Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Where the Dead Pause

Book: Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, Marie Mutsuki Mockett

This is a sumptuous book, filled with details and insights into Japanese history, culture, and spirituality. Marie grew up in the United States to an American father and a Japanese mother. After the recent death of her father, she returns to Japan in 2011 to bury the bones of her grandfather, learn how the Japanese grieve, and also to explore the aftereffects of the tsunami.

Marie did what I would want to do, if I had the chutzpah and spoke Japanese. She traveled like a pilgrim, visited Buddhist monasteries and religious sites, spoke to their leaders about grief and the differences between Buddhist sects, and participated in the rites and meditation rituals.

Coming from a Western culture that has largely forgotten how to grieve, Marie details the grieving rituals of Japan that, although fading, still provide an effective way for people to deal with their sorrow in the first years and over the decades. As she describes and joins other pilgrims, we watch Marie travele through her own stages of grief.

There is much about grief here as her family prepares for the funeral. We learn about the communal and individual mourning of the survivors of the tsunami, beliefs about the passage of the dead to the afterlife, the honoring of the departed at household shrines, the welcoming of the dead back each year at the Obon festival, the sending of candles and spirits floating away on the water, the sorting of bones with chopsticks after cremation, and communicating with the dead through mediums.

The truths about grief that people in all cultures face are reinforced – that there is a time when we have to let go of our dead so that we can move on, that people have to adjust to loss, and that the dead always remain in our hearts.

I appreciate how Marie explains Japanese customs, particularly wabi sabi, the belief that a perfect moon is even more beautiful when it is partially obscured by a cloud, an earthen tea bowl when its surface is slightly marred, or the blossoms of cherry trees when they are just past their peak and petals are beginning to drop onto the ground. This is the celebration of beauty and the acceptance of the impermanence of all life.

Marie tells us about people like Kaneta Taio, a Zen Buddhist priest, who prepares himself to care for the thousands of tsunami survivors by listening to Thelonius Monk; Hara Sanaeko, the wise woman innkeeper at desolate Mount Doom; and Sempo, the cousin of Marie’s mother, as he tries to save the family’s temple near the radiation area of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.


This book has a treasured spot on my shelf.

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