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The funeral

They had the ceremonies for my friend's father last night and today.  Last night was called the otsuya, an evening ceremony.  My dictionary translates it as "all-night vigil" although I don't know if anyone actually stays awake all night.  The ceremony involved many, many guests, and a lot of Buddhist chanting.  Each guest made an incense offering to the departed.  Each also brought 50 dollars to help defray the costs of all the elaborate flowers and ornamentation.  There was a eulogy by the head priest.  Emotion was expressed mainly before and after, as we filed past the relatives of the deceased.  The ceremony itself was solemn.

Then this morning was the soshiki, or funeral.  It involved a lot more Buddhist chanting and more incense offering.  There were also several speeches stating very formally the things he'd done in life.  At the end, the casket was opened to display the body, so that people could say goodbye.  Then the body would be taken to be cremated, and last only family and close friends would gather for a final ceremony in which they pass pieces of bone between them with chopsticks and deposit them in the funerary urn.

Because this man was himself a priest, his soshiki was rather special.  There were more than ten priests, coming from the head temple.  The ceremony was also longer than usual.  The head priest was a talented performer, and his chanting sounded to me very much like a dirge.

In Japanese Buddhism, death is followed by a systematic progression on one's way to becoming deified.  You don't have to be anyone special, anyone and everyone gets deified.  First the departed goes through various elevations of Buddhahood, becoming more and more purified.  Then at last they become kamisama, a god (or they join with God, depending on your interpretation).  This progression is reflected in earthly ceremonies.  The funeral is only the first of many.  After seven days there is another, after 49 days another, then annually again on the anniversary of death, and finally there is a set interval of years after which ceremonies must be performed.  The whole cycle can last 30-50 years depending on the system used.  During this time one's ihai or memorial tablet is kept on the family altar, and gradually moved to higher positions until the cycle completes.  By that time, it is likely that few remain who remember you personally, you're just a name on a tablet, and you join the anonymous ancestors.

I asked about what would become of my friend's father, considering that he had hanged himself.  I was told that according to doctrine, he would not become a buddha or kamisama but would go to hell.  But not so many believe that these days, and as far as I know they will have all the usual ceremonies for him as if he were proceeding according to the normal progression.  Also, his manner of death is euphemistically referred to as dying of illness, a "sickness of the heart."

In my five years in Japan, I've had to attend three funerals, two of them suicides.  That's too many.  Far too many.