Friday, May 4, 2007

Ashes to Ashes

I thought I would do something a little different. I wanted to post a "guest blogger" ... have anyone who has something to say be able to post. Then I remembered a few weeks ago reading one of the FUNNIEST pieces of writing I've ever read in my life. I was going about my usual boring day...stalking on facebook, wandering the pages of myspace (myspace is very redundant, by the way..) when I came across a blog written by my very good friend, Julie Keech. She's in Japan right now, teaching English and having a rockin' time. She titled this, "Ashes to Ashes".. and gave me permission to post it. I hope you have as much fun reading it as Em and I did. It is absolutely hilarious.

Julie Keech :D

Ashes to Ashes

Recently, one of my students, remembering that Maryland is my home state, brought in an article that she'd seen about it in the newspaper. Apparently, rising groundwater as a result of global warming has softened the soil in some Eastern Shore area enough to allow the coffins of some of America's first settlers to begin drifting into a nearby river. The whole class made polite noises of surprise until we were sure that everyone else just wanted to laugh, and then we all had a good giggle over it.

This was followed by a question and answer session about American burial customs. This is the kind of discussion that I both dread and love. I dread it because, despite being born and raised in the U.S., and having majored in sociology, there are many aspects of American culture that I really don't have a clue about. There's also a lot more diversity in American customs than in Japanese, and I've often found that traditions that my family follows aren't necessarily considered kosher by my fellow Americans. When I can tell them what "we" do, I'm often hard pressed to tell them why. On the other hand, I am viewed as an expert in American culture, and therefore anything that I say is instantly believed without question, which is fun. If I tell them that my mom's family used to hide miniature bottles of liquor along with plastic eggs at Easter, they take it for granted that it is a sacred holiday tradition.

Anyway, knowing that ancestor worship is a very important part of Japanese culture, I tried to answer this one seriously. I explained that people had traditionally been buried in a churchyard, each according to his own religious beliefs, but that cremation was becoming more common these days.

"What do you do with the bones?" Tomoko asked.

Good question. What do people do with the ashes? Time to improvise. "Well, some people bury the ashes in a cemetery, and other times they scatter them on a lake, or in the woods.." (Do people really do that?) "and some people keep them in their home in what we call an urn, it's like a nice vase…"

"Oh! So many! How is there room for everyone?"

Hmm… "Well, usually that's not permanent… sort of a temporary place until…" until what? How long did people usually keep the relatives on the mantle? "For instance," I started again, "My grandparents were both very old when they died, so when my grandfather died, my family waited to…." (oh god, don't tell them what really happened to Grandpa!) "um, bury, his ashes until after my grandmother had died, so.. they could be… together?" I neglected to mention that during the five years that Grandpa's remains had remained in a shoe box in my aunt's closet, my enterprising young cousin had been known to charge his friends a few bucks to see them. I also decided not to mention the many discussions, none of which could be categorized as reverent, about where he would eventually be scattered.

Increasingly aware that I sounded like an idiot, I tried to save myself, "Really, it's all up to the individual family to decide, so everyone has a different tradition… For instance, when my boyfriend's family came to Japan," (I knew it was a mistake, but I just kept going) "they had recently lost a family member who loved to travel, so they brought some of her ashes to.…"

As I stared at the horrified faces before me, I wondered which aspect of my story was the most offensive. Was it, 1)That a person would be scattered across continents rather than buried in a single location 2) That a person would be buried in a land they'd never been to rather than in their hometown in the family plot 3) The simple fact that cremains should probably not have been allowed through customs, or 4) Probably the most likely - the threat of a foreign ghost would upset the racial purity of the Japanese spirit world. Time to change the subject.

"So in Japan, I often see cemeteries," I started drawing a diagram on the board, "where each grave has a tall, narrow stone in the middle, and smaller stones on either side…" The gravestone sketch having turned out significantly more phallic than I'd intended, I quickly stood in front of it and faced my class. "Where, exactly, are the… um, people?"

"Well you see," they began, "After a person is burned, their family will pick up the bones with special chopsticks, and…"

"WHAT?!?" I shrieked. It was the most non-judgmental and culturally sensitive response I could muster upon learning of this bizarre way to torture a family who had just lost a loved one.

"Oh, SPECIAL chopsticks," they explained. "Special chopsticks," they laughed, thinking that I'd misunderstood. "We don't eat with these ones."

"Oh," I said, pretending to recover my composure, as though THAT was what had surprised me so much, not the thought of the bereaved spending hours intimately picking over the charred and smoldering remains of a family member with sticks. "See, we just get a box. We go to the crematorium, where people are burned, and they hand us a box, with the ashes inside." The students gasped and exchanged worried looks at the impersonal nature of this method.

"In Japan, it is a family duty. A family must always take care of each other, even after death."

Good philosophy, I thought. I decided I would not tell them what did eventually happen to Grandma and Grandpa, who had chosen cremation - after the Catholic Church had approved it – because it was significantly cheaper than burial. Of course, further instructions probably would have helped, considering the endless debate among their seven children as to what would happen to them next.

In the end, Grandpa was taken back to his family plot in Iowa. In keeping with Grandpa's frugality, no one had invested in an actual piece of land. Standing next to the burial plots of his ancestors, my family simply made sure no one was watching, stood upwind, and opened the box. I wasn't there to see it, but I hear that the only words uttered were, "Well, the price is right."

Grandma was taken back to the house where she had been born, to be scattered in the garden. Of course, the house is no longer in the family, and my aunt and uncle decided that any kind of informed consent might make the whole thing a little more difficult. As I hear it, the process was a bit rushed as the dogs were making a lot of commotion about the whole thing, and may have alerted the owners to the presence of trespassers if it had gone on too long.

"Yes, family is very important for us, too," I agreed with my students. "My family went to very much trouble to make sure my grandparents got back to their hometowns."

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