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Archive for May, 2009

A Cremation in Tokyo

It took us about two hours to reach the crematorium in Ichikawa. The funeral service had almost ended by the time we reached. Our pastor had already performed the last rites when we entered the hall where the service was being held. We made it just in time for his final prayer after which we filed past the coffin as those gathered sang ‘Abide With Me’. His wife and young son had arrived for the funeral just a few hours earlier and the hall was filled with her wailing as his bewildered young son looked on.

Though I had expected just a few mourners from the Mizo/Zohnathlak community, there must have been about fifty or so mourners all dressed in black. Most of them were from the Burmese community with representatives from some NGOs dealing with refugees in Japan. He may have been all alone when he met his Maker last Saturday but he certainly was not alone on his last journey.

Next to the hall where the funeral service was held, across a corridor, was the electric crematorium. After the service, we were led to a big hall which was separated from the crematorium by a huge ceiling-to-floor glass wall from where one could see five identical steel doors looking very much like elevator doors which turned out to be the crematoriums. Our pastor led the small funeral procession consisting of his wife and son and close friends into the crematorium as we watched from behind the glass wall.

We watched as one of the steel doors opened at the press of a button and the coffin which had been placed on a trolley slowly moved inside. It was my first ever experience of a cremation and for some reason had expected some huge fire and brimstone kind of sight as the crematorium doors opened and the coffin was swallowed up. But it was nothing like that as the coffin slowly disappeared into what looked very much like an elevator. I half expected some passenger to emerge from the elevator-like doors as they were about to close. And, just like that, it was over.

Our group of mourners then trooped over to another part of the complex, to another hall which had typical Japanese-style long low tables where one had to sit cross-legged as well as a more conventional long table with chairs. We quickly filled the hall and commenced waiting for the cremation to be over so we could collect the ashes, or so I thought.

We were served typical Japanese oolan-cha (Japanese green tea) as we waited. A good and opportune time for a lengkhawm, I thought. But the time was used for the leaders of each community that had come together to stand up and say a ‘few words’ of condolence at the passing of a brother. There were words from the Zomi Christian Fellowship, the Burmese Fellowship, two other Fellowships (from Burma/Myanmar) and lastly, words of thanks from Pu Tawna on behalf of the Mizo Fellowship. In the event, with the lingua franca being mostly Burmese, except when his wife gave a very moving short speech in Mizo thanking everyone for being there, I had no idea of what was being said. But I felt myself being absorbed into a strange feeling of camaraderie, of being amongst brothers, of being one community.

After about an hour, we were informed that the cremation was over and we were escorted to still another hall where another ceremony awaited. The same trolley (for want of a better word) in which the coffin/body had been swallowed into the crematorium was now placed in the centre of the hall. In place of the coffin/body, there now remained only white bones with ashes all around. The hall, unexpectedly, smelled of burned wood – not unpleasant and not what I had expected, though I did not exactly know what I expected. In a typically Japanese ceremony (so I was told), two mourners with a pair of chopsticks each picked up a bone from the trolley and placed in an urn placed upon a table next to the trolley. We walked up to the trolley in pairs and, with the wooden chopsticks placed there for the purpose, solemnly picked up one of his bones and placed it into the urn.

It being my first experience of a cremation, I think I had expected something like a small mound of ashes, or that an urn or container with the ashes would be handed over to us. Coming up to the trolley with the white bones starkly visible and in contrast to the white ashes all around was a complete surprise for me. I think it dramatically brought into focus the fragility of what we call life. In almost the twinkle of an eye, a fully recognizable human body with its own unique face and features had become just a pile of brittle bones.

And so, a life once full of hope and dreams for the future ended in a faraway land.  He had dreamt of the day when he would be able to once again hold his wife and son whom he’d last seen when he was a six month old baby. They came, finally. But he was no longer able to hold them. The few hours that they were finally able to spend together was with him in a coffin, just a strange, pale, ashen face to a three year old son who will grow up never having known him. And, for his wife, an indescribable loss with only bittersweet memories remaining.


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