Not a very pleasant subject to talk about, but since Satoshi has been going to funerals and wakes lately, I wanted to share with you an experience I had in my second year (2002) here--I actually had a temporary job working for two days for a funeral management service.
Here's part of my email that was dated August 20, 2002.
"On Sunday, I got a call about a new temporary job. This job was for a wake and funeral. At first, I thought "yikes, someone's funeral..." In Hawaii, most people's family and friends help with these things. Most funerals in Hawaii are generally small and rather private, in the sense that only family and friends are involved. But in Japan, some families enlist the help of funeral homes and funeral management services. These service companies do EVERYTHING, from serving guests tea to setting up tents and signs. I was surprised at how much gift giving is important even at funerals. They give gifts such as green tea or even have catalogs where you can order what you want to those who attended the funeral! And they sometimes even give these gifts to people who attend the wake.
In Hawaii, they don't really give gifts to the people that attend, I think this is mostly due to the influence of the sugar cane era. In the sugar cane era, money was very tight and the sugar cane workers lived in plantation camps. When someone passed away, they would collect money from amongst the camp members and give it to the deceased person's family. Usually, nothing was given in return, but the family gave thanks by giving some food to eat and something to drink to those that attended the funeral. This is why at the end of most funerals in Hawaii, there is a little buffet table.
Anyway, this was my first time to attend a funeral in Japan. I usually don't like to "play the gaijin card" (the fact that I'm a foreigner), but working at this particular wake and funeral I was frazzled. The whole time I was "on egg shells", trying not to offend the family or piss off my bosses. Everything, like all types of ceremonies has to be just so...One boss telling you to do something, so you drop what you are doing to do as you've been told. Then another boss comes along and says, "what are you doing? you should be doing this..." Then of course, the first boss comes back and wonders why you haven't done what they told you to do, all the while you have to bow and say hai hai (yes, yes)....AARGH!
Some interesting observations...they cut off flowers from the arrangements at the funeral to have family members put it into the casket. The hearse is in the shape of a little temple and is mounted on the car (some are really flashy with gold leaf!). On a hot, humid August day, we also had to wear a uniform that included a vest and white gloves and had to bow as the deceased arrived for the funeral and also as the family left with the deceased. People attending the funeral all wear black. Men wear black suits with white shirts and black neckties. Women wear black dresses with a string of pearls (no other type of jewelry is allowed) and black stockings. Even your handkerchief has to be black.
When the person who attended the funeral returns home, you are supposed to throw salt at them (the person receives the salt at the funeral). This is to stop the spirit of the deceased from entering your home."
Today, Satoshi experienced going to the crematory. In Japan, the family passes the bones of the deceased from one person to the next with chopsticks to put into the urn. (For this reason, when passing food to someone, you should never pass it from your chopstick to the other person's chopsticks.)
Still, this is an interesting part of Japanese culture, don't you think?