But maybe such starkness is, after all, the most appropriate mode for dealing squarely with the simple fact of death – a fact to which the modern West displays such aversion. My sole memory of my own maternal grandfather’s cremation some twenty years ago in London is of a sealed coffin, sucked away through a velveteen curtain on a conveyor belt, the only sound some plinky hymnal muzak piped through speakers. Off to Heaven in an elevator, all veiled and sanitised. The contrast with the ritual end to Nakanishi Mitsuo’s life could not be more extreme.
I. The Man
Born in 1931. Adopted into the Nakanishi family at the age of three. An eager student of English despite the prevailing cultural hostility of the time. A small-scale farmer growing strawberries, spinach and rice. Bald statements cannot conjure up the person, already in his eighties when I first met him. A large, veinous hand proffered with the English words, somewhat slurred by dentures, ‘Nice to meet you’. But all that schooling so long ago and half-forgotten. An immediate reversion to Japanese, the dense local dialect, unpicked for me at moments of confusion by his eldest granddaughter, my future wife. Though we only met a handful of times, he was unfailingly warm, accepting and humble, unwilling to play the role of supreme patriarch to which his years entitled him.
Some of this gentle poise may have derived from his faith, for he was an active member of his Tenrikyō church. Arising in the mid-19th century at a time of great political crisis, when feudal Japan was opening to the West, Tenrikyō began as a rural cult based around Nakayama Miki, a shamanic figure who delivered her divine revelations in automatic writing and was said to perform miracles of healing. The movement grew into an organised religion, designated by the government as a ‘sect of Shintō’, and eventually gave its name to the place where it had started, and which its official buildings now dominate, Tenri City in Nara Prefecture.
But is Tenrikyō actually Shintō? While the two may share certain aspects of ritual in common, the latter has a multitude of gods, the former ostensibly one, Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto. The use of the English word ‘church’ to describe its sites of worship also reinforces the sense of monotheism. I’ve lived in Tenri for almost a decade, my wife is an adherent of Tenrikyō, yet I still don’t know the answer. Why? Because it doesn’t really matter.
Religion in Japan has always been a syncretic affair, as suggested by the mixture of Buddhist and Shintō funeral practices. Buddhist temples usually have Shintō shrines within their precincts, and most people pray indiscriminately at both. My wife and I even got married in a Shintō shrine; her Tenrikyō family raised no objections. For dogma is subsidiary to the ritual act itself. Correct form is a defining feature of Japanese culture, just as applicable to major ceremonies, such as graduations or weddings, as to the small, quotidian ‘rituals’ of meeting and greeting, mediated by their subtle grades of honorific language. The routine, the bow, the posture of humble supplication – the gesture in and of itself supersedes any dubious philosophical pursuit of incontrovertible truth.¹
Many of the rituals of Tenrikyō are accompanied by gagaku, the music of the ancient Imperial court, a melange of native Japanese, Chinese and South Asian influences. In his church orchestra Nakanishi Mitsuo played a reed instrument called the shō, a bundle of bamboo tubes that resembles part of some miniature pipe organ, but which was said to represent a Chinese phoenix at rest. Its sounds are magical, shimmering and, like a harmonica, arise on both the in- and out-breaths.
The last time I saw him, he was wearing an oxygen mask. A cold had deteriorated into pneumonia, and he’d been in a hospital bed for several weeks. Weight loss had made his false teeth even looser in his gums, and I barely understood anything. We told him about our wedding plans, the tedious bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through. Characteristically, he was more concerned with this than with his own failing body.
It’s curious how the action of writing revives the memory. Maybe my hippocampus (or is it the cerebral cortex?) is sprightlier than I thought. I remember now the overcast light in the small hospital room, how we turned at the door to wave goodbye. His large purple-pink hand, bloated with gravity, waving back above the side-bars of the bed. Outside I picked up the spiky fruit of an American sweet gum by its stalk. It’s still in our apartment, in an old glass jar, like a musical note preserved in ice. But memory, it always fades.
II. A Corpse
It was back in the house when we got there, transported from the hospital within several hours of death – the body of Nakanishi Mitsuo, still in pyjamas, laid out on a futon on the tatami mats. I hesitate, however, to yoke his name to this husk; already his image had been abstracted. It was my first human corpse (I never saw my own grandfather’s), and I found myself thinking, there’s nothing here any more. Tireless lungs static after 82 years, filled only with slack air. Hence perhaps that ceremonial dagger on the chest to ward off evil spirits. Other offerings were on a small wooden stand: rice, saké, salt, water and a leaf of the sacred sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica) for transferring water to the dry lips. The body required tender ministration, as a succession of relatives and neighbours came to kneel and pay their respects.
This was death treated with intimacy, invited into the heart of the family home, not banished to the morgue with a kind of queasy embarrassment.² That night Mitsuo’s daughter, now my mother-in-law, slept near the body to ensure a votive candle didn’t go out. His great-granddaughters made origami grave goods – a watch, paper money, anything he might need on the journey after death. These were placed in the coffin the following day, after undertakers had wiped the body clean and dressed it in a kimono (with the right flap over the left, a reversal of the custom for the living). The rest of us put on black mourning clothes, and we all departed for the funeral parlour and the wake.
Here my memories become layered – doubled. Both the wake that evening and the funeral the morning after occurred in the same hall, before the same backdrop of offerings. Flowers, fruit, vegetables, enormous bottles of rice wine, even dry food in boxes arranged like a harvest festival in a church. Both times a Tenrikyō priest chanted prayers. Both times we filed up to the coffin, bowed, clapped and offered branches of sakaki strung with zigzags of white paper (a form of decoration commonly seen in Shintō shrines). There was duplication in the two ceremonies, but a change in atmosphere too. Some of this was due to emotional fatigue. After the wake, the coffin was removed temporarily to a separate room within the funeral parlour, so that family members could keep vigil, keep the candle burning, until the next day. I eventually went home, slept fitfully, and then the gagaku hit.
In her foreword to the 2004 edition of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism, Wendy Doniger states that, ‘…myths (and, to a great extent, rituals) retold and reenacted in the present transport the worshipper back to the world of origins, the world of events that took place in illo tempore, “in that time”.’³ There is, in other words, a rupture in everyday, linear time and its replacement with the ‘supratemporal’. This seems especially valid for describing highly formalised rituals that concern intrinsic aspects of existence – like death. While the wake had begun the rent in the ordinary, three gagaku musicians at the funeral itself (two bamboo flutes, one shō, the phoenix-harmonica) ripped it right open.
If melody in the Western classical tradition can be thought of as a path through a landscape, or as a narrative line connecting set-up to pay-off, then gagaku is the landscape itself, the setting robbed of story. Its woozily shifting planes of sound, all reeds and grasses, make me think of layers of honey slowly melting into one another, of the golden light of honeycomb. William P. Malm has compared the sounds of the shō to ‘a vein of amber in which a butterfly has been preserved.’4 Or maybe a sweet gum fruit in an old glass jar? This is music as circular time, existential, the pulse of the lungs, and it worked like a drug on my mildly sleep-deprived mind.
I floated through the following stages, even after the music had stopped, stunned in the new silence and weirdly detached as the mourners pressed in around the coffin to fill it with flowers. The grieving reached its peak. People sobbed and cried in despair, crowding, almost jostling, in a sudden loosening of self-control. It was an odd thing to witness in a society where public displays of strong emotion are so rare.
Nakanishi Mitsuo in a box of flowers. The undertakers fixed on the lid, and I helped to load the coffin into a hearse. At the crematorium there were more chanted prayers, more offerings of sakaki. The coffin was on a metal stand like an autopsy table. The table was wheeled into the incinerator. We drove back to the funeral parlour for beer and lunch.
The first thing you register is the smell. A burnt, mineral heat full in the nostrils before you even enter the room. Then you see the metal table in the middle. The human skeleton. The man of a few hours ago now preternaturally white.
I think of a line from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – ‘It wer like the 1st time I seen a woman open for me I wer thinking: This is what its all about then.’5 This is the core, this is the nub, one individual stripped back to calligraphic bones, one frail body as ideogram for all Mortality. It’s a banal truism that we must die one day, but in that moment I was struck more forcibly by the startling fact of not currently being dead myself.
Or is that mere hindsight, analytical and calm? Lunch had been long; there had been alcohol. Thirty or forty relatives and friends were now crammed into this small chamber at the crematorium. Tired, serious faces. I was spaced out, and the stench was beginning to become nauseating. On the far side of the table stood my girlfriend’s niece, only six at the time, showing on her face the anxiety I felt, feeding it back to me. I managed to smile at her. Her own smile was instant, big and open, as honest as her fear had been, and with it equanimity was restored.
This equanimity had characterised much of the past three days. Of course there was deep sadness, particularly as the coffin was finally sealed, but this was the funeral of an octogenarian who had been ailing for several weeks. That lessens the shock, lends the proceedings a certain matter-of-factness.
A crematorium attendant, wearing a peaked cap like a bus conductor, began to distribute metal chopsticks, while his colleague commented on the fine condition of Nakanishi Mitsuo’s skeleton, pointing out the absence of distortion in the pelvis or spine. His tone was unsentimental, yet polite, delicate. He now invited us to approach, individually or in pairs, starting with immediate family members, and remove pieces of bone for the urn. It was important to take a representative selection from throughout the body; not everything could be preserved.
Again that total lack of squeamishness, that intimacy. My girlfriend and I went together. As we stood in the slow waves of heat emanating from the table, agonising over what to pick up with the chopsticks, it felt for a second like some bizarre buffet spread. What a surreal privilege to be vulturing this man’s bones! Eventually we chose a section of fibula, which came away easily. The fire had burned out all the elastic collagen, leaving it brittle.
The skull was equally as compliant. Being far too big for the porcelain urn, the chief attendant, announcing his intentions first in the same level voice, broke it apart in his gloved hands and recommended a neat, shell-like segment from the top. The consummate professional – anatomist – connoisseur. Small wonder a collective murmur of appreciation met his discovery of the Buddha.
The nodobotoke or ‘throat-Buddha’ is the colloquial term for the laryngeal prominence, the Adam’s apple. Although composed of cartilage, and thus unable to survive cremation temperatures, folk anatomy considers it identical with the axis, the second vertebra of the neck, which has on its upper surface a small tooth-like projection – or rather, a small head and torso – giving it the appearance of a Buddha in the lotus position. Mitsuo’s had emerged from the flames uncracked, and was now retrieved by the attendant before our chopsticks could do any damage. Even for followers of Tenrikyō, in which meditation plays no part, this body within the body is a potent, sacred object.
The tantric meditation on one’s skeleton alerts the mind to the true nature of existence, transient despite the illusion of stability that daily routine tends to grant it. Likewise, the ritual of the chopsticks (common to all cremations in Japan, not only those of Tenrikyō) is a sober acknowledgement of death as an incremental erasure – a scattering of hands, lungs, hippocampus – just as inexorable whether one is ripped apart by wild dogs or lovingly dismantled by one’s family.
In contrast, the Siberian shaman must collapse to a state of bones in order to be reborn in a new body of magical power. There are echoes of this in Tenrikyō, which holds that the material body is on loan from God and must be returned to God, but that the soul is one’s own and can transmigrate. The funeral is simply the starting point for a series of rituals occurring at fixed intervals over many years, each marking the journey of the post-death spirit. Whilst some of Mitsuo’s bone fragments have been interred in a cemetery, others are still in the family home, including the throat-Buddha. On the fifth anniversary of his death it will be transferred to the church where he worshipped.
Another banal truism then: a funeral is an act of remembrance. But is it not also, at least in the format I experienced, a reconciliation with the inevitability of forgetting, and of being forgotten? Of an erasure that is more than physical? Within a few generations anyone who has ever known us personally is dead. Only feeble ghosts remain: dry facts, sparse accounts, deceptive photographs. This same fear of personal oblivion underpins our wider fears about environmental catastrophe. How can we expect future humans to have any memory of the splendour, the diversity, that once cloaked and suffused this Earth? How can they possibly know what has been lost?
March the 21st, 2014, had been overcast and chilly. As I left the heavy, sooty air of the crematorium behind in the mid-afternoon, stepping out through the sliding doors hand in hand with my girlfriend’s niece, the sun suddenly broke through, illuminating a silvery shower of rain. ‘Look! Kitsune no yomeiri!’ shouted the small girl. A foxes’ wedding procession! This Japanese idiom perfectly conveys the novelty, the sheer uncanniness, of seeing rain fall from a bright blue sky. It was an appropriate image for a day of strange rupture, of ritual space, otherworldly and beyond ordinary time.
The sun and rain, moving through their cycles. An atheist-animist, is that what I am? A touch of Buddhism when it suits me? I’m not big on dogma. All I know is that there are a myriad universes dying all the time, every one infinitely rich and utterly mysterious. That we are made of stardust. Animal, corpse, skeleton. That’s good enough for me.
1. This may, of course, be utter bollocks, since Japan no doubt has its fair share of fundamentalists, but it neatly justifies the lack of theological explication in my account
2. This custom, however, is disappearing, surviving mainly in old houses in the country.
3. Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2004 edition, p. 13
4. Malm, William P., Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2000, p. 112
5. Hoban, Russell, Riddley Walker, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2002 edition, p.193
The Time I Shot the Iliad, (2 of 5), (2 of 5 [detail]), (3 of 5)
New Mexico, USA
The Time I Shot The Iliad is part of a series of ‘shot books’ I created in the deserts of New Mexico that began as both an interrogation of US gun culture, and the role of books in the development and dominance of civilisation. These dusty discarded books – mined from charity shops – eventually became sites for re-inscribing contemporary narratives of contraction and loss. Their desecrated pages are perhaps the visceral embodiment of a more faithful articulation of the arc of time we are living through. For a full description of this project, see Dark Mountain: Issue 11.
Christos Galanis is a Canadian/Greek artist, researcher and teacher who enjoys migration. Currently a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Edinburgh University, he is researching practices of walking/belonging within the Scottish Highlands. He holds an MFA in Art & Ecology (University of New Mexico), where he practised inter-species research-collaboration with his donkey Fairuz. christosgalanis.com
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.