海洋散骨: The Procession
When I die, the nurse will first wipe my body with lukewarm water. My skin and hair will be patted dry and my ears and mouth will be stuffed with cotton. The mortician will apply some blush on my cheeks and smoothen my skin with light powder on top. When I’m presented to my children, grandchildren, and friends who’ve made healthier choices and with heart still beating, they will peer over the coffin and see that I look both unrecognizable and just like me at the same time years ago who laughed and ate and had opinions. The back of their eyes will begin to burn as tears come rushing forward but hopefully, they will smile, not cry, and cover me with pink and yellow flowers around the face and chest.
I simulate this procession from my great-grandmother’s passing this May.
Traditionally, Japan will practice a Buddhist funeral for the deceased. When my grandfather who I barely knew and my mother’s best friend from college had become devoid of fertility and growth, an altar was prepared, the living silently sat in rows in all-black clothes, a monk chanted while relatives repressed sniffles and their younger counterparts fumbled, the body was cremated, and their ashes were buried in their family grave and severed from the world. Then for years and years, the family visited the grave, cleaned it with water, offered food and flowers, and put their hands together. However, in recent years, Japan has begun to grow acceptance of nontraditional funerals.
During the coming months of my great-grandmother, a long-time schizophrenic and caretaker of my rambunctious grandmother, reaching asystole, my mother sat me down and suggested we distribute her ashes on the Tokyo Bay. “That way, you can visit her anywhere,” my mother explained. “You don’t need to be in Japan to feel her or any of us when we eventually join her.” Approaching my eighth year of living in the United States, I thought of the Pacific Ocean and agreed.
So after my grandmother and her sister stepped away from her coffin with damp eyes, my mother gestured me forward. I peered over, saw Mitsue-obaachan sleeping inside, and placed a yellow flower beside her cheek. I thought about how she only had four people at her funeral, no friends, no husband, just her two daughters with wrinkled skin, now 67 and 71, her granddaughter, and great-granddaughter that is me, and felt the burn in the back of my eyes and decided to stop thinking about this. My great-grandmother was ninety-three. She had lived a long life.
After she came out of the cremation chamber, my grandmother and my grandmother’s sister took a pair of chopsticks each and one by one, picked a bone together and placed them inside the urn. Slowly, so they didn’t drop it. My mother and I then came forward and picked up a few more of her tired and dusty bones and plopped them in the urn.
I wondered while doing this where she was. I wondered if she was watching this somewhere, watching her great-granddaughter, who I’m sure she hardly remembers, at least not this grown-up, and her granddaughter, who she made food for and took care of when she caught a cold, and who was now my mother, picking up her bones and dropping them into the urn. Watching her two daughters holding back tears as their mother, who was so grand that she could create and carry them in her womb, had now become so colorless and odorless and had no words left to say. I wondered what she thought of this. But she wasn’t thinking and that was the point.
A few days later, us and her inside the urn, rode out on a boat to the Tokyo Bay. Terrified of sitting inside a small and rocky boat, my grandma’s smooth hands gripped tight onto mine. I pressed down on a vein and thought of age. On the other end, my mother stared through the sea and watched particles of hope and misery bounce on the rippled surface of the earth.
The boat came to a stop past the Yokohama Bay Bridge and the funeral directors had powdered and packaged my great-grandmother’s bones in square, soluble paper bags. You can write a message to her, they said as they passed us each a square of her. The tides were rough and tempestuous just like my great-grandmother so the boat began to twitch violently and we hastily wrote in dark blue pen “mata ne” — “again, okay?”
We let her fall into the perils and bounty of the sea and watched her flutter and dance farther into the ocean, now formless and free from every crack of incessant misery. We showered this woman, who we knew once before, with more flower petals and plenty of Japanese sake. She drank this and serenaded, swaying back and forth between this planet and the next. She was saying thank you, waving us goodbye, and rushed away in opposite direction. Turning my head towards the god of our sea, the ryūjin, I asked, “what are we fighting for?” but the huge dragon hopped away and the sea fell silent.
Right now, as surviving ornaments, we are all far away. My grandmother lives in Japan, my mother lives on the island of Oahu, and I live in New York City. But my great-grandmother is both a flower petal and a scale on the dragon. She is a grain that connects all three of us, a drop in all of our seas. When my grandmother dies, she will join her, as will my mother. I look forward as well to be away from everything and be one with her, my grandmother, and my mother. Four blurs on the sea, no longer transitory humans, rocking in each other’s arms forever at ease. I think about all of this as I am riding on the F train to Coney Island Beach. I look down at my palm and retrace the words I once wrote in dark blue pen as the train cart sways me back and forth through particles of thinking and time.
Rio Hayashi is a photographer and aspiring editor from Yokohama, Japan. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has also lived in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her work on riohayashi.com explores silence, intimacy, and the raw human experience. She currently lives in New York City.