Beauty in death - the Japanese art of mourning
A personal story by Kathryn Hunyor
In 2015, my Japanese father-in-law passed away and my husband and I travelled from Sydney to Japan for his funeral. I’d spent three decades engaging with Japan in different guises, but I’d never dealt with dying before.
From the moment we stepped out of the taxi in Yokohama, our sensory engagement with my father-in-law’s death began – we were hit by a cloud of incense emanating from their house. I learnt that Buddhists burn incense 24 hours a day for as long as the deceased is in the house. It permeated my hair, my nostrils, and my skin.
That afternoon my mother-in-law took me to buy a standard funeral outfit, a classic-style Western dress, worn by women who choose not to wear a traditional Japanese kimono. The modest black dress and matching jacket had a dignified 1950s Grace Kelly feel to them, along with the black satin handbag and string of pearls. It was such a relief to just go to the local department store’s ‘funeral clothes’ section and buy the most suitable ensemble. Any worries that I could get it wrong were removed by simply adhering to the formula.
At the funeral ceremony, we walked in to see my father-in-law lying on a narrow platform suspended above a bath, dressed in a white silk kimono. I had never before seen a dead body, let alone touched one. We wet his lips with a sponge and washed him before he was taken away into another room. He was returned soon after in a beautiful coffin, again lined with white silk textiles and personal items my mother-in-law had collected, that he would need in the after-life.
The backdrop to this scene was a massive wall of brightly-coloured flowers – a living wallpaper of lilies, chrysanthemums, sunflowers and violets – in front of which the Buddhist monk sat, dressed in a brilliant purple silk kimono, to chant the Buddhist scriptures. As the first-born son, my husband and I sat at the front with my mother-in-law and slowly, rhythmically bowed as each mourner approached the altar, sprinkled ground incense on a smouldering pile three times, and paid their respects.
This bowing and swaying continued for hours.
Our final step for the day was accompanying the coffin into the incineration room, and watching as they slid him into the steel oven and closed its door. While the cremation took place we ate lunch together upstairs, and several hours later we returned.
With large, heavy silver chopsticks my husband and I transferred the bones from the silver tray where he’d laid to an urn. Now and then, the cremation staff would tell us which part of the skeleton it was – the cheekbone or collarbone – to orientate or educate us, I wasn’t sure.
‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ I floated through in somewhat of a daze, allowing myself to be completely open to this ritual that was simultaneously earthy, symbolic, and somehow scientific.
Looking back, the most incredible moment of this whole day was between the Buddhist ceremony and the cremation, when the palisade of flowers was dismantled, and the heads cut off and laid onto beautiful lacquer trays. We took the flower heads with their bright silky petals and laid them into the coffin until my father-in-law was fully submerged. Only his face was showing.
In that moment I had an epiphany. I felt it so viscerally that even now I can conjure the image in an instant; that is, how the visual beauty of this scene – the exquisite textiles, prayer beads, bronze bells, incense, lacquered trays, kimono-clad Monks and finally these luscious flowers – enhanced the pain and sadness of this moment.
This realisation has stayed with me, and often returns in sharp focus to remind me of why I need art, and the role that beauty and aesthetics play in my life. It reminded me that the power of art lies in its ability to create an emotional connection with us.
One of my favourite Japanese philosophers Soetsu Yanagi said:
“For a true understanding of art, in order to touch its essential nature, instinctive insight must precede cerebral discrimination; intuitive understanding must come before intellectual comprehension.”
Since this experience, I’ve started to think about death and grieving differently. There were no speeches at my father-in-law’s funeral. No funny stories or celebration of his life. Rather the funeral was an opportunity for us – those left behind – to start the grieving process. Without the need to exchange words and fill the silence with stories, I felt instead that I was being given the time and space to start feeling.
The words and stories did come later, and continue to come. For me they’re enriched by this powerful experience, where loss and beauty intertwined, and lodged themselves together in my soul.