremated him. It’s only the ashes.” This gave me some relief from my nausea and at the same time it posed the question of what to do with the remains, because according to halakhah someone who has been cremated cannot receive a proper funeral. Anyway we agreed that we would meet the following day to talk about the next steps, and this would give me time to look in the books and in myself in order to find a procedural answer.
Uso and I met in a coffee-shop and for the next couple of hours I learned a lot about Makoto’s past and family life, which cannot be shared here. The stories I heard and the love in Uso’s voice made me regret that I had never met Makoto during his lifetime even though I could not get rid of the feeling that Makoto was hovering around us, not only because of the picture Uso had brought.
Now our immediate problem was what I had been dreading since my arrival in Japan: where will we bury the Japanese gerim when it will happen? By Japanese laws and regulations they are not allowed to be buried in the Jewish section of the Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama because, well, they are not foreigners. Still we thought that we would try and call the Cemetery and pretend we didn’t know, just in case. Uso called the Cemetery office, explained the situation in polite Japanese, with all the proper humble forms. Despite his extremely formal language and his literal bows to the Cemetery employee the answer was no, a polite but firm no. So Uso took upon himself to search for a non-denominational cemetery, which was the closest we could get to honor Makoto’s request. And finally last week, twelve days after our initial meeting we buried Makoto.
For the record Makoto had requested no cremation and a Jewish burial, but the elders of the family had opposed his request and thwarted Uso’s attempts to get in touch with the Jewish community. Acting against his will, they had the body cremated and were planning to get him buried in the cemetery kept by the religious institution with which they are affiliated. At that point Uso found the courage to oppose the family hierarchy and managed to stall until he was able to take full control of the situation and call me. I felt Makoto had been wronged enough and so I decided he should receive a proper (well, as close as possible to proper) Jewish burial.
When we arrived at the cemetery a man, the MC, was standing at the entrance waiting for us and as we parked the cars a plain wooden box seemed to have materialized in his hands, and so the funeral started. We followed him along the paths of the cemetery, a garden with an infelicitous mixture of Japanese and Western landscaping elements: patches of grass, water-fountains with cheesy puffed putti, a crimson arched bridge, stone lanterns and an artificial brook with a waterfall. The MC stopped underneath a portable gazebo shielding the grave - a small niche dug in the ground and lined with granite - and a few chairs for the mourners to sit. The headstone was similar to the other ones in the cemetery except for the fact that it bore Makoto’s name in Japanese and in Hebrew, the date of his birth according to the Japanese calendar, the date of his death according to the Jewish calendar, and also the traditional Hebrew inscription תנצב"ה.
The MC opened the wooden box, took out a plain, charcoal glazed urn and remained standing next to the niche, the urn in his hands. As I was about to start chanting the prayers Uso stopped with a request from grandma: “Can grandma keep a bone?” I shook my head violently as if to wake my brain up, because what I had just heard did not make any sense. Again the same question: “Can grandma keep a bone?” I had heard correctly indeed. One of the first things any foreigner reads upon her arrival to Japan is that the Japanese after a cremation collect the bones with chopsticks and place them in the urn, which somewhat justified grandma’s relaxed attitude. I had also read that some great Japanese figures had more than one burial site thanks to this system of burying bones in places away from the main grave, and knowing this fact made me think immediately that grandma still wanted to organize for Makoto a non-Jewish burial. So I had to give a brief impromptu lesson in halakhah in slowed down, simplified English which Uso translated. Grandma however had every intention to get her way, and asked again the same request with querulous voice, but this time Uso did not translate it and I took that omission as the sign to start chanting the funeral service.
At the point of the funeral when it would have been time to lower the casket into the grave, I approached the MC wishing to get the urn with Makoto’s remains and put it inside the grave myself: after all in Judaism burying someone is the highest act of love one can possible perform. Seeing I was clearly reaching out to the urn the MC, who had stood quietly and composed next to the niche, with a roar stopped me and turned his upper body sideways, and then stepped back. He almost touched me in order to prevent me from reaching the urn! I told him that I wanted to put it inside the grave, so he moved closer to me and then, while we are studying each other like in one of those cheap samurai movies always shown on TV, with one hand he lifted the lid and revealed the urn’s content. Most powerful than any unsheathed sword! Involuntarily I turned my head in disgust at the sight of those bones haphazardly placed in the urn. When I looked back he had won, the urn was in the niche already. I asked if I could, at least help him put the stone on top of the grave but the answer was, of course, another no.
Before we left the gravesite to go back to a sitting room in the office building, where we were offered green tea and Japanese confectionery the MC started talking with Uso and it was clear that he was whispering about me. My eyes kept going from Uso to the MC to Uso, until Uso reported the MC’s concern that I might have skipped some prayers. Of course my first thought was, “Oh my gosh, what did I forget!?” and quickly I went in my mind through the steps that make a standard Jewish funeral. But then I remembered that this was the first Jewish funeral the MC had seen, what could he possibly know? So, practicing a grammatical form I had just studied in class, I asked directly the MC what did he mean. His answer: “When the Japanese bonzes perform the funeral rites it takes much longer.” Foreign bonzes instead…