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Wednesday, June 21, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The dying truth


In our marriage, my Japanese wife and I have met and resolved oodles of cultural issues, but one fairly thorny matter remains . . . how to face that ultimate marital crisis: death.

My wife insists she wants to die in Japan and be cremated just like a typical Japanese. As for me, I am leaning heavily toward not dying at all and instead moving to Maui. She tells me this is impractical and that I have to face facts like the big, bald boy I have become. But the fact is I have never been to Maui, and as for death, there is no fact I would rather face less.

Underlying our discussion is our unspoken agreement that -- after living all of our working life in Japan -- we will eventually retire in America. A compromise based as much on our bleak bank accounts as our sense of fairness. Yet . . .

"I don't want to be stuffed in a box and buried in a frozen hole in the ground," she pouts. "How awful!" What's worse, I tell her, is the mustache people scribble on your lips just before they close the coffin. There you are, six feet under with a penned-on mustache, and you can't even scratch it.

She asks me if I like the idea of being buried. I answer that it depends on whether or not I have cable TV. "And," I clear my throat, "I hear the ground doesn't freeze in Maui."

Something in my tone makes her think I'm not serious. As for her, she has long since designed her own funeral service, including hymn selections. If she didn't have about 40 years left to kill, she might even select her final garments, half-believing me when I say I'm thinking of dressing her as a Disney character.

As for planning my own death, I argue I first have to start planning my life. "But you never know when your time will come!" I counter that death will always be there. Life, however, flits away faster than bubbles in the breeze. I prefer to catch it while I can.

A distinct unpleasantness of growing older is the increasing number of funerals one is called to attend. Aging relatives and friends, older colleagues and acquaintances -- the list never gets shorter.

Rarely are these funny affairs. Though I do reserve some chuckles for two foreign chums who attended the wrong service by mistake. They lined up at the temple, thinking they were paying homage to their neighbor's mother, only to float to the front of the mourners and find the deceased to be an old man. They bowed politely, then floated out to the receptionist and took back their funeral money. Yet, even then no one slapped their knees with glee.

Personally, I find funerals depressing. I don't even want to attend my own, let alone somebody else's. I also admit I find Japanese services more distressing than the Western version, especially for family members.

The body . . . the blanket of incense . . . the crematorium . . . placing the bones in the urn. Much too grisly for a softy like me.

My wife claims my view is culturally biased, that if I had grown up here I would find the concept of burial just as morbid.

Backing her are our two boys, raised in Japan, who both prefer fire to earth. They spout their selection as casually as choosing vanilla over chocolate.

"Don't you think that oven will be a little hot?" I caution. "But after you're dead, who cares!?" Meanwhile, Dad continues to opt for Maui.

Of course, I know that not even earthly paradise lasts forever. While some in the Christian West fume that cremation is somehow wrong, it seems that the focus of what endures must never be on the body or anything of this poor, pestered planet. But rather on the spirit.

Whether to be buried or cremated (an option available in the West as well) seems to be a decision tailor-made for procrastination. Let me think about it once I'm gone.

Which brings us to the question of who goes first. My wife insists she will lead the way.

Where she gets this view, I do not know. Statistics back the longevity of both women over men and budding plants over couch potatoes, with the only reasoning in her favor being the belief that the good die young. That and the converse belief that men cursed with both bad hair and breath live almost forever.

In this case, however, I must demand she follow me. I do not do this to be a gentleman. Nor am I worried about losing the source of my writing material.

It's because life would be pretty dull without her. Like living my days with the sun gouged out.

So like most international couples, who compromise so much to tie their fortunes together -- or maybe like all committed couples anywhere -- we've decided we'll have to go together.

Not that we're ready to summon Dr. Kevorkian. Or buy his and her coffins (um . . . she says, urns). We just plan to make the most of our remaining time, relying on our faith that ties of the heart will always abide.

Besides, we have yet to see Maui. Who wants to go before then?



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