Mount Fuji

What not to do in Japan: die 


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Aug. 6th, 2005, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

As a veteran resident approaching his 28th year in Japan, I would like to offer some simple advice to tourists, newbies and fellow graybeards as well. Which is:

Do not die here. I'll wager you will not enjoy it.

This is not a comment about final destinations, or even about the port of embarkation. For I suspect in the larger picture of life, Tokyo or Osaka are just as fine for dying as Tahiti, Palm Springs or Maui. At that point, one is supposed to savor the moment and not the locale.

It's what comes next that I would like to warn you about: the bill.

Now I myself have not yet died, although readers will sometimes question the health of my prose. Whatever, I did live with a dead person for four days last year and thus consider myself somewhat of an expert on death's resounding knock, especially when it comes to paying for it.

No matter the country, funeral companies rarely offer discounts. Mark Twain once commented on how the price of a plain wooden box can skyrocket if you stick a corpse in it. Still, when my elderly mother-in-law passed away last spring, I was unprepared for how much yen would soon go up in smoke with her.

Grandma — that feather of a woman who had dwindled her last eight years as a mellow member of our household — was gone. After a lengthy cry, my wife went to telephone family members while I sat beside Grandma and stumbled through small talk about how fine she looked, how warm the weather was and what a lousy son-in-law I had been. I could have sworn I saw her nod.

My wife interrupted to announce that the phone calls had all been made, including a hurried buzz to a party she had almost forgotten — an undertaking firm.

Nobody better than an undertaker understands that death takes pause for no one. Hence, the company car arrived in a heartbeat. Two men stepped out and they came bearing gifts. To be precise, they brought dry ice. Which seemed to be just what Grandma wanted.

After an exchange of introductions, a moment of paying respects and then the solemn packing of the ice, we retired — with Grandma's now chilly approval — to the living room to discuss the arrangements.

At this point we learned why the men had come as a team, for they soon began to play "good undertaker, bad undertaker."

The Good Undertaker seemed almost overcome with grief. He opened his catalog and humbly presented his company's three funeral packages, which I will label "Very Expensive," "Double That" and "The King Tut Plan."

"But," the man choked, "don't worry about costs. We will work something out that will be meaningful and match your budget as well."

"That's right," spoke the Bad Undertaker. "Yet you should know that most people who choose the first package end up being haunted. And then they lose all their friends for being so cheap. Not that we would ever tell anyone, of course." This he offered in a voice not quite loud enough to wake the dead, but one surely audible to our neighbors.

So we chose the "Double That" package. Next we had to decide on options.

"It's a small thing," said the Good Undertaker, "but would you like the dearly departed's funeral portrait to be ringed with flowers?"

We asked what was the difference.

"Thirty thousand yen more," said the Bad Undertaker. "That and the fact that only people with flowers can get into heaven. That's basic eschatology." 

A posher Japanese hearseWe chose flowers. Next we were asked if we required a hearse, for it was not part of the package. Faced with the sweaty picture of my wife and I lugging Grandma's coffin across Tokyo, I said: "Why, yes. A hearse does sound convenient."

"Fine, fine. Now . . . would you like a driver for that?"

A driver was not part of the package. Neither was his honorarium, nor honorariums to the various crematorium workers, over and above their regular salaries, plus oodles of other extras including funeral munchies to eat while the family waited for the oven to perform its final, grim duty. If you're wondering about the difference between funeral munchies and regular munchies, the answer is a 300 percent markup.

But this was all for Grandma, so we said, "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" until at last the Bad Undertaker wore a smile. But the next question was this:

"Now, how would you like her DNA? Set in this attractive bracelet or in this rather tasteful pendant?" The Good Undertaker showed us photos.

DNA? We scrunched our brows. "Does this mean . . . we can have her cloned?"

"You never know. The world is changing and one day some DNA might come in handy."

The prospect of having a tiny version of Grandma crawling about was too much to imagine, even though it did provide a solution for the older model's remaining diapers. Yet we declined the DNA.

"You can't. It's part of the package."

At this point, I decided to retire from the discussion and go sit with Grandma. With her, at least, I knew the conversation would be intelligent.

My wife eventually nodded to even more extras and then the men promised to return in the morning — with more dry ice . . . and perhaps a few more charges. How much? In general terms, enough to fly to Tahiti, Maui or Palm Springs and die there in style.

"Remind me," I told my wife. "never to die. I can't afford it. It's one side of Japanese culture I think I'll skip."

"Hush. This is not a time to quibble over costs. My mother would agree."

Grandma, however, proved as patient with my humor in death as she did in life . . . and offered no comment.

Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".