What follows is an account of what I experienced during the
traditional Japanese Bhuddist funeral ceremonies of my wife. I know some
things are different from what a Westerner might expect, and some people
are interested in what happens at times like this. And, some are interested
in what my thoughts or feelings were, or possibly, what my wife was like.
So I write this hoping you will read it with interest, and, it’s
a sort of cleansing exercise and reminder for me, of what was good about
this experience. I hope you enjoy or learn something from it.
My wife, Takako Saito, passed away at about 8:10pm on Thurs. July 29th,
at home in bed with our dog JoJo and I. In Japan, when people die in the
hospital they are very quickly taken to their home to rest for a few days
prior to cremation. During this time at home, the body is kept cool with
dry ice if need be, and is visited and seen by family, friends and neighbours.
For these days it is an ‘open house’ concept. In our case
she was at home when she died. After her death, JoJo and I remained alone
with the body for about 12 hours, until about 8:15am Fri. July 30th, when
the doctor came to ‘officially’ pronounce her death and remove
the life support tubes from her body. Then the nurse helpers cleaned and
changed her into her wedding gown. Then we put on or near her some special
things that would stay with her for the next couple days up to and including
cremation, such as rings and jewellery, pictures, cosmetics, lavender
essential oil, etc... Some neighbours did visit that day, and the immediate
family was there too. The nurse, doctor and mother asked me about what
kind of funeral service I wanted. I think they assumed being a foreigner
I would want a Christian one. So I wrote the following e-mail to the doctor
and a couple bilingual friends to let the family know what I thought about
“ Takako believed in the things said and done by the Indian Saint
who married us (Amritanandamaya, Holy Mother of Heavenly Bliss) and in
people like Mother Theresa and Jesus Christ. Though we were married in
a Hindu-like ceremony, that Saint is, in fact, non-denominational. And
Takako too, didn't belief in 'religions' per se, but rather in the words
and deeds of those who were truly spiritual and crossed all borders and
encompassed the best of all religions. We were alike in this respect.
When asked, I usually say we're Bhuddist, because maybe that one seems
most close to how we lived, but truly, we aspired to those things that
cannot be labelled solely by religious name, but are shared by all.
I think she would want a simple, inexpensive ceremony, whether it were
Christian or Bhuddist. I think she would prefer a funeral home close to
here, a local one rather than being carried too far from her home. I think
she would want what's best for the family and all, and nothing lavish.
She was pure of heart and mind, extremely honest, and relished the simple
things of life, so I don't think she would see any point in having anything
too complicated or expensive.
Please communicate this to the right people and help me make arrangements
for later today.”
In fact, after I experienced the fine arrangements that were made by the
family, and found out how much it cost, I was a little shocked. The brother
explained that it was comparatively cheap and simple, but knowing how
Takako liked flowers, they did a little extra in this regard, as I will
explain in detail as I go along. But let me say now that I will be forever
grateful for what the family did and how they did it during this time.
While there were problems and miscommunication between the family and
I prior to Takakos’ death, it seemed all that disappeared after
she died, much to everyone's’ satisfaction. I’m sure it makes
Takako smile too.
They wanted to keep her body at home another day, till Sat, but I wasn’t
comfortable sleeping with the corpse another night, so I asked them to
take the body to the funeral home. I had a very important high profile
playing job that night, and had to leave the house about 4pm. They were
putting Takako into the vehicle to be driven to the funeral home the very
moment I was pulling out for my gig. So tears welled in my eyes as I waved
good-bye, me on my way to the gig by car, and Takako on the way to the
funeral home. I was told later by the bandleader I played my ass off that
night. I doubt it, but would like to think so.
The next morning, Sat July 31st, the family came to my house at about
2pm to pick me up and prepare to go to the funeral home. We wore all black.
The day before, the funeral people asked me to prepare some memorabilia.
They said they would display these things prominently for all to see at
the funeral home. When we arrived at the funeral home, we took an elevator
downstairs to the basement level. After exiting the elevator, there was
an entry foyer area where they had artfully displayed the things I had
prepared on a table. There was our framed wedding certificate, many picture
albums of our wedding, honeymoon and vacations, Takakos’ favourite
crystal wine glasses with some unopened champagne, some mementoes from
the ‘spiritual’ wedding ceremony we had in April of 2000 (done
by Amritanandamaya, or simply, AMMA, the Holy Mother of Heavenly Bliss)
prior to the ‘official’ Singapore government wedding, some
Star bucks coffee, Takakos’ cosmetics, and various other items of
fond, private memories. Later, when the guests would begin to arrive,
they could stop there and browse leisurely through all this stuff, gaining
some insight to our life together, and to Takakos’ personal side
many of them had never been aware of.
Sometime after our arrival but before the arrival of the guests, the monk
arrived and the immediate family and I were called into a small room to
meet him. I was told that he would be there, privately chanting and praying
for Takako until the ceremony, and that what he was doing would be explained
to me later. While the explanation part wasn’t necessarily done
as I had imagined, it seems to me now that all that was necessary to be
Down the hallway from this memorabilia table was a large room where Takako
was, and across the hall from that, smaller tatami rooms for the family
to change and stay. At this time they asked me to go to the main room
where Takako was to make any final changes. She was in a box, clothed
in her white wedding gown, with the things we had placed with her the
day before. I only changed her wig to her favourite one, and added some
rings on her fingers. Then they put the lid on, with a sort of door left
open so one could only view the head, not the body, and moved her to the
front of the room, in the center of a huge array of flowers stretching
all the way from left to right, and to the ceiling. Above her and in the
center was a nicely framed photo of Takako that had been taken on the
night of our marriage party while she was wearing her special evening
gown and adornments. In front of all this was a table with ceremonial
items used for the ceremony like incense, a prayer bell, candles, etc...
Later for the ceremony proper, the Bhuddist monk would sit there, facing
Takako. The rest of the room had chairs for guests. Her favourite music
played softly in the background, including the song I wrote called “Saitos’
Then distant relatives began to arrive, some of whom came from afar, and
eventually a few invited guests. Everyone took a seat, with the family
in the front. Family members were given ribbons to wear on their left
side at waist level, signifying their relationship to the deceased, and
some prayer beads that we were to hold in our left hand. The head of the
funeral home made some announcement, I think to explain what was going
to happen. Then the Bhuddist monk came in, sat in front of Takako and
that table mentioned earlier, and proceeded to chant and pray for a long
time! Occasionally we were to raise our hands to our hearts in typical
prayer like fashion, and we were given books with what he was chanting
in Japanese characters (not that anyone could follow it).
At some important point the brother and I were the first to be guided
to stand up and proceed to the centermost table in front of the room with
Takako, the huge backdrop of flowers and the monk in front of us, and
the rest of the room and guests behind us. On this table there were two
bowls of granulated incense and hot coals and a smaller version of Takakos’
picture in the center. We took two snippets of the incense and put them
into the coals, then silently did a very brief prayer of our choosing.
Then we proceeded to sit in some chairs to the right of the monk facing
the other guests in the room. Starting with immediate family and spreading
to all other guests, this same ritual was done in pairs of two people.
They would proceed to this table, first bow to Takako, then to the family
seated there, then do the incense prayer thing, then repeat both bows
and return to their seat.
Then the monk gave a talk. Though obviously I didn’t understand
his Japanese, I was told he said something like this: “Takako was
young and some of us were shocked that someone so young could die suddenly.
But this should remind us to think (now) about where we are going after
our demise. Her death should prompt us to think of the spiritual and how
we are to live out our lives, to best prepare ourselves for the inevitable.
He also said his beliefs and those of the Christians were very, very similar”.
Then he left. The head of the funeral home then made another brief announcement
and we were told there was food in the other room. They prepared in both
the private family tatami rooms and an adjacent room to where Takako was,
a traditional Japanese dinner of sushi. We ate and drank (too much saki).
I enjoyed getting drunk with the family and sharing stories somehow despite
the language gap. Yukiko (the sister) and her two Americanised kids were
vital and in huge demand for this translation stuff!
The main room was kept open for anyone to visit at any time, and in fact,
it’s expected that all family members would stay all through the
night with (or nearby in the facility) the body. As we ate and drank and
talked in one room, the occasional sound of Takakos’ name could
be heard, followed by tears, and the prayer bell being rung, by those
who repeatedly paid last respects throughout the night. The smell of incense
permeated the room. The incense is supposed to be kept lit all night.
Each time someone approaches the body, they light the incense, say a prayer,
and ring the bell.
I left under guard (ha ha!) at 3am. Under guard by the mother and sister
because of how much I had to drink. I wanted to drive home to prepare
some things for the next day, sleep in my own bed, and change. On Sunday
the first of Aug., exactly the same day four years ago Takako and I had
our official Singapore gov’t wedding, I woke up about 7am. The mother
and sister left the house before me by cab. I got ready for the cremation
day ceremony and arrived back at the funeral home with JoJo at about 9:45am.
Shortly after our arrival I was told to prepare a speech to give at the
cremation ceremony later at noon. I had about an hour to do so. The brother
had to also. After I finished my speech, with her kids help, the sister
translated the speech into Japanese to read it after my English one. I
will copy my speech in full at the end of this, exactly what I said.
Then the guests arrived again for a 12-1pm ceremony. Sundays’ ceremony
went very similarly to Saturdays’. We sat, the monk came and chanted,
prayed, rang the bell, then the brother and I gave our speeches. Then
what happened next took the two Western musician friends of mine there
The funeral staff removed the dry ice and wheeled out Takakos’ coffin
to the middle of the room and uncovered her for display to all present.
I was told to approach first and add or remove anything I wanted. I added
the things I wanted burnt with her, which they had conveniently prepared
for me, like the original dried roses and Holy powder saved from our spiritual
wedding by AMMA. I added these and the container they had been stored
in, along with the coffee and pictures of us and JoJo, etc... The only
thing I removed was the diamond wedding ring I had given her on our first
wedding anniversary. I began to take the other ring, blessed by AMMA,
then changed my mind and left it. And I began to take the bracelet I had
made for her but it wouldn’t come off, and I took this as a sign
she wanted to take it with her! Indeed Darling! Then we were all given
flowers to put on the body, and starting with the mother and I, we proceeded
to cover her with flowers. I then called to JoJo, our dog. I said, “JoJo,
jump”, and she put her paws up onto the side of the coffin and looked
in at her departed master. This happened twice and I told JoJo the second
time, “...say good-bye to Takako...”. I think on some level,
the dog knew what was happening (she’s a smart dog). By the way,
I was so grateful the dog was allowed. Takako would have been happy about
it, and one of the family members commented that everyone thought the
dog was SO well behaved. I never had any doubt of that, and in fact, I
never had a leash on her once for those two whole days. In this I certainly
broke with Japanese custom!
When this was done they covered the coffin and the monk led me and the
coffin outside to a waiting hearse. Only the driver and I were in the
hearse with my wife. The cremation place was right next door, and as the
hearse pulled up to that entrance area, the other family members were
arriving there by foot.
In the cremation building we gathered in the area where the body is burned
and a table was erected with her picture on it. She was put into the furnace
room and the door shut. Then we were led upstairs in the building to a
room with drinks to wait. After the cremation was finished, it was announced
and we were led back downstairs where the door opened and the table came
out with Takakos’ burnt remains exposed for all gathered there to
see. The cremation man gently brushed the bone fragments onto two metal
trays and placed them on a table with two sets of large metal chopsticks
and the ceremonial urn container. Starting with me, then again proceeding
with everyone present in pairs, we took turns using the chopsticks to
place the bones into the container. Occasionally the man would say which
bones they were. When all in the container, I asked if I could touch them
and he said, of course. I did, and gently rocked them as if I would have
done lovingly to her head. Then the container was sealed and enclosed
by a decorative silk covering. Then we were led by foot back to the funeral
parlour, me carrying the main urn, the mother carrying a smaller one,
and the brother carrying the picture.
The funeral staff had prepared in advance of our arrival a nice lunch
with more drinks, and a table for Takako (and her picture) at the head
of the room. Takako was served like all of us! They asked me, would Takako
prefer tea or saki, and I said tea. Then we ate, mostly in silence, while
Takakos’ food and drink sat in front of her remains. I began crying
at this point and the sister rubbed my back and said, waving her hand
throughout the air, “Takako is all around us now”. In the
rear of the room they had gathered all of our personal effects from the
tatami rooms the night before and also all the memorabilia, but thankfully,
when it was time to leave, they said they would bring these to my house
later. I was to leave only with JoJo and Takakos’ container of bone
fragments. I placed Takako in the passenger side seat of my car, JoJo
in the back, and drove home.
The family arrived at my house a little after me, and the funeral people
came with all the rest of everything and also, importantly, brought fresh
flowers and arranged Takako appropriately according to custom, in the
area I had prepared in advance. That area was Takakos’ most beloved
piece of furniture, a wooden dresser from Spain located in our bedroom.
I had cleaned it in advance. Now, she rests in our bedroom, facing the
bed and I, with the prayer bell, incense, candles, Bhuddist things from
the funeral, and AMMAs’ picture and prayer beads. I will follow
the custom and light the candles and incense and ring the prayer bell
As for her other things, that were displayed for all to see in the foyer
of the funeral parlour, I will rearrange our living room to accommodate
these things, so those visiting the house can visit Takako in a similar
fashion as they did at the funeral parlour, with memorabilia, pictures
and all downstairs, and the actual remains upstairs. I asked what should
I do when the flowers begin to die and the sister told me, “...call
the brother and he will call the funeral parlour, then they will come
to replenish the flowers with fresh ones...”.
At about 6pm Sun Aug. 1st, the family returned to Chiba, and I slept for
over 12 hours. Upon waking Mon. Aug. 2nd, I lit the candle, incense, and
rang the bell, then began working on these notes. The first time I finished
them, I pressed command P to print, but there was an error and the program
crashed before I could print them. After calling some computer savvy friends
I realised I had neglected to save them, had lost them, and began on this,
the 2nd version, utilising the command S for save very often this time!
In Japan the custom is to mourn or remember Takako by keeping her remains
together with the spouse for 49 days after death. It’s believed
that the spirit lingers in a sort of in-between place for about this period
before going to heaven or elsewhere. I think it’s assumed that if
all these ceremonies and rituals are performed satisfactorily, her place
in heaven (instead of elsewhere) is guaranteed, or, that she will be guided
properly to the right final place. But of course, having been married
by AMMA, and knowing Takako and our love for one another, this is something
I am already convinced is true. There is not one shred of doubt in my
mind that Takako is, and has been, led to the right place. This 49 day
period is also a sort of ‘open house’, in that any friends
or family that want to visit can do so. One of her friends has already
said she will bring 4 more of Takakos' childhood friends here to pay their
last respects, 4 who were not at the formal ceremony. It is also a time
for family to share fond memories, and I suspect family and a few people
will stop by and I am grateful.
After the 49 days, the same monk is brought to a burial site chosen by
the family and a final ceremony takes place in which the remains are buried
in what probably resembles a Western funeral. If need be, the remains
will be separated into two containers, one for the family and one for
me. This way, if I want to have a private ceremony of my own I can. I
had wanted to, but in my mind was to have a picnic with JoJo, Takako,
and I, at Takakos’ favourite Yokohama park, or even back in Singapore
where we shared our fondest of times, before spreading her ashes (which
is now legal and accepted in Japan). But, that was before I realised I
don’t have actual ‘ashes’ per se, but bone fragments!
No thank you, I don’t want to be seen tossing bone bits around a
public place. God forbid JoJo should put one in her mouth and go running
off with it, ha ha! JoJos’ nose is too good for that I know. Well,
I can pulverise the bones with a mortar and pestle, and I have the rest
of the 49 days to carefully and considerately think and meditate about
what I want to do.
All in all, I think the ceremony and death went off like a charm. Perhaps,
in some way, these last few days have made up for the agony of the past.
At least, Takako is not suffering anymore. Here are the words I spoke
at Takakos’ cremation ceremony yesterday, forever true and heartfelt:
“ Let me say some things I know about Takako. Takako was probably
the only person I’ve known who was never disliked, never hated or
feared by anybody. Most people have someone who dislikes them, at least
some of the time. But in the 7 years I knew Takako, she was liked by everybody,
even by people who didn’t like me! Isn’t this a rare thing?
I believe there was an innate goodness, purity, and generosity in Takako,
that made her popular with all who met her. She used to say that she had
no special skill or talent, but yet, she was successful in every job she
ever had. I believe this was due to her unique personal qualities, honesty,
generosity, forthrightness, and the purity of her heart.
Perhaps some people, maybe even members of her own family, may have thought
Takako was not so strong, because of her gentle nature and kindness. But
I believe she was very strong. She left her home and family in Japan to
travel to Singapore, to live with me, even though at that time, we were
not married or even in love. And I made no promises to her at the time.
I thought she was really brave to do that. And I had been married once
before, for 14 years, and my first wife decided to leave me. So, I was
a little mistrustful of women then, and scared to get married again. But
Takako was patient and consistent, and in time I came to believe that
Takako was the perfect mate and partner for me. When we got married, I
told everyone with confidence that I had found the ‘right’
one this time. After she was diagnosed with cancer she told me tearfully
and gratefully, that I had never let her down. Before she died I told
her, and I tell all of you now, that she also never let me down either.
We were, and are still, fully committed in our love for each other.
Another example of her strength and bravery, was shown to us all in her
death, and how she dealt with this dreaded disease for the past year.
She told me, “I am not afraid of death, it is nothing”! How
many of us can say that? And how many of us could face what she faced
with such dignity and strength? At one point while she was in the hospital,
I was suffering at home alone, in pain. A friend said something true to
me then. He told me, “Greg, Takako is teaching you a lesson on how
to live your life happily.” Because, even in her deteriorated physical
state, she never failed to greet us with a big smile and greeting when
we entered the room. So, what my friend meant was, how can we be sad and
feel sorry for ourselves, when a dying, suffering Takako can remain happy?
I believe this is Takakos’ lesson to us all. She was, to me, an
example of how we all should be and can be.
I also want to say something about the moment of her death. She wanted
me to be there at that moment, and what I feared most of all was that
she would die alone in the hospital. We were granted our wish and were
together in bed. Just before she died, I said out loud, “Takako,
it’s just us, you, me, and JoJo here together alone”. I told
her, “...you ARE the light... accept this knowledge and go with
an open heart...”. Then her breathing slowed and finally stopped.
I believe our dream in life was realised in her death. And I know that
she is crying tears of joy and thanks, that all of you are here to say
good-bye in such a good way. It is with your help and fond memories that
her place in heaven is guaranteed. Thank you!”
Well, that was my spoken tribute at Sundays’ ceremony Aug. 1st,
2004. I have already explained what happened next. Now I will take a break
from this and hope that in your reading this rather long note, you somehow
feel better, or more informed, or closer, or something positive, warm,
or gooey. If so, it’s partly due to Takakos’ eternal love
and smile that lives in each of us (albeit hidden in some more deeply
than in others! ha! ha! ha!)!
Greg Chako, Mon. Aug. 2nd, 5:30pm