This week my family buried my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who passed away a little over a week before at the age of 96. It was a long time coming, at the end of a long life, and while we are sad, we also know that the pain that plagued her in recent years and months can no longer hurt her.
It was my daughters’ first funeral. Not a milestone a parent can really prepare for, no matter how inevitable. I knew that my happy, dance-y four-year-old would be fine, seeing the event only as an occasion to meet new people and wear a new dress. I was worried about her eight-year-old sister, though, my sensitive, thoughtful girl who is old enough to understand what is going on but who seems to have inherited, for better or worse, her father’s tendency to both feel things deeply and be unable to easily express those feelings to oneself or others in a way that can help with processing those feelings and moving forward.
Though physical distance and my grandmother’s progressively worsening health had made visits with her infrequent at best, The Pumpkin had spent time with her at family gatherings over the years, especially before she became infirm enough to warrant nursing home care. The Pumpkin knows the woman we raised her to call “Bachan,” has memories of her. (To a lesser degree, her little sister does too—every time she would see the poster collage I made for the service from photos of my grandmother, The Button would point and happily exclaim, “It’s Bachan!”) She knows what death is, through her friends who have lost loved ones, but especially from the loss of our dear family dog, Waldo, who greeted her upon her arrival home from the hospital as a newborn, whose name was her first word, and who passed away after a long, quiet battle with cancer when The Pumpkin was six.
But death is not something I’ve talked about much with her, and so, a couple days before the funeral, as we sat side-by-side reading, I asked her if she had any questions, either about the end of life, or Bachan’s death, or what was going to happen at the funeral. That was more concrete, perhaps, more right-in-front-of-her, more graspable, and so she said yes, she wanted to know what would happen at the funeral. And so I told her about how there would be a ceremony in the cemetary chapel, with Bachan’s body dressed up and made up so that she looked like she was sleeping in a casket, and how it would be open so that people could look at her one last time to say goodbye but that she didn’t have to go up there if she didn’t want to. I told her that the Japanese American Buddhist minister who married her grandmother and grandfather would chant in Sanskrit and ring a bell, sort of like the hymns sung by the choir in the Catholic and Episcopalian services she’d been to. (My mother would later play them a video of such chanting so they would know what it sounded like beforehand.) I told her that different people and different religions have different beliefs about what does or does not happen after death, and just as she was familiar with the Christian beliefs of her mother and her family about God and souls and heaven, she would hear the
Buddhist reverend talk about a different belief, the one her grandmother was brought up with. I didn’t complicate matters by trying to explain what I do or do not believe, and luckily, she didn’t ask me. Maybe she just knew.
I told her that at some point, everyone would be invited to come up and drop a pinch of incense in a burner, bow, and then say goodbye to Bachan, and that, again, she could go or stay, or even go up with me, it was up to her and how she felt at the moment.I told her that my mom’s brother, father of her 9- and 5-year-old second cousins with whom she was excited to play, would talk about Bachan’s life, and that I would thank everyone for coming on behalf of the family and invite them to join us for a meal afterwards, and hat for some reason, the traditional thing to do after a Japanese American funeral was to go out for Chinese food, which she was excited about. And I told her that after the chapel ceremony was over, Grandpa, some other family members, and I would help move the casket to the big black car which would take it to the grave site, and all of us would follow it there, where we would say a final goodbye to Bachan. And I reminded her that it was important for all of us to be there for Grandma and let her know we loved her and were there for her. Did she have any questions, about anything? No, she said. We continued to sit there, reading, separately but together. I think just knowing what was going to happen when, the process of the thing, helped to set her at ease a bit.
Somehow, as the funeral got underway, we got separated. I sat with my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my great-uncle, who had lost two sisters in less than a month and was now, at 92, the last of five siblings left (six if you include the first-born girl who died as a baby not long after my grandmother’s birth and about whom no one of my mom’s generation had known until they started doing research for my great-aunt’s funeral a few weeks ago). My wife had taken The Button to a pew further back, near her parents, my dear parents-in-law who had come to show their support, in case she needed to take our rambunctious little one outside—we needn’t have worried, as the minister’s sutra chanting lulled her to sleep in her mama’s lap for an unexpected nap. But The Pumpkin had wanted to stay with her cousins, and so ended up across the aisle from us, sitting next to my uncle’s oldest while his wife had her hands full with the twins. I looked across, beckoning her to sit by me whenever she looked my way, but she shook her head no. I kept watching her face, worried, wanting her to be okay, wanting to be able to pull her close and nestle her by my side, arm around her, to kiss her hair and let her know that everything was going to be okay, that she was allowed to feel anything she needed to feel.
I watched her as she watched the minister chant, strike his bell, burn incense. I watched her as the family started to queue up to burn incense, bow, and approach the casket, holding my hand out to her to ask if she wanted to go up with me, but she shook her head no and stayed on the bench with her cousin. I watched her as my uncle gave a combination of a eulogy and the family history common at Japanese American Buddhist funerals, weaving the story of my grandmother’s family with the story of his own, at times rocky, relationship with his mother and what he had learned from her by the end of her life. I watched her face, serious and beautiful, as the minister read the Letter on White Ashes, a Jodo Shinshu text about the impermanence of life, and then talk about what the ideas about death held by this sect of Buddhism, which comprises a large portion of the Japanese American community, mean for the living.
Life is short. Wake up. Live.
Every funeral, every memorial service, every pinch of incense, every bow—each one is a reminder:
Life is short. Wake up. Live.
As I watched my daughter walk up to her great-grandmother’s casket with her cousin after the ceremony was concluded, as I put my arm around my mother’s shoulder, shook my uncle’s hand, hugged my great-uncle, as I helped my father and my cousins carry my great-grandmother to and from the hearse, as I watched my daughter happily hand out flowers to the assembled to place on the casket at the grave site and then place one of her own on both the casket and on the headstone of the great-grandfather she never got to meet, as I watched both my girls dance and run and play with their cousins in between mouthfuls in the banquet room of the Chinese restaurant, as I clasped my wife’s hand in mine in silent thanks, that is what echoed in my mind.
Life is short.
For them, and for me, live.