Tomb Fires

     Seven weeks of mourning. It was time to return to the rhythm of life.
     I had gone to Ishigaki, an island at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, for the first and then again for the final ceremony in the seven weeks following the death of my girlfriend Sanae’s father.
     The last of the ceremonies was now over, final prayers had been offered, and we had all had a final meal along with a full plate for the father. It was time to take down the center of all the activity, a display of flowers, pictures, lights and decorations, predominantly in white, green and bronze, before which members of the community bowed, lit incense, offered their contribution, and made a prayer.
     Finally the men in the extended family could do something other than sit cross-legged and bow and wait. We carried the low table holding up the huge display towards the front of the main room, where all the wall panels had been removed.
     We loaded the display and everything from the 49 days of mourning into bags and into a farming truck, all the artificial decorations, lists of contributions, holders for flowers, anything that would burn.
     I rode with Tadahiro, Sanae’s brother, as he drove the truck for about a mile and then onto a narrow, rough dirt track in the middle of sugarcane fields. It was the road to the family tomb, a dark gray concrete enclosure set next to few other tombs and surrounded by long, green cane.
     It was just men that went along, with water and matches and beers. We put the remnants of the weeks of mourning into two piles in front of the tomb, and burned it all. Heavy black smoke drifted up the hill. I was about to put into the fire a set of papers with careful hand-writing, listing all the contributions from the members of the village. I hesitated, wondering if the list should be kept.
     “Kore mo,” that too, repeated Tadahiro who was stirring one of the flaming piles with a cane pole.
      A huge old bottle of sake had been removed from the tomb and left outside, when the tomb was opened seven weeks ago to place his father’s ashes inside. The bottle had been inside the tomb for 25 years, placed there when his grandfather died.
     Tadahiro poured some of the sake on the flames to boost them in their cleansing task. A terrible waste, in my opinion, of the spirit of the spirits.
     We took down the 20-foot poles and folded the long, white, hanging banners that had flapped in front of the tomb for seven weeks. Eventually, there was nothing left of the burning piles but two small mounds on the ground.
     One of the men poured water onto the ashes that hissed slightly.
     An ice-box was then brought out of the mini-truck and the men broke out tall cans of beer and tall cans of tea. We stood and drank, with some relaxed conversation and laughter.
     As we rode slowly away on the bumpy dirt track, I looked back at the tombs. A pair of huge black crows had descended onto one of them, one that had just been opened, with fresh banners hanging. They were looking for any offerings left behind.
     Seven weeks ago, I had come to the same place, when Tadahiro placed the urn and a fresh bottle of sake inside the tomb.
     In the morning of that day, we had gone to the mortuary, a simple, concrete-floored hall on a rise among cane fields. I helped carry the casket into the hall.
     Once the guests were assembled on wooden benches, men on one side of the hall, women on the other, the tall, scarecrow of a monk, made taller by wooden sandals that sat on inch-high wooden rims, swept through the bright sunlight of the doorway, brown robes flapping.
     He strode up to the altar in the center of the spare, shaded hall with four big oven doors at the other end.
     The monk chanted in a deep, slightly raspy voice from way back in the throat, ending with a long resonant hum that faded lower and then to nothing, like the sound of a motorbike receding into the distance. Two workmen in rubber boots then opened one of the heavy metal doors and an automated track pulled the casket through the doors, as the hiss of gas flames deepened into a dull roar.
     We came back three hours later.
     What was left was spread on a pallet on the rail where the casket had earlier been placed. The fading heat of the oven could still be felt. After another long chant from the monk, the guests lined up on either side of the altar. We all took pairs of chopsticks, walked forward to the pallet, and used them to place the whitened remnants of the old man’s bones into an urn. A worker helped tamp them down.
     Tadahiro drove with the urn to the family tomb. The heavy concrete slab sealing the front of the tomb was pried open and lifted aside, and the urn placed inside. All the guests then had a meal, talking, drinking from tall cans of beer or green tea, alongside a full plate of food placed at the entrance to the tomb.

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