Copyright © 1997 Hite Kawabata.All rights reserved.
THE MASTER OF FUNERALS
Since I was a boy, I have had neither my own house nor home. During school vacations I stayed with relatives. I made the rounds of my many relatives from one house to another. However, I spent most of my school vacations at the homes of two of my closest relatives. These two houses were south and north of the Yodo River, one in a town in Kawachi Province and the other in a mountain village in Settsu Province. I traveled back and forth by ferry. At either house I was greeted not with "Thank you for coming" but with "Welcome home."
During the summer holiday when I was twenty-two, I attended three funerals in the space of less than a month. Each time, I wore my late father's silk gauze jacket, long divided skirts, and white socks, and I carried a Buddhist rosary.
First there was a funeral in a branch of the Kawachi household. The mother of the family's patriarch had died. She was quite old; they said she had grandchildren in their thirties and that she had been nursed through a long illness. You might say she had gone on to her reward without regrets. When I gazed at the patriarch's despondent appearance and the granddaughters' red eyes, I could see their grief. But my heart did not mourn directly for the late woman; I could not grieve her death. Although I burned incense before the altar, I did not know the face of the woman in the coffin. I had forgotten there even was such a person.
Before the coffin was carried out, I made a condolence call in mourning clothes, rosary and fan in hand, with my elder cousin who had come from Settsu. Compared to my cousin's behavior, what little I did, though I was young, appeared considerably more composed and appropriate for a funeral ceremony. I was comfortable performing my role. Surprised, my cousin studied my bearing and imitated me. Five or six cousins were gathered in the main house. They felt no need to make solemn faces.
About a week later, I was in Kawachi when I received a telephone call from my elder cousin in Settsu. There was going to be a funeral in a branch of the family into which his elder sister had married. You have to go, too, he told me. Previously, it seems, someone from that family had attended a funeral in my own. I took my cousin from Settsu as a companion and went by train. When we went to the house to offer our sympathy, I could not begin to guess which of the people there were family, except for the chief mourner. I did not even know who had died. My cousin's sister's house was the resting place for those attending, but her husband's family was in a separate room. In the room where I was, no one talked about the person who had died. All they did was worry about the heat and when the coffin would be removed. Occasionally, a question arose--who died, or how old was the deceased? I played go as I waited for the coffin to be brought out.
Later that month, my cousin from Settsu called again from his work. He asked me to go in his stead to the funeral of a distant relative of the family of his elder sister's husband. My cousin didn't even know the family that was holding the funeral, the name of the village, or the location of the cemetery. While we were talking, my cousin joked, "I'm asking you because you're the master of funerals."
I was struck dumb. We were on the telephone, so my cousin couldn't see the expression on my face. I assented to this third funeral. My cousin's young wife at the Kawachi house where I received the call smiled wryly. "It's as though you're a mortician." She gazed at my face as she continued sewing. Deciding to stay at the house in Settsu that night and then leave from there the next morning for the funeral, I crossed the Yodo River.
Hearing my cousin laughingly call me "the master of funerals" prompted me to reflect. My past had made me particularly sensitive to such words. It is true that since childhood I have attended more funerals than I can count; not only have I met with the deaths of my closest relatives, but I have also often represented my family in the country villages where everyone diligently attends each other's funerals.
I have reamed the funeral customs of Settsu Province. I am most familiar with funerals of the Pure Land and New Pure Land sects of Buddhism, but I have also attended Zen and Nichiren funerals. I have witnessed the last moments of five or six people that I can remember. I can also recall three or four times when I moistened the lips of the dead with the last water. I have lighted the first incense and have also lighted the lastso-called departing incense. I have participated in several ceremonies where ashes were gathered and placed in an urn. And I am well acquainted with the customs of Buddhist rites for the forty-ninth day after death.
I had never even met the three people whose funerals I attended that summer. There was no way I could feel any personal grief. But at the cemetery, when the incense was burned, I rid myself of worldly thoughts and quietly prayed for the repose of the dead. Although I noted that most of the young people present bowed their heads while leaving their hands to dangle at their sides, I pressed my palms together. People often assumed I was more genuinely pious than the others who had little relationship to the deceased. The reason I gave this impression was that funerals often inspired me to consider the lives and the deaths of people who were close to me. And, in the repose of contemplation, my heart grew still. The more distant my connection with the deceased, the more I felt moved to go to the cemetery, accompanied by my own memories, to burn incense and press my palms together in devotion to those memories. So it was that as a youth, my decorous behavior at the funerals of strangers was never feigned; rather, it was a manifestation of the capacity for sadness I had within myself.
I have no recollection of my parents' funerals. And I remember nothing about them when they were alive. People tell me, "Don't forget your parents. Always remember them." But I cannot, try though I might. When I see a photograph, it strikes me as neither a drawing nor a living being. It is something in-between. Neither a relative nor a stranger, but something in-between. I feel a weird, awkward tension, as though the photograph and I are embarrassed to be facing each other. When anyone talks of my parents, I never know what sort of manner to adopt in listening. My only desire is that they finish quickly. When I am told the dates of their deaths or their ages at death, I immediately forget them, as if they were just random numbers.
I heard from my aunt that I cried and fussed on the day of my father's funeral. I told them, "Don't strike the bell on the altar," "Put out the light," and "Throw the oil from the vessel out in the garden." Strangely, only this story moved me.
My grandfather had come to Tokyo when it was still known by the old name of Edo. My father graduated from a medical school in Tokyo. There is a bronze statue of the president of that school at Yujima Tenjin Shrine. The first day I was ever in Tokyo, I was shown that statue; it made me feel strange. A bronze statue gives the queer impression of being almost alive, so I was embarrassed to stare at it.
My grandmother's funeral was the year I entered elementary school. My grandmother, who along with my grandfather had raised me, died just when she could have relaxed her efforts to care for me, a rather sickly child. It rained hard the day of the funeral, so I was carried to the cemetery on the back of some man. My sister, eleven or twelve years old at the time and wearing white clothes, was also being carried on someone's back ahead of me up the red clay mountain path.
My grandmother's death awakened in me my first real feelings for our family altar. When my grandfather was not looking, I stole glances at the bright family altar in its special room. Over and over when my grandfather was unaware, I opened the sliding door a tiny crack, then closed it again. I remember that I hated opening the sliding partition all the way and actually approaching the altar. Whenever I look out at the subdued radiance of the sun as it bathes the mountaintops after dropping just below the horizon, I think of the light in the family altar as it looked to me when I was eight years old. In my graceless first-grader's hand, I had scrawled my grandmother's long, posthumous Buddhist name on the white sliding partition to the altar room; those characters remained there until we sold the house.
Years later, the only thing I can recall of my sister's appearance is the image of her white mourning clothes as she was carried on a man's back. Even if I close my eyes and try to attach a head and limbs to that image, only the rain and the red clay of the path come back to me. I feel irritated that the view in my mind's eye does not parallel the actual events. The man who carried her would not materialize, either. And so this soft white entity floating through the air is the only memory I have of my sister.
My sister was raised at a relative's house from the time I was four or five and died there when I was eleven or twelve. Just as I do not know the essence of my father and mother, I do not know my sister's. My grandfather urged me, "Grieve. Grieve for your sister's death!" I searched my heart, but I was confused, not knowing how to surrender my soul to grief. Seeing my old, feeble grandfather, his sorrow reaching the limit--that was what truly pierced my heart. My emotions gravitated toward my grandfather and lodged there, never attempting to move beyond him to my sister.
My grandfather had studied and excelled in the arts of divination. His eyes troubled him, and in his last years he was nearly blind. When he heard my sister was on the verge of death, he quietly counted his divining rods and divined his granddaughter's life. His eyesight was so weak that he needed me to assist him in lining up the divining blocks. I stared at my grandfather's aged face as the day gradually grew dark. When word of my sister's death came two or three days later, I could not bear to tell my grandfather. I hid the message for two or three hours before finally deciding to read it to him. By that age I could read basic Chinese characters, but when I came across characters written in cursive style that I could not understand, I usually took my grandfather's hand and traced the characters in his palm over and over until he could decipher them. Even now, when I remember the feel of my grandfather's hand as I held it and read him that letter, the palm of my left hand turns cold.
My grandfather died the evening of the funeral of the Empress Dowager. It was the summer of my sixteenth year. When he took a breath, phlegm stopped up his windpipe. He clawed at his chest. One old woman at his bedside said, "He was like a Buddha. Why does he have to suffer so in his last moments.?" I could not stand to watch his agony, so I fled to another room for the next hour. A year or so later one of my female cousins reprimanded me for showing such a lack of feeling for my closest living relative. I was silent. I was not surprised that my actions should have been interpreted that way. When I was a boy, I did not like explaining myself. The old woman's words had wounded me so deeply, I thought even a word of explanation as to why I left my grandfather's side as death approached would expose him to disgrace. Then, when I listened to my cousin's words in silence, the loneliness that had stayed at a distance suddenly sank deep inside me. It was the feeling that I was all alone.
On the day of the funeral, while in the middle of receiving the many funeral guests, I suddenly developed a nosebleed. When I felt the blood start running down my nostrils, I quickly grabbed my nose with the end of my kimono sash and dashed out barefoot across the flagstones in the garden. I lay face up in the shadow of the tree, on a large stone about three feet high in the garden where no one could see me, waiting for my nosebleed to stop. Dazzling sunlight spilled through the leaves of the old oak tree, and I could glimpse small fragments of blue sky. I think that was the first time in my life I had ever had a nosebleed. That nosebleed made me aware of how pained I was over my grandfather's death. As the only member of the family to receive visitors and tend to the funeral matters, I had no time to myself. I had not yet been able to ponder my grandfather's death or how his death would affect my future. I did not consider myself a weakling, but the nosebleed discouraged me. I did not want my sudden disappearance to be interpreted as weakness. I was the chief mourner, and it was almost time for the coffin to be brought out. My behavior was inexcusable and caused a great commotion. There on the garden stone, for the first time in the three days since my grandfather's death, I had a quiet moment to myself. A vague sense that I was forsaken grew in my heart.
The next morning I went to the ceremonial gathering of ashes with six or seven relatives and fellow villagers. There was no roof over the mountain crematory. When we turned over the ashes, a layer of fire still smoldered beneath. As we picked up the bones out of the fire, mynose began to bleed again. I threw down the bamboo fire chopsticks. Mumbling just a word or two, I loosened my sash, held my nose, and dashed up the mountain. I ran to the top. Unlike the day before, my nose would not stop bleeding, no matter what I did. My hands and half the length of my kimono sash were covered with blood, which dripped onto the blades of grass. As I lay quietly on my back, I looked down toward the pond at the foot of the mountain. The morning sun dancing on the surface of the water reflected onto me from far away and made me feel dizzy. My eyes grew weak. About thirty minutes later I heard distant voices calling me repeatedly. I fretted about my sash, which was soaked with blood. But hoping no one would notice since it was black, I returned to the crematory. Everyone's eyes were filled with reproach. The bones had been uncovered, and they told me to pick them up. With a desolate heart, I picked up the small bones. I wore the sash the rest of the day, stiff though it was with dried blood. My second nosebleed was over without its being discovered. I never told anyone about it. Until now, I have neither told any stories about my family nor even once asked anyone about them.
I was raised in the countryside, far from the city, so it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that all fifty families in our village pitied and wept for me. The villagers stood at each crossroads, waiting as the funeral procession advanced. As I passed before them, walking just ahead of the casket, the women wailed loudly. I could hear them crying, "How pathetic, how tragic." I was embarrassed and walked stiffly. After I passed one crossroads, the women standing there took a shortcut in order to stand sobbing again at the next one.
Since my childhood, the sympathies of those around me have threatened to make me into an object of pity. Half of my heart meekly accepted the blessings from the hearts of others, while the other half haughtily rejected them. After my grandfather's funeral, the funerals of my grandfather's younger sister, of my uncle, of my teacher, and of others close to me caused me to grieve. As for the formal clothes that my father left me, only once did I wear them on a joyful occasion--my cousin's wedding. All the countless other times, I wore them to the cemetery. They made me a master of funerals.
The third funeral of that summer vacation was in a village about a mile from my cousin's house. I traveled to my cousin's home as if I were simply going for a visit. I stayed one night. When I was about to leave, a member of my cousin's family smiled as he spoke to me. "We may have to call you again. We have a girl with tuberculosis who may not survive the summer.
"I wonder if we could even hold a funeral without the master?"
I wrapped my formal clothes in a bundle and returned to the home of my cousin in Settsu. My cousin's wife was in the garden. Smiling, she seemed to be in a good humor.
"Welcome home, Mr. Mortician."
"Stop the silly talk. Bring some salt," I said, standing up straight at the gate.
"Salt? What are you going to do with it?"
"I'm going to purify myself. I can't go inside unless I do."
"How disgusting. It's like a neurosis."
She brought a handful of salt and sprinkled it on me with a theatrical flourish.
"Is that enough?"
My cousin was about to put the slightly sweaty kimono I had just taken off out on the sunlit veranda to dry. She sniffed at it, furrowing her eyebrows at me. Recalling a joke, she said, "How horrible. Your kimono smells like a grave."
"It's a bad omen if you don't know the smell of a grave."
My cousin was still smiling. "I do know. It smells like burnt hair."