Although Japanese funerals may seem different, the heart of the ritual is always the same: celebrating the lives of the ones we love.


This past month I lost a friend to cancer. She was my age. I met her in Japan and had many good times there with her and the group of friends we shared. Unfortunately, I could not attend her funeral as I now live in Edmonton. Another friend opened a Facebook page so we could post photos of her and so her family could see how important and precious she was to so many people. That became the place where I could celebrate her life.

I felt a little left out as I could not attend her service. I could not be there among the flowers and incense to listen to the Buddhist priest ring his chimes. I couldn’t listen to him chant for her soul to be at peace and wish her well on her next journey. I could not line up solemnly, grab a few grains of incense between my fingers, bring them to my forehead and sprinkle them on the tiny, smouldering embers before me. I had to pray for her in my own way.

I think about my time in Japan and the many funerals I did attend. There were far too many. The first funeral I attended was for a colleague from school. I was extremely nervous, as my Japanese skills were not yet existent. I also had no idea what to expect. First of all, the greeting you are supposed to say to the family of someone who has passed away is a tricky mouthful. I repeatedly practised the word, goshuushosamadesu, until I quit sounding like someone who’d had far too many shots of sake. It is alarmingly similar to the word gochisosamadesu, which you would say after a meal, roughly meaning, “Thank you for dinner.” I just thought, please, don’t let me make that mistake!

The thing that made me most worried, however, was the lineup to pay your respects and offer a pinch of incense to the Buddhist gods. There is a specific order of bows and it differs between a Buddhist and Shinto ceremony. My friend just told me to follow and watch her. It was all very awkward but I managed to pull it off rather gracefully.

I remember hearing a story about a famous TV entertainer from Africa who also was told to watch and follow at a Japanese funeral. He was standing behind his friend, so he could not see exactly what he was doing, and assumed that instead of bringing the incense to his forehead he was supposed to eat it. Which he did. Putting yourself into a new culture sometimes results in these unfortunate, but humorous situations.

It is with humour and smiles that I will remember my beautiful friend. She was a soul who went too early and left us wishing for more. No funeral, no matter how lovely, could ever take away the sadness or pain of losing a friend or loved one, but it helps to congregate in ceremony, to acknowledge our love. Rest in peace, my beautiful friend.

SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe