Home > Essays > Letter from a Japanese Crematorium
Published: Sun Apr 15 2007
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Letter from a Japanese Crematorium

My cousin Takahagi, a Buddhist priest, does not want me to go to the crematorium. It is not a place for visitors. When I press him, he explains: the crematorium is a gateway to the next world and is potentially dangerous. In Japan, cremation is avoided on certain days of the week, known as tomobiki, or “friend-pulling” days. If you cremate a body on tomobiki, the soul that is finally and forcibly removed from the flesh might snatch along a family member or friend for company.

Despite the impression you might have from certain Hollywood films, most Buddhist priests do not contentedly live on remote mountaintops waiting to dispense spiritual advice to depressed sons of millionaires who secretly long to be superheroes. The priests I know are busy with paperwork, scheduling, and appointments. Their job is to oversee everything related to death and rebirth, which, in Japan, is an elaborate, continuous, and expensive process.

I know something about temples and priests because my Japanese family owns a Buddhist temple, which my great-grandfather took over in the late nineteenth century. Our temple is part of the Sōtō sect, which Americans know of as Zen. My grandfather, once slated to inherit the complex, rebelled, leaving the temple in the hands of his sister, whose son has run it successfully for the past thirty years. Now his 25-year-old son, Takahagi (technically my second cousin, but to simplify things, I’ll refer to him as my cousin), is poised to continue the family tradition.

Takahagi has come to pick me up from Iwaki train station, which is located north of Tokyo and not far from Sendai city. He cuts an elegant figure on the other side of the exit gate with his black fedora, black narrow ankle jeans, and gossamer black T-shirt bearing a print of a skull. He is also sporting a pair of pointy-toed shoes that he found on a day trip to Harajuku; he will only shop for street clothes in Tokyo. His most prized possession is an American Chevrolet, which, he tells me proudly, was once a hearse. He purchased it from a guy who claims to have bought it from the army base in Okinawa, then transported it to the main island of Honshu. Indeed, when I look back at the cabin, it does have fat, cavernous proportions capable of holding an American coffin.

Lately Takahagi has been thinking of selling the hearse because it guzzles too much gas, and because every time he wants to get out of a parking lot he has to climb over to the passenger side to retrieve a ticket from the automated ticket dispenser. The other day the police stopped to talk to him when the hearse stalled on the expressway. He explained to them that he was a priest, but they didn’t believe him at first because so many kids these days shave their heads as a fashion statement.

I can’t help but wonder if Takahagi’s early and constant exposure to death hasn’t colored his sensibilities in some way. His older brother has become that Japanese social pariah, the otaku, who hides away in his room playing video games and conversing with characters in comic books. As the oldest son, my otaku cousin was supposed to take over the temple, but his extreme antisocial behavior makes this transition unlikely. As Takahagi navigates the country road around the contours of emerald rice paddies, he cheerfully waves to the parishioners and they wave back. No sullen Goth is he, but a fashionable young man whose stylish eccentricities are to be indulged for the moment.

When we reach the temple, where his parents live and the rest of the family is waiting, Takahagi slips into a side room and changes into his official “casual priest clothing,” which looks like a pair of pajamas with elastic around the wrists and ankles. Outfits like these are ordered from a Buddhist catalogue that sells, among other things, incense, new sutras, and gongs.

I’ve been visiting the temple over many years, but this trip is significant because I have come for my grandmother’s funeral. My 93-year-old grandfather and other family members have already arrived from various parts of Japan and are now waiting for me. Most of them attended the earlier funerary rites before my arrival, including the cremation that has so piqued my curiosity.

During dinner, my family—my grandfather, uncles, mother, and cousins—eat a spread of sashimi and vegetables, and the discussion continually returns to the impending funeral, which carries the conversational weight of an anchor. I imagine that a stranger peering through a window might find us all unremarkable, but the truth is that beneath the surface pleasantry lies an unvoiced secret. My grandmother, born to an aristocratic family that slowly lost its fortune during Japan’s wrenching transformation to modernity, married my grandfather less for love than for money and stability.

It was a union that produced three children but, as my grandmother liked to whisper to me late at night as we lay in our futons, little happiness. My grandfather, a brilliant but strict man, was given to violent outbursts and seemingly capricious mood swings. Like many mercurial personalities, he is highly charismatic, and he channeled his talents into the teaching of english. His students used to ask me if I was afraid of him. I always lied and boasted that I was not. Now that I have reached my Amazonian height of five-foot-five, I am not as afraid of my grandfather as I once was.

Before my grandmother died, she asked her children to return her remains to her aristocratic, natal plot. Her parents and servants are buried there, and she wanted to be with them. Then as now, my mother finds this request egotistical and is disgusted that her brothers indulged it. Japanese tradition dictates that a family be buried together so that it can be honored during important holidays. It’s an arrangement few people question, just as they would not think of wearing shoes on a tatami floor. Moreover, my mother hates deceiving her father, who knows nothing of the secret pact. Before the funeral, I’m of the opinion that if an elaborate subterfuge is required to send my grandmother back home, then so be it.

During dinner my mother redirects her frustration to the postfuneral- luncheon seating chart because it places her sister-in-law in a comparatively senior position. At this, my uncle moans that beer is in order, and my clean-living grandfather roars that if we do not learn to behave correctly in this world, he will come back as a ghost to torture us all.

The men shift uncomfortably on their zabuton pillows. My otaku cousin wanders down to gobble his dinner in silence before parking himself in front of the television to debate with then–Prime Minister koizumi, who is on the evening news. Takahagi’s mother chafes at having so many people in her house at once, and every now and then a dish she is washing rattles against its neighbor.

The meal ends with no satisfying conclusion. One by one the men drift off to smoke, or, in my uncle’s case, to sneak a case ofbeer out of the refrigerator in the temple’s adjoining meeting hall. Eventually, I’m alone with Takahagi. In this precious hour of privacy, we talk about his secret girlfriend and my secret boyfriend. Then I ask him about the crematorium.

Here is what I learn:

Cremation was once reserved for nobles but is now mandatory in most of Japan. It is also only one part of the expensive funeral process. In 2004 the average funeral in Japan cost 1.65 million yen, or $14,000, almost four times the average funeral in the United States. A significant portion of this money goes to the priest, which accounts for the Mercedes-Benz that Takahagi’s father drove for half a year until complaints from his parishioners made him give it up for a Toyota. The funeral industry in Japan is evolving as demographics and ties to tradition change, so prices are slowly falling. But there are still plenty of families in the rural, thus more traditional parts of Japan (our family temple is located in such a place) who wouldn’t be caught dead with anything less than the full afterlife treatment.

Cremation generally takes about an hour, with an extra thirty minutes or so added on to give the remains time to cool. The ovens reach a peak heat of 500 to 600 degrees Celsius, which is substantially cooler than in the Western process. In Japan, it is important to preserve some bone. There will be no sterile handing-off of a small urn, no dispensing of powdery ash into the ocean.

While the flesh dissolves, unseen attendants keep watch. Some monitor the security of the building by means of cleverly hidden cameras, in case a grieving family member returns to the oven unaccompanied to try to rescue the body. After about an hour, an attendant will go to a hidden chamber behind the ovens and look through a tiny fireproof window to see just how much is left of the cremated corpse, making adjustments as necessary.

“There’s a window?” I ask.

“There has to be,” Takahagi nods. “What if there is a problem and the body is only half-cremated when the family goes to pull out the bones?”

“The family retrieves the body?”

“Of course. You can’t let strangers handle something so personal.”

Then I ask him again if he will take me to visit the local crematorium, and offer my standard armchair anthropologist’s shtick about how I admire Japan’s ability to combine technological prowess with a fastidious intolerance of germs and waste. Consider, for example, the toilet down the hall, which has all the features you hear about on blogs and in the news: a bidet function, a selection of noises—waterfall, toilet flush—to mask the sound of urination should one be embarrassed by such things, a perpetually heated seat. (“You mean American toilets aren’t like that?” My cousin is incredulous.) More seriously, I remind him that, until recently, leather workers, butchers, and undertakers were relegated to an outcast status in Japan; their work with death and meat was considered a pollutant. I wonder how, if at all, the modern crematorium is more viable in such a purity-obsessed but democratic society.

A conversation I had a few days before arriving at the temple comes to mind. I was at Chita Peninsula, which is south of the city of Nagoya, with my mother, who was born there. Like the century-old houses that dot the landscape, she was able to escape the bombings that decimated so many of Japan’s cities during the war. We visited an onsen, or hot-spring spa, with one of my mother’s childhood friends. They are two of a kind, a pair of sylphlike creatures chattering about high-school days and the healing properties of vinegar, while I, with my pink skin and muscular frame, am quite obviously not fully Japanese.

When my mother left the onsen to try the sauna, my mother’s friend turned to me and murmured, “There are many things you can’t understand about Japan. You aren’t going to be able to help your mother right now. You must let people like me take care of her. You can take care of her in America.”

I felt sideswiped. It isn’t completely true, what they tell you about Japanese people being habitually vague. Once you speak the language, a whole world of strong emotion and color opens up to you.

“She was my grandmother, too,” I finally said.

“Look. Don’t be hard on yourself. We don’t expect you to understand us.” She turned her back to me and paddled out of the water to join my mother.

This is something one hears in Japan from time to time: that those of us who aren’t one hundred percent Japanese can’t appreciate the full range of Japanese cuisine and taste it the way they do, that we aren’t able to relate to other Japanese people during Obon or a matsuri. It’s a judgment I resist. I’ve always bridged the two worlds my mother occupies. It’s a responsibility I take seriously, perhaps even more seriously than my father does. After all, I’m the one who speaks both languages, who knows how to take off my shoes at the entrance to a house without falling over, how to sense the amount of personal space around me on a crowded train, how to be moved by a hototogisu singing in the twilight. If there is something new to grasp about Japan, I have the reflexive impulse to do so.

And the fact is, because I speak Japanese yet remain something of an outsider, I generally end up hearing the things that are considered taboo. A family friend confided that he might be bisexual; then he broke down and confessed he was actually gay (and could he stay with me in New York for three months to experience liberation?). My mother’s cousin, who I’d always been told was adopted, revealed to me in the five minutes it took to walk to the house from the parking lot where we had bidden goodbye to guests that he was actually the illegitimate son of my grandfather’s brother, and therefore my blood relative. When I was twelve, my grandmother showed me an old photo of a handsome young man and told me that he was her “true love.” It was not a photo of my grandfather. With geographical, not to mention cultural distance, secrets mistakenly appear to lose their power.

Despite all this, Takahagi remains unconvinced. “I am sorry. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable taking you for a visit to the crematorium,” says my cousin, driver of the American hearse.


In the morning, I find my way to the local crematorium on my own just fine. It is a stark, one-story building concealed inside a coil of trees and bamboo, in a remote part of town accessible only by automobile. The brooding copper brow of a roof hangs low over a dark, marble entrance.

Automated doors slide open, and an attendant, wearing what looks like a conductor’s uniform complete with cap and gloves, glides out of the entryway. I give him my spiel. I’m here from America, obviously, and want to know more about the inner workings of a crematorium, as I missed my grandmother’s cremation. He nods, as if this is a perfectly reasonable request, then advises me to wait. A mourning party is scheduled to arrive in five minutes and he must prepare.

I watch him wheel a specially designed handcart out to the sloped sidewalk. The cart is a marvel of engineering with hydraulic lifts and an automated conveyor belt. When the hearse arrives, with its gold-and-black headdress elaborately carved like a temple roof, the attendant bows, and easily extracts the coffin from the back.

It is quiet inside the marble hallway. Two rows of indoor streetlamps shine a luminous pathway on the floor. A priest and the party of mourners follow as the attendant gravely steers the coffin through this solemn space. The women are wearing black kimonos made of silk so heavy it seems to ooze like ink in the atmospheric light. I watch as high doors open at the far end of the hall and swallow the mourning party. The quiet returns once they are gone, save the faint sounds of a chanting priest and a ringing bell.

I retire to a small cafeteria, which is selling noodles and tea and offers a view of a rock garden. It is a pleasant enough space, resembling a hotel or, perhaps more accurately, an airport lobby, down to the video screens displaying the names of those whose remains are ready for pickup. In the distance I can hear the hum of other guests who have rented out a private waiting room with tatami mats and zabuton pillows. They are cloistered together, perhaps eating a specially designed funeral bento, so designated because it contains nary a speck of meat—only fish, rice, and vegetables. In another wing, someone is cremating a pet dog.

The glove-and-cap-clad attendant comes to get me, checking his watch. The crematorium has been carefully designed to function as a series of systems, he says brightly. There are multiple pathways that enable him to direct all parties through the same ritualized experience while avoiding undesirable traffic jams. He has fifteen minutes to give me a tour.

He leads me from the main hall into the second room—a sort of intermediary chamber—where a shrine is laden with numerous bouquets of yellow and white chrysanthemums and a portrait of the man who has just been sent to the crematorium. He is perhaps in his sixties, smiling and healthy—a father, husband, and grandfather to all those who brushed past me in the main hall. He loved cigarettes, baseball, and golf books, all of which have been placed on the altar. It occurs to me that I have crashed a funeral and I start to feel guilty that my curiosity has led me to invade what is surely the most intimate and private of spaces.

In a third chamber, the steel jaws of twelve small ovens are clamped shut. Because the crematorium regularly processes more than one body at a time, heat-resistant digital screens above each oven display the name of the temporary occupant so that there will be no confusion. The casket is slid inside under the somber gaze of the mourners, and the head of the family is charged with locking the door and pocketing the key—the only one, he is told, that can open this particular oven. Before the mourners leave the stark room for the waiting area, they hear the breath of gas and the snarl of fire as the casket, flowers, and body are consumed.

There is only one thing that modern engineering cannot dispense with, and that is the smell. After visiting the crematorium, I won’t eat meat for several weeks.

The attendant takes me to a clean, stark space that looks more like an empty hospital room than the grand marble chambers I’ve just seen. This is the bone-picking room. Two weeks ago, while I was in America, my grandfather was led away solo from the waiting room to open up the oven with his special key. When my mother joined him a few minutes later, she said she found him standing in this room, warming his hands over my grandmother’s remains, which lay stretched out on a steel table. This, the attendant tells me, is not so unusual; there are some who even eat from the bones of the deceased, or request a cup of water to make a kind of tea.

My uncle had joined my grandfather to begin the intimate process of picking out bones, each using a pair of unusually long chopsticks. They started with the feet first so my grandmother would not be upside down in her rectangular urn, which is about as large as an ice-cream tub. This is the only time that two people will hold anything together using chopsticks, hence the reason the Japanese flinch if two people inadvertently reach down to pick up the same morsel of food from a plate. An attendant in the background identified each bone. “Here is the second joint of the big toe.” “Here is a fragment of a femur.” At the top were pieces of my grandmother’s skull, jaw, and the all-important hyoid bone from the Adam’s apple, which will rest in a separate box. So many of my grandmother’s bones survived the cremation that we were given a third urn.

“She must have been young,” the bone-identifier remarked. “There’s so much left over.”

“She was ninety-four,” my mother replied.

The bone expert beamed. “Then you’ve inherited strong bones.”


The day of the funeral, Takahagi wants to show me the robes he has selected for the occasion. Most young priests wear relatively bright colors; Takahagi’s otaku brother has agreed to take a break from his Final Fantasy duties to participate in my grandmother’s funeral and has already donned the standard bright-yellow-and-cobalt-blue robes that befit a priest under the age of thirty. But Takahagi, that Harajuku devotee, is no ordinary young man. This morning he has chosen a sable-colored robe with a dark gray overgarment. The sable silk has an iridescent quality to it, sometimes appearing silver, sometimes copper.

“Nice, isn’t it?” He holds the robes up in the sunlight.

“Did you special-order that?” I ask.

“There’s a guy in Tokyo who makes them for me.”

After Takahagi gets dressed, he shows me all of the things he can do with the overgarment. If you have seen any samurai movies, you know there is always a scene before battle in which a kimono-wearing warrior must tie up his sleeves with a rope in order to wield a sword unencumbered. Takahagi has mastered his priestly robes, which, like a kimono, also have billowing and potentially troublesome sleeves. He performs his fashion origami for me, putting the fabric over his head and tying it behind his back so that his arms can move freely. Then he unwinds the garment, returning it to its original, constricting position, slips his arm out of a hidden hole, and his arms are free again.

“I’m nervous,” he confides. “I’ve never done a funeral for family members before.”

“Did Takahagi tell you about the Sony funeral?” my otaku cousin calls out as he plays a round of golf on PlayStation’s rendition of Pebble Beach.

“No,” I say.

Takahagi grins. “It was when I was studying to be a priest in Tokyo. My teacher got a call that someone had died, and he asked me to go with him to chant sutras. It turned out that we went to the [Sony chairman] Morita house.”

“What was it like?” I ask.

My otaku cousin shakes his head in dismay. “He didn’t even look around.”

“I remember that the windows were very big,” Takahagi offers. “But when we went into the main room, I saw the family members, and so many of them were crying. I had to act completely like a priest.”

In the main temple hall, preparations are underway for the funeral. enormous bouquets of flowers bearing the names of donors flank the gold Buddha on the altar. My grandfather looks lost in the jungle of oversized lilies and chrysanthemums as he carefully arranges the three urns of bones behind a large bronze incense burner. “Three urns,” he boasts to me. “Your grandmother had to have three urns.” Once, we would all have been expected to sit on the tatami floor with our feet neatly tucked beneath our thighs. This is a tricky position for many elderly people to assume for long stretches of time; young people, too, have lost the talent for sitting correctly, so Takahagi’s father has prepared several rows of folding stools.

During the funeral, Takahagi, in his elegant robes, plays a small gong, while his father ecstatically shouts to my grandmother’s soul that she is dead and must leave us. I love the sutra-chanting the most. The priests—Takahagi, his brother, and their father—listen carefully to each other, taking turns to space out each breath so that there is never a break in the sound. Then my mother sings an operatic aria. Now it is my grandfather’s turn. He pulls a slip of yellow paper from his pocket and begins to address my grandmother’s bones.

He thanks her for taking away his heart murmur when she died. He is feeling much better now. He is sorry that he had to leave her body alone in the house when he went out to dinner, but it really wasn’t necessary for her ghost to have locked the doors and windows, making it difficult for him to reenter. He knows that she would like to stay and continue to watch over her children, but it is time for her to leave, and anyway, everyone has attended a prestigious university. Then he begins to cry. The air grows thick, as though the molecules themselves are swollen with emotion.

The weeping is contagious and soon I too am afloat in grief. My grandfather—that hard, hard man—loved my grandmother deeply. It occurs to me now that some of his behavior must have come from the suspicion, if not the actual knowledge, of the photograph of the other man in her purse.

Late in the afternoon, after the funeral and the post-ceremony meal with its troublesome seating arrangement have ended and the guests have gone home, the family sits wilted around a table in the kitchen. I notice that my grandfather is missing.

“I think I know where he is,” Takahagi, back in his casual priest clothing, murmurs to me.

We find him alone, perched on a rock by the family burial plot high on top of a hill. It is a gorgeous evening. We are ringed by bamboo and pine trees, and above them the sky is turning pink.

“You know you are really poor when you have no one at home waiting for you,” my grandfather says.

“I think,” I offer, “I hear a hototogisu singing.”

My grandfather tilts his head. “Did you know that the hototogisu migrate here from Taiwan?”

Lately my grandfather has been telling my mother that his happiest years were in Taiwan. He went to university there and stayed on for a time teaching english, before marriage and the war brought him back to Japan. He has even said to me that my love of Japan is something like his love of Taiwan, which I take to mean that he has finally reconciled my half-breed existence with his very traditional

“When I die,” he says, “I am going to ride a hototogisu back and forth between Japan and Taiwan. When I’m dead, I don’t want to ever have to fly in an airplane again.”

“You won’t have to.” Takahagi smiles gently.

“Remember that,” my grandfather instructs, “when you come here and a hototogisu is singing. That’ll mean I’ve returned to see you.”

That night, as my mother and I lie in our futons, drained by the day, I whisper that it would be cruel not to let my grandfather have his wife’s bones.

“That,” she says, “is what I’ve been trying to tell your uncles all along.”


It is my grandmother’s unexpectedly strong bones and the third urn that solve our burial woes. The largest urn will stay at the temple, where it will sit under the watchful eye of my cousin until my grandfather is ready to bury it in the temple cemetery.

A second will go home with one of my uncles, who promises to worship the bones every day in his own family shrine. I know that he will quietly take the urn south to kyushu and bury it with the other shizoku, those aristocratic descendents of the samurai who made up my grandmother’s family.

My grandfather initially wants my mother to take the Adam’s apple back to America, but, thinking quickly, she tells him that it is illegal to import human remains. She suggests that he take the Adam’s apple back to his house, and he happily packs it in his small travel bag, which he carries on his lap all the way back to Nagoya.

In the days that follow, he fusses over the small box. He brings it flowers from the garden and sweet bean cakes and fruit from the grocery store. every morning when I light incense, I find that the little box, bound up in red and gold silk, has been moved from its position of the previous day, as if a mischievous spirit is still struggling to find its place in a new world.

“When he dies,” my mother whispers to me late at night, “I’m going to cremate him with that Adam’s apple.”

Over the next few days, people ask if this is my first Japanese funeral; when I say that it is, they nod and watch me carefully. I have been let in on a secret. When I visit a department store, purveyor of giddy electronics that delight us in the West, I notice specially designed funeral and memorial bento boxes for sale, sans meat. I see men on the bullet train wearing black suits and the telltale black tie; white ties are for weddings. I know where they are headed, what they will be charged with doing. A group of women pass me in Tokyo station carrying a rectangular box whose shape I recognize.

Tradition isn’t without some comfort. Once a year during Obon, souls come back to visit for the day. Then graves are swept free of debris, families prepare special foods, and young people dress in summer kimonos and dance together in a circle. I like to imagine that my duty-bound grandmother, though her remains have been divided, will come back to see my grandfather, who will be waiting—and longing—for her.

See what's inside AGNI 65

Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in Carmel, California, to a Japanese mother and an American father. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian studies. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including LIT, Epoch, North Dakota Quarterly, AGNI, and Phoebe. She is also a frequent contributor to Japundit, the Japanese news and culture site. Her debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, will be released by Graywolf Press in fall 2009. She lives in New York City. (updated 10/2008)

Her AGNI essay “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium” was chosen for The Best Creative Nonfiction 2009.

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