THE SOCIAL practices surrounding death are probably among the most definitive of a people’s way of life. What we do in the face of our loved ones’ passing, how we prepare them for burial or cremation, etc., speak eloquently about our understanding of the meaning of human existence. Perhaps it is safe to say that we tend to know more today about how to live than how to die.
As we move away from traditional culture, we tend to become more awkward and more uncertain about what to do in the event of a death. We find ourselves groping for secure criteria to help us choose correctly from the plethora of options that confront us. Modernity cultivates such an obsession with the rational organization of life and its prolongation that it tends to make us forget about death.
The handling of the dead becomes increasingly the exclusive affair of institutions like hospitals and funeral parlors. The advantage of this, of course, is that members of the immediate family are spared of having to worry about what to do with the corpse, thus giving them more time to think of the other “more” important things—relatives and friends to notify, bank accounts to close, hospital bills and burial expenses to settle and, as is commonly the case nowadays, what to serve at the wake. The modern institutional curtain can, however, be so drawn as to completely strip the departure moment of its personal dimension. Simple societies do not have this problem. The rituals for the dead are strictly observed by the family, with the assistance of a religious or cultural figure from the community who guides the whole process.
The Japanese movie, “Departures” (Okuribito), which won the 2009 Oscar award for Best Foreign Language film, is a sublime depiction of how a small funeral parlor in a remote region in Japan tried to bring back the reverence and gentleness that characterized the traditional way of preparing the dead. The undertaker, locally known as a “Nokanashi,” literally someone who prepares the dead for transfer into a coffin, transforms the simple act of cleaning and dressing up a corpse into a graceful and elegant ritual performed in front of the family.
The body lies on a mat on the floor, covered with a white sheet. The “encoffiner” kneels before it and proceeds to wash it with a towel without exposing any part of the body, except the face. Every movement he makes is minimal and necessary. He does this with such solemnity and silence that the simple act of washing takes on the symbolic quality of an ancient incantation. At a certain point, he hands the towel to the members of the family who are watching and invites them to wipe the face of the departed. Then, part by part, he slips a fresh kimono onto the cadaver, making sure no skin is ever shown in the process. Finally, working from a photograph, he proceeds to apply makeup on the pale face before him to recreate a likeness of the person they know. When he is done, he bows before the remains and the family, and withdraws from the scene as unobtrusively as when he entered it.
This quiet moment has a strangely calming effect on the bereaved who have gathered around the corpse. The witnessing becomes their way of accompanying the loved one on the final stage of her journey. When I saw “Okuribito” a year ago, I remember being struck by the contrasts it brings up when seen in the light of modern practices. Today, more likely than not, a dead person will be left completely alone while the funeral parlor mortician or embalmer prepares him or her for the viewing that follows. This normally takes several hours, and members of the family usually prefer not to be in the mortician’s room while the corpse is being prepared.
That this procedure is not undertaken even by seasoned morticians as if it were merely a job is evident from a recent TV interview with Frank Malabed, who is reputed to be “the mortician of the rich and famous.” It was he who attended to the remains of famous figures like Ferdinand Marcos, Ninoy Aquino, and, more recently, Jesse Robredo. Malabed said (I am translating from his Filipino): “As much as possible, I speak to the dead person. You know, although he is lifeless now, he is still a human being. You can still talk to him and plead, ‘Don’t make it difficult for me. I will make you look good, and I will do my best to fix you well.’ That’s what I do, after saying a prayer.”
Departures are wrenching moments, and every culture creates its own way of easing them. Religious ones do this by projecting a life that does not end with death but only gets transformed. Secular worldviews reject this illusion and, with it, often the entire stock of cultural tools that had made it easy for past generations to find meaning in death. The modern world has generally not been very good at filling up the spaces vacated by religious rituals. There remains in us, says Jurgen Habermas, an agnostic, the acute “awareness of something missing” that techno-rational culture has not been able to address in any satisfying way.
When I was about 10 years old, I caught a glimpse of my grandmother who had died during the night in her bedroom. As the embalmer worked on her remains, inserting long metal tubes and pumping stale body fluids out of her system, I stood by the half-open door wondering if she could feel any pain. Something pushed me to go in and watch even if I could not stand gazing at what was being done to her diseased body. During that very intimate moment, I began to grieve over her sad and difficult life, while recalling her gentle nature and generosity as a human being. I felt privileged to be there to assist in her departure. In my heart I could sense she was happy that I had kept her company. And that thought greatly eased my own sadness.