Artists Books

The wrapped box is based on the manner in which the Japanese take home the remains of cremations. The box opens into panels that show artifacts related to a short story, The Yen for Death, about the death of my sister-in-law and aspects of Japanese funerary business. The lid of the box contains an accordion-folded book of the story. The photographs are from my father’s funeral in 1969.

Read The Story

Yen for Death

My lovely, energetic sister-in-law is dying. The cancer that began in her stomach is spreading out of control, and her doctor confided in my brother that any day one of her vital organs could fail or she could drop into a coma. Chiyoko, however, maintains she will be well as soon as she gets back her appetite. That is what she was told, and her trust in the doctor is complete. To my eternal frustration and anger, Japanese doctors let patients believe they will recover even when there is no hope, dragging friends and family into their charades. A lie is more compassionate than truth, they say. I think they lack the courage to admit their defeat and helplessness. After all, this is a culture in which saving face is often more important than life.

My brother is in a state of denial. My mother and sister Fumi, who indulge the youngest in the family, are immobilized. I came to Japan to give what support I could. As the eldest, and one less emotionally involved in the situation, I insist we need to get ready for the inevitable. But I am not familiar with the Japanese rituals of death. When my father-in-law died in California, he had pre-arranged his own funeral, and the only thing left for us to do was to organize a memorial service, something we wanted to do with his friends. However, this is Japan, the land of appearances, of form-over-content, where our personal desires are mostly irrelevant.

“Do you know what to do when Chiyoko dies?” I ask during a dinner with Mother and Fumi. “How do we go about holding a funeral? Shouldn’t we at least find out if there is a funeral arranger near by?”

“I don’t really know all that’s involved. Usually a relative makes the funeral arrangements. When your father died, your uncle took care of everything. But he’s no longer around,” Mother says helplessly.

“Well, we are the relatives,” I say, “There’s no one else around.”

“Who can we ask?” Fumi says. “For one thing, we can’t hold the funeral in this small apartment.” Traditionally, the body spends the last evening before being cremated watched over by family and friends at a wake held at the home of the deceased.

Although Mother’s condominium unit, where my brother and his wife also live, is the largest in the building, it has only two rooms.

“When a woman on the 7th floor died, her funeral was held in her apartment,” Mother says.

Fumi and I are incredulous: “No! How did they fit the coffin in the midget elevator? How did they get the body up there? Where did the guests sit?”

For a while, we sit, imagining the unsayable. Finally, Mother says,

“No, we can’t hold the funeral here. We need to find a funeral arranger. Perhaps I should ask the grocer.”

The local grocer has been around for several generations. In the old district of Asakusa, which at one time was the center of Edo (old Tokyo), traditions are painstakingly followed. Mutli-generation families, like the grocer, feel compelled to carry on the old ways and are very active in neighborhood groups called chōnaikai. During the War everyone belonged to a chōnaikai. Consisting of a dozen or more families, members looked after each other. The government used neighborhood organizations to control the flow of information and the behavior of its citizens — actions of each member being the responsibility of the whole group.

“I’m sorry about your daughter-in-law, I didn’t know. I saw her only a few weeks ago and she looked perfectly well. But, you shouldn’t worry about the funeral. Chōnaikaican take care of it for you with the neighborhood funeral arranger. When the time comes just let the chōnaikai president know.”

Mother is instantly relieved, but worries that she is not a member having never attended a meeting or paid any dues.

“I’m sure your condominium fee includes chōnaikai membership fee. Everyone belongs to the chōonaikai. You should ask the condominium president about that, too. Two years ago, we looked after your neighbor. We helped prepare the food, registered the guests, and participated in the funeral services. We can help with anything else you need.”

I whisper to Fumi, “What does the neighborhood group have to do with this? We don’t want all these strangers at the funeral, specially since Chiyoko doesn’t want anyone to know about her cancer.”

The stigma of cancer still runs deep. But, death is a community business, and chōnaikai’sinvolvement is a very nice tradition, a village within a metropolis. At the same time, aside from being a great source for gossips, chōnaikais don’t have much to do these days. I decide to play the contrary daughter from America; it will save Mother’s face.

“My sister-in-law doesn’t want anyone to know she’s even sick. So, we were thinking of a small family funeral somewhere. Perhaps we should consult the funeral arranger, but we don’t even know where his office is.”

It turns out to be only two blocks away, and Fumi and I drag along reluctant Mother who thinks we already have a solution. With a parking area for two or three cars and a simple glass-door front on a quiet street, the funeral home could pass for a small import-export company common in the area. The one-room office is quite large, the wall painted in grayish cream devoid of any decoration. In the center two unmatched desks are butted together, each piled with stacks of paper; a neater desk towards the back face the messy ones. To the right of the entrance a couch and two armchairs surround a coffee table, all in grayish cream. Three men in what looks like black chauffeur’s uniforms sit at the desks — stark silhouettes in a field of drab. A young man closest to the entry looks up. Mother explains the imminent death in the family and that we wish to confer with them. The other two look up. They are surprised we are visiting them when no one is dead.

“Oh. Nobody has died yet? When — is it your husband? — passes away, call us and we’ll take care of everything,” says the senior man sitting in the rear.

Silence. Is he kidding? We want to know what “everything” is and how much that “everything” is going to cost.

Finally, Mother says, “No, it’s not my husband. It’s my daughter-in-law who is in a hospital. We have been told she will not last more than a few days, but we have never arranged a funeral before. For example, how do we get a cremation permit?”

“Oh, no, no. You don’t have to do anything.” The man stands up, takes out his business card, and moves towards an armchair indicating a seat on the sofa for Mother. Fumi and I continue to stand. “As soon as you call us we’ll pick up the body and the death certificate at the hospital. With the certificate, we’ll go get the cremation permit at the ward office. We’ll first deliver the body to your home then to the funeral hall at the appropriate time. We’ll also notify the president of the chōnaikai, who happens to be the president of this company, and we’ll arrange everything you need at the hall.”

Right. We understand the convenient business arrangement. We don’t, however, want the body brought home.

“You mean you want us to take the body directly to the funeral hall? Ah. It’s unusual. The funeral hall will have to have an extra room for the body, since we may not be able to hold the funeral on the same day due to holy days.”

Fumi, who is most familiar with the ins-and-outs of Japanese rituals, says, “That means most Sundays, and I think there is at least one other holy day each week. It’s also getting close to the New Year and there are many holy days around then.”

No funerals can be held for at least the first three days of New Year. It’s now the beginning of December. More the reason for not wanting a body in a small apartment.

“I’m sure we can make some arrangement,” the man continues, “but someone will have to stay with the body and make sure the incense never burns out until the wake can begin.”

“It appears you can take care of everything,” Mother says. “It’s very comforting.”

After a small hesitation, she continues, “This is an awkward thing to discuss, but how much does your service cost?”

“Our service starts at ¥650,000 ($6500) and can go up to over ¥2 million ($20,000). The price depends on the size and elaborateness of the altar, the casket, the type of funeral car, and so on. In addition to our service, you need to consider the costs of a funeral hall rental, the priest, the flowers, food for the guests, the rental cars for funeral procession to the crematorium, and the cremation itself.”

I have a hard time keeping my face neutral; my brother does not have that kind of money. That’s why he’s living with in my mother’s small apartment. And, among the siblings he is the most fanatic about appearances, probably because he can least afford it. How will he manage?

The man continues: “Does she have an posthumous Buddhist name? If not, that is another thing to consider. Since you want a simple funeral, somewhere between ¥1.5 million and ¥2 million should be enough for the whole thing. Of course, the more people you invite, the more money you will collect from your guests, ” alluding to the custom of guests bringing condolence money. Money needed as gifts for weddings and funerals can be substantial, and large companies routinely include it in their expense budget. Death is a big business with no way out for the clients.

“If you tell us how many people you are expecting, we’ll select an appropriate funeral hall for you.”

Fumi looks at me. Before Mother has time to reply, I play the contrary daughter again: “Well, I’d like to look at some options, because I want to make sure the hall is not too big. There is nothing sadder than a small number of people in a large, empty room, don’t you think?”

The other two men are more sympathetic than the manager who has been doing all the talking, and begin to discuss some possibilities. They don’t realize I plan to do some shopping around, a cultural sacrilege. We extract names of some temples and funeral halls.

The underbelly of Asakusa is a necropolis. Every few blocks temples, both legitimate and shady, small and large, elaborate and simple, new and old, are squeezed in among high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes. These days the only business of temples relates to death — cemeteries, funerals, death anniversaries, and obonfestivals (something akin to All Saints Day). Weddings, thanksgivings, exorcisms, and other happy events are the purview of Shinto shrines. Even though death is inevitable, and Tokyo has a large population, temples do not make much money. Donations in the “me first” Tokyo do not amount to much. Supply-and-demand also works against the temples in Asakusa. So, they have gone into the rental hall business. Temples will rent their funeral halls regardless of religious affiliation, where an appropriate priest will come to give the appropriate prayers.

The first temple is two blocks from Mother’s apartment. Away from the traffic-clogged main street of ugly apartments and convenience stores, the streets are quiet and lined with old wooden houses. The temple is small, recently rebuilt. Inside the large traditional gate is a neat graveled front yard large enough for half-a-dozen cars. A large black sedan is parked there. This priest is doing well.

The priest’s wife shows us the facility. Fumi and I like the place; it is new, clean, dignified, and intimate. At ¥150,000 ($1,500) it is on the low end of what we were told to expect. Mother thinks it’s too small. Too small for whom? A woman who doesn’t want anyone to know she has cancer, a woman who doesn’t know she is dying, a woman who is not Mother’s favorite daughter-in-law? Mother is beginning to worry about appearances.

Next, we head to the “Ceremonial Hall,” a five-story funeral hall operated by a confederation of chōnaikais.A good business, I think, especially for our chōnaikaipresident. It is on a corner of a busy intersection five blocks from the temple. The sign out front says there is to be a wake for Mrs. Yamada that evening. No one is at the office, so we decide to explore by ourselves.

On the fourth floor we find a large room set up for the wake. The altar facing the door is about ten feet high made of light, unvarnished wood. In its center is a large photo of smiling Mrs. Yamada, an elderly woman in a kimono. Flanking the altar on both sides, and just as high, are rows and rows of large, white spider chrysanthemums. I do a quick mental calculation guessing each flower at about ¥40,000. The altar and the flowers take up three-quarters of the width of the large room. Thirty-six chairs divided into two sections face each other in front of the altar. By the entry are three tables covered with white tablecloths for guest to register and contribute the condolence money.

On the third floor is a large tatami room where food is to be served. The room, with a scroll of golden Buddha hung at one end, is large enough to hold a hundred people. This place costs ¥250,000. Mother likes it. Fumi and I think it’s too large for a small family funeral. I also don’t like the bland, institutional atmosphere of the place.

Two days later we visit the Higashi Honganji Temple. Mother belongs to the Nishi Honganji sect, which means it is the family’s sect. East or West, they are both Honganji:

“I think it’s close enough,” says Mother, but lists some differences.

“What sect does Chiyoko belong to?” I ask.

As it comes out of my mouth, I realize it’s a dumb question.

“Since she’s married into the Nii family, she belongs to our sect.”

Even a man, if he marries into a family, joins the family’s sect. Another case of form-over-content: what matters is the family’s belief, not the individual’s.

The temple complex takes up the whole block. The main temple is huge, made of concrete fronted with shiny, black granite. It is surrounded by several smaller buildings of indeterminate vintage that forrm a “U.” One of them is a kindergarten run by the temple, reminiscent of the days when temples played significant rolls in the lives of the people. Behind the building complex is a large cemetery.

The metal doors up several flights of stairs to the temple proper are closed. I wander around the compound looking for an office. To my surprise, I spy a man and a woman coming out of the temple. We go up the flight of stairs, and the huge metal doors automatically slide open — surely a wealthy temple. We enter a cavernous room. On the far end sits a large golden Buddha surrounded by a wall of lotus flowers and lanterns, all in gold. (What must the Buddha in his Nirvana think?) The Buddha appears as in a mist behind smoke from the incense. A priest recites a sutra flanked by a small family sitting on tatami floor large enough to seat several hundred. No doubt someone’s meinichi,a death anniversary.

We find an office and inquire about a rental funeral hall. A small middle-aged woman in charge explains they have a couple of facilities, but she is reluctant to show us. Mother shrugs as if to say, “Shōgania–It can’t be helped,” a mantra that comes too easily and too often to the Japanese. I decide it’s no loss to anyone if I’m the rude one:

“We visited the Ceremonial Hall the other day, which we thought was very nice. But since we belong to this sect, we thought it might be more appropriate. It’s very difficult to decide on a place we have never seen.”

“I see. Who is your funeral arranger?”

I drop the name of Mother’s chōnaikaipresident.

“Oh, we know him very well. I didn’t realize the situation. Let me see if anyone is free at the moment.”

This man really gets around.

One facility is too small. The other is complete but quite old and run down. For once, the three of us agree, they are both terrible. Back at the office we are served tea; we cannot escape their pitch. After the condolences, after the merits of the facility, after the price, ¥300,000, the lady in charge asks,

“Does your daughter-in-law have an afterlife Buddhist name?”

Here it comes, I think. I had just this morning seen a newspaper article titled, “Buddhist Monks Accused of Greed in Fees for Posthumous Names.”

“I have heard that posthumous names are not necessary these days,” Mother says, “My mother-in-law had selected a name for my husband, but his grave has only his earthly name on it.” Mother is beginning to think of ways to save some money.

Nobody, including Mother, remembers Father’s afterlife name. I think she even lost his altar marker with his Buddhist name on it the last time she moved. Traditionally, posthumous names were conferred only on Buddhist priests. When temples began to assign afterlife names to lay people, the names became a ranking system reflecting the deceased’s noble actions during life. The names written on funeral markers are supposed to help the dead find a better niche in the afterlife. These days a rank is based almost exclusively on money. Going cheap, therefore, carries a heavy stigma.

“That is strange about your husband’s grave. But, if you are having a Buddhist funeral it is best to have a Buddhist name. Lately, fees for afterlife names have caused great controversies. But, our priests are different, they do not condone the high fees. We charge ¥50,000 for a low rank name of two characters, usually a character each from the priest’s name and the deceased’s name. For a woman, it will require two more characters designating that the deceased is a woman, but there is no additional charge. Of course you can pay more to get better names.”

“What is involved in the higher rank names?” Fumi asks.

“Oh, the name would include a rank, of which there are six for men. The priest can also add his kind words. Of course, there are different ranks for women also, but they rank lower than the men.”

“Excuse my curiosity, but how much does the highest rank cost?” I ask.

“For the highest rank called ingothe fee is ¥1,000,000. Some temples charge more, which I think is too much.”

We are speechless.

Finally, Mother says, “I will certainly discuss these different possibilities with my son.”

“And, after the funeral, is there a family tomb nearby?” the woman continues. “After spending the first forty-nine days at home the ashes can be placed in the tomb. Our priest will be happy to perform the ceremony.”

“Oh, yes. What is the fee for the priest?”

“There really is no fee. But the standard gratuity is ¥200,000. This includes the sutras recited at the wake, the funeral, and daily for the first seven days.”

“We have a family tomb, but this is my second son’s wife. So, of course, she cannot be in our tomb.” A family tomb contains the ashes of many generations and is passed on through the eldest son. Younger sons must fend for themselves and begin their own family tombs. “I’m afraid my son has not built his own tomb yet, especially since they have no children to look after it.”

I know Fumi regrets having bought a tomb recently. She and my brother-in-law have only one daughter, and their family tomb will end with only the two of them, since the daughter will be interred with her own husband.

“It is a very common problem these days, especially in big cities. There is no one to care for the tombs. In any event, we do rent temporary lockers until your son decides what to do.”

“You mean the small boxes that line the walls in the other building?” I ask.

“You’ve seen your grandfather’s,” Mother says to me.

“I’m an only child,” she continues, “and I have rented such a unit for my mother and father in his village in Kumamoto.”

“Perhaps your son should consider the same for himself and his wife. We will take good care of them. On special anniversaries, we take the ashes to the main complex and recite the appropriate sutras.”

And the cost?

“A permanent locker can be purchased for ¥750,000, or you can rent it for ¥150,000 a year. This includes a monthly sutra reading, and the family is welcome to visit the ashes twice a month at the main altar. When your son is older, he may wish to sign up for the ‘eternal care,’ which is a one-time fee of ¥1,500,000.”

“I assume the care is not really forever,” Fumi says.

“No. The ‘eternal care’ lasts for fifty years, after which the ashes will be moved to a special grave, a grave-of-souls-with-no-relations, and be interred with others in the same situation.”

This is what happens, end up in a mass grave, if you fail to produce a boy child, Fumi’s and my fate. But, fifty-year eternity isn’t so bad, I think, especially if you’re already dead and don’t care about anything anyway.

It is now mid-December, and Fumi and I visit Chiyoko at the hospital. She looks surprisingly good, better than when we saw her two weeks ago. She still looks younger than her 46 years. However, she can no longer walk. She may appear well because she is getting morphine and high-energy intravenous shots, the doctor says, but her insides are in a bad state.

Chiyoko’s mother has finally come from Kyushu to help my brother take care of her daughter. Japanese nurses are responsible only for the patients’ medical needs; all other care is the responsibility of the family, and someone must stay with the patient 24-hours a day. Mother has been angry because Chiyoko’s mother has not called to thank the family, the proper thing to do. She has not visited Chiyoko even once during her two-year struggle. Illness of her eldest and favorite daughter; denial is understandable. At least Chiyoko has her mother now.

Fumi and I meet our brother for dinner. He cannot eat. He says,

“Our infant son died on the 26th of December. This year is his 13th death anniversary, and I have a feeling he will come for his mother on the 26th.”

Fumi calls the next day and says,

“You know, I just remembered I’m a member of the ‘Weddings and Funerals Society.’ Maybe Chiyoko is covered.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“It’s an organization into which you pay a monthly fee, and when you’ve accumulated enough money you can use it for weddings and funerals.”

“Like a Christmas Savings Plan, except for death?”

“Something like that. I joined thinking I would save for Miki’s wedding, but I know they do funerals, too.”

“How much have you accumulated?”

“They have many different plans, but I have one for ¥300,000 completed.”

“That’s not nearly enough, do you think?”

“Well, you can always add more money. But the point is, we can use their facilities and services.”

It turns out the Society provides a funeral arranger, a funeral hall, food, room and bath for those attending the all-night vigil, everything — even a nearby crematorium — with one phone call. The Society owns several buildings, some with Shinto altars and chapels for weddings and some with Buddhist altars for funerals. Japan is a merchant society. Weddings and funerals are the most elaborate and costly in the world, and more money making rituals are added every year. The most expensive funeral service, at ¥7 million, includes a roomful of cloud of dry-ice — a simulation of heavenly mist, or perhaps of hellish smoke. The Weddings and Funerals Society is a brilliant business idea.

“I’ll call them and find out if we can use their facility,” Fumi says.

Chiyoko lives through December, and with the help of morphine she is in good spirits. By the last day of December her body is ready to give up. Somehow, her doctor keeps her alive until January 5th when all the holy days are over.

Chiyoko’s funeral is held at one of the Weddings and Funerals Society’s buildings. The funeral is larger and more elaborate than we expected. Her doctor does not attend, but her friends and former co-workers come, invited by her sisters. Her former employers and my brother’s company send large wreaths, and the siblings send huge bouquets — all prominently displayed with the donors’ names, all easily available from the Club. And, Chiyoko’s picture and an altar marker with her afterlife name sit in the middle of a large, black lacquered altar trimmed in gold. Because so many funerals were postponed due to the New Year, the altar my brother requested was not available. Chiyoko, therefore, got an upgrade. Everything looks great, enhancing both my brother’s and the family’s “face”.

My brother borrows ¥2.5 million from his company to pay for the wake and the funeral. Of course, the funeral is not the end of it. After the important 49-day mourning period is over and the ashes are laid to rest, he will have to send thank-you gifts to everyone who attended. And the spirit must continue to be comforted by hired priests on the 3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th… death anniversaries. In Japan, death never ends.

Urn, 9″h x 4.5″ x 4.5″
Panel opens to 8″h x 18″w
Accordion book, 5″ x 5″

The Yen for Death, a story.

Architectural book environment. Double-hinged panels forming a box (originator Kumi Korf) in the form of a Japanese funerary urn.

Photo images printed on Japanese rice paper. Altar decoration in mixed media.


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