Kotsuage

On 31 Oct 2023, my deceased partner, Janet, was cremated in Hakodate, Japan. She had died an unexpected and accidental death three days earlier. My son, John, was with me. I cannot properly describe my feelings at the time, except perhaps to say they were blackest black. I was grief-stricken to an extreme degree not capable of explanation to anyone who has not actually experienced it themself. I was barely functional. As I described in my last blog (entitled ‘Dealing with Extreme Grief’) I was not anchored in the real world.

John and I waited at the crematorium for Janet’s body to be burnt. The place where we waited was a room comfortable in a cold, clinical, and unadorned way. I seem to remember it had wide windows with views over the beautiful Hakodate harbour. After a couple of hours of waiting, we were invited out, and led to a similar room, but one without windows or view.

Here, waiting for us, was a tray like a guerney, containing smouldering ashes and bones embedded in hot coals still faintly red. Obviously, they were Janet’s ashes and bones. The larger bones, including the skull, were still more or less intact and in place. I imagined I could recognize Janet herself in the laid-out bones.

I was starting to feel horrified, but nothing would prepare me for what came next.

A funeral attendant stepped forward, offering me a pair of chopsticks. It dawned on me that I was being invited to use the chopsticks to transfer the bits of Janet I wanted to keep to a nearby urn.

This was kotsuage, a Japanese funeral tradition. I believe it has its origins in the Shinto religion.

My reaction to events up until this stage had been passive. But now I felt the call to activity. I fled from the room as fast as my legs would carry me.

At first, I excused this procedure on the grounds it was Japanese tradition. But later I decided, tradition notwithstanding, it was gross cultural insensitivity with a distinctively Japanese flavour. Later still, I found I could not lay the blame entirely on the Japanese. I felt the Australian Embassy, with whom I had been in contact earlier regardingg Janet’s death, might have warned me about kotsuage.

They could have headed off an event that distressed me as much as did Janet’s death itself.