What one experiences at the scene of a death is a deep recognition of perpetuity and eternity.
For a long time I worked at a Japanese funeral home, washing and preparing the bodies of the deceased to be placed in their coffins. The washing and preparing involves wiping the bodies of the deceased with alcohol, dressing them in Buddhist shrouds, arranging their hair and applying makeup to the faces, joining the hands together so that they are holding prayer beads - everything leading up to placement of the body in the coffin.
In the course of coming into contact with some three thousand deceased bodies, I developed something like my own personal philosophy, which is what I would like to discuss here.
Most people fear death and try to avoid it. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca said the reason people feared death was that the sight of a decomposing corpse terrified them. That is absolutely true.
The fact is, however, that the faces of people who have just died of natural causes, whose bodies are still warm, all bear pleasant expressions. If you view the serene expression on the face of someone who has just died, you will have a quite different attitude about death than if you have not.
One cannot know the true aspect of death until one witnesses the exact moment when a death occurs. What I am trying to say is that a person who has been present at the time of death will later act completely differently from someone who has not.
What one experiences at the scene of a death is a deep recognition of perpetuity and eternity that is like the passing of the relay baton of life from one person to another.
Unfortunately, though, as opportunities to be present at a death become fewer and fewer, we develop an attachment only to our own lives, the finite lives that last only from the time we are born until we die.
Without Exception Everything Shines
When I was starting this line of work, I was treated like a pariah because I was constantly involved with the dead. I had a low opinion of myself, as well. I thought of quitting many times out of consideration for my wife and children.
Each time I would get ready to write a letter of resignation, however, something strange and unexpected would happen to keep me from quitting my job. One such incident was the approaching death of an uncle.
This uncle had cut off all ties with me because of my line of work. Frankly, I also felt ashamed of having become a lowly "coffinman" and disappointing people like my uncle. Then one day his wife notified me that my uncle would probably pass away that evening from his terminal cancer, and so I reluctantly headed to the hospital where he was a patient.
When I entered his room, however, the uncle who had coldly said, "Don't bother contacting that one," extended a shaky hand as soon as he saw me, and with tears streaming down his face offered his thanks. He had such a tranquil look on his face that at that moment tears welled up in my eyes, too, and without thinking I fell to my knees. In one instant all the ill will I had felt toward my uncle blew away. He died peacefully not long after I had returned home.
Some time later, a friend gave me a volume of the collected writings of the late Dr. Kazukiyo Imura, published posthumously. I was deeply struck by the description in the book of what Dr. Imura felt when he learned that his terminal cancer had metastasized throughout his body.
Dr. Imura had resolved to keep walking as long as he could, even if the cancer spread, and on that particular day he saw a strange sight. He wrote, "Customers heading to a supermarket to shop appeared to be shining, little children running about appeared to be shining. Dogs, the drooping heads of stalks of rice, weeds, even tiny pebbles, all appeared to be shining. When I returned home, my wife appeared to be shining, to such an extent that I wanted to put my hands together in reverence."
I thought that Dr. Imura saw what he viewed either because his life and his death were coming closer to each other or because it was the point at which he accepted the fact of death 100 percent. My uncle, on the brink of drawing his last breath, probably also saw everything shine. This is the radiance of the world that we who cannot accept the inevitability of death do not see, the world where life and death are two sides of the same coin.
It dawned on me that the work of washing the bodies of the deceased and placing them in their coffins was actually helping them journey to a world in which everything shines without exception. I realized that this was the reason I do my wholehearted best to make the deceased beautiful. That is one of the starting points.
A Gentle, Harmonious Atmosphere
The entire truth is revealed only at the place and time of a death. If one of your parents is at death's door, it is wrong to think that it is enough for you just to attend the funeral. By the time the funeral is held, it is too late; the face of the deceased will have become a death mask.
Those of us who have worked a long time in the funeral business can tell what the family situation is like in a home the moment we enter it. If we can sense that if a family shares a gentle, harmonious relationship even in their grief, it is because they all were able to gather around the deceased before death occurred.
I would like to close with a poem I wrote after visiting my uncle's deathbed.
All people must die,
Death is a passing of the baton in life's relay race.
The people who have faced death and are passing on say,
The people left behind reply,
And the baton passes like that.
Those who avert their eyes from death may not see it,
But there is a baton pass that takes place
Eye to eye
At the moment of death.
Shinmon Aoki was born in Toyama Prefecture in 1937. After leaving Waseda University in Tokyo, he managed a restaurant in his native prefecture while aiming at a literary career. The restaurant failed, and he went to work at a funeral home. His bestselling book, Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, was set in such a funeral home. A Japanese film loosely based on the book, titled Departures in English, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2008.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.