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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Death and Taxes: And A Legacy of Grandfathers

My wife's grandfather Miyamoto Kazue died this past weekend.



It was the third stroke that did him in, and he was ill from a bout of cancer as well. I didn't know him extremely well, even though I have visited his house every New Years and Obon (the death holiday here in Japan) for the past five years.

As you might have guessed, the Miyamoto side of my wife's family is her father's side. The family is unique here in Japan in that it is so large. My father-in-law has 10 siblings. The Japanese average is about 1 and 1/2 siblings per household. You can tell he was part of the baby-boom era of Japan's post-war economic revival heyday.

I think the most unique thing to mention about the Miyamoto family is that they are not Buddhist like most Japanese families I know. Rather, they actively practice Shintoism.

It is through their eyes that I am able to glimpse what Shintoism is and how it is practiced. My six years of periodic visits have given me some fascinating multicultural insights into one of Japan's most ancient and mysterious religions.

This was my first time to ever attend a Shinto funeral.

What stood out to me?

Lots of Shinto priests. Lots of vegetables and flowers too.

My father-in-law Kazutaka joked that it was a "flower-festival." They had at least $2,000 worth of flowers. A lot of which got cremated with my wife's grandfather. There were so many flowers the casket lid could barely close! 

So your flowers can join you in your cremation. It is a nice sentiment. It sort of completes the cycle. Something about being a part of nature and having nature be a part of you, going full circle, life to death, from ashes to ashes and dust to dust and all that. At least I felt it was symbolic of that.

The vegetables were there as homage to the various deities in Shintoism--which is largely an animistic-pantheism in that everything has a spirit and even vegetables, and there are hierarchies of deities for these as well--and if you pay tribute to them in the here and now they will provide for you in the afterlife.

Four years ago I attended my wife's mother's father's funeral (Sayaka's other grandpa). Interestingly enough, I wore his old suit to this recent funeral, since I was in need of a new suit and my mother-in-law fished out her dad's old suit for me, considering we're the same height and build, and it fit like a... well... new suit. So I wore the suit of the previous grandfather to the most recent grandfather's funeral. Strange. But somehow fitting.

Five year prior to grandpa Matsuoka's death, my own grandfather died. Every four to five years it seems I lose a grandfather. But the good news is, I have one left. The bad news is, given this very steady statistical trend, I would say he only has about five years left in the hours glass of fate. (That's some black humor, in case the morbidity of grandfathers dying like clockwork didn't seem oddly amusing to you as it does me. I'm a morbid individual, what can I say?)

All in all, I rather like funerals. They are a lot like weddings, where family and friends come together to embrace the life of a loved one. Unlike weddings however, the loved one cannot attend, for obvious reasons, and everyone wears black. This funeral was rather memorable. At least, I thought so.

There were so many cousins and grandchildren, and great grandchildren in attendance. Among whom my daughter was a real crowd pleaser and a show stopper. The laughter of children going up and down the aisles as adults hushed them to try and bring their youthful glee to a gloomier realm of reality just didn't have any effect. I say good. Let the kids remain kids as long as possible.

In the end, there was food, laughter, tears, shared memories, new memories made, and... well... life goes on. We live on with the legacy our grandfathers left behind, in the form of their life's successes as well as failures. But they live on in us, their sons and daughters, their children and great grandchildren.

When looking down into the casket at the unmoving, lifeless, body of her great grandfather, my daughter asked me where did Hi-ji-chan go (Japanese for great grandfather)? Pretty smart for a 2 and11 month year old, if you ask me, to be able to perceive the mind body split. She recognized that something wasn't quite right, that he wasn't breathing like he was at the hospital earlier that week, and in just these past few weeks we had discovered a dead bird in our driveway at home and a dead mouse by the park. Both of which captivated Solara's imagination as she kept asking about them. "Where did they go?" she'd ask. 

She recognizes death means you go away--even though your body remains. But where do you go? Where do any of us go?

I simply replied, "I don't know where we go, hon. But great grandpa lives inside of you. Inside of mommy. In your hearts, and your DNA, and as long as you carry that part of him inside of you--that's where he lives on. And that's where I think we go when we die."

She smiled at me, and then asked me if the dead bird and mouse are inside of us too. I tried to explain how they are different. They are animals. "Well, where do they go?" she asked. "I don't know," I said. "It's just one of those things... I just don't know."

Surprisingly, she seemed satisfied with that answer. 

But I couldn't lie to her. I wasn't going to promise she'd see her great grandfather in heaven again someday, or that she would see that little bird and cute mouse again. I can't know any of that ... not for sure. None of us can.

It just didn't seem right to lie to her about her great grandfather being someplace else. Someplace I couldn't describe. Someplace which, by all accounts, doesn't even exist. Especially not after we did the funeral right of taking the still smoldering remains of his cremated body, and using long wooden (square-shaped) chopsticks, put the remains into an urn

Solara asked why Hi-ji-chan had to be burned. I told her, because it's our tradition (I was secretly thinking of saying, "Because it's the only way he'd fit in there" but decided against it. Nobody ever gets black humor, and it probably is not appropriate for funerals. Weddings on the other hand...). I was proud of the bold curiosity of my daughter. She wanted to see the ash and bones, some of them still glowing orange from the heat, close up. So we took our turn and put some of the fragments of great grandfather into the urn together.

I don't know. The promise of an afterlife seems entirely artificial to me. Manufactured for your benefit. It's morbidly selfish. For me personally, it seems like it diminishes the meaning of this life. If you're just going to live forever and ever anyway, what value is this life? 

This life is only becomes valuable when you realize how priceless it is, because there's just one! 

No second chances. No do overs. No respawning. Once you're gone, you're gone. Dead. Done. Pushing up daisies. 


Besides, why bother to suffer this life if it's all going to be heavenly bliss in the next? As for the concept of hell, the polar opposite of heaven, I find the notion offensively absurd. For those who suffered horrible lives in this life, simple death would be enough of a relief. But to claim they will be punished forever for, get this, not agreeing with you on some myopic religious point of view, seems, not just inhumane, but outright laughable. And that's putting it mildly. Heaven is just the mirror reflection of this exact same absurdity.

Well, that's how I feel about it anyway. So what becomes us after we die?

Well, I imagine it will be a lot like how I was before I was ever born. Just simple, pleasant, non-existence. No worries. Just a listless, dreamless, eternal slumber. 


Meanwhile, my body will be turned to ash, and after a few hundred thousand years or so, given the right conditions, my carbon might be compressed into a diamond, which will get made into a wedding ring for some new couple excited to embark upon the journey of living their one life together.


I don't know, it just seems to me that a truth, no matter how quaint and small, is always more significant than a lie, no matter how sweet and beautiful. 


Truths about the world matter to us because truths inform us. They act as a map to guide us through the difficulties of life.

Lies, well, they're all but smoke screens which make it harder to get to the truths. To live by a lie, even if it is comforting, is the same as living a lie. It collapses into either delusion or denial, and neither one is all that beneficial. You can't find out the truth of things when you're in denial about the world, and you can't learn anything from a delusion.

I would rather teach my daughter the horrible truth about reality--so she can be equipped to deal with reality--than to lie to her and give her false hope. 

Some people think the truth will be damaging. I don't get this point of view. Lies are what I find damaging. Give it ten seconds thought and I think you'll probably agree.

If we build up too many lies we risk the chance of them shattering around us like shards of sharp glass the day we find out the piercing truth of some matter.

Those who think the truth will hurt too much, or that we can soften the truth with half-truths, are those who have simply grown accustomed to the lies they already live. But these lies, they're dodges at best. Ways to get around having to face reality squarely.

Ultimately, all these assumptions about the afterlife, about heaven, are fanciful lies we tell to delay our confrontation with the inevitable revelation which we must, all of us, come to terms with. One day we will be gone. It's only what we leave behind, our own legacy, that matters.

Well, that sums up my thoughts on the matter of funerals and death. Over the past week I've had a lot to think about. Live well and be wise, my friends. Peace!


Advocatus Athesit

Advocatus Athesit