All in the Family: Till Death Do Us…Together

Attending a Japanese funeral affords a deep insight into Japanese culture.

By 5 min read

When I first came to Japan, I didn’t have any intention to stay beyond a year or so. I had no intention of meeting a Japanese man and marrying him. Intentions sometimes have nothing to do with how your life plays out. I had nothing to really complain about. Life was great.

But then, the unthinkable happened. Early one Monday morning, minutes before my work alarm was set to ring, my husband got a phone call. I was quite irritated that those precious pre-alarm minutes were taken from me. My irritation immediately turned to alarm as the voice on the other end wailed unintelligibly. My husband’s responses got more and more panicked, and I started to panic in turn. It wasn’t until my husband hung up and started sobbing that I found out what had happened.

My husband’s father passed away. He had been perfectly healthy.

We had just visited the family during Obon, and he was fine. Less than a week later, he was gone. The shock was just as profound as the grief.

My father in law had been a witness for our legal marriage, and had mentioned looking forward to our wedding ceremony in Hawaii the following year. It felt so strange that someone with hopes and plans could cease to exist in an instant. It didn’t seem real.

The funeral week was unlike anything I have ever experienced in Japan. Yes, I have been to other funerals since, but being an attendee is very different than being a direct family member. Our immediate family was together around the clock, and it was a bit of a shock to me that this togetherness extended to the deceased. I had never had to stay with a body and keep vigil before.

We spent most of the those days and nights in a small apartment-like room in the funeral hall, behind the large ceremony hall for the wake and funeral. My father in law had the foresight to make some arrangements. He had decided against the tradition of holding everything at the family home. He had been a CEO of a somewhat successful manufacturing company, and the extensive list of attendees would have made it difficult to hold any services at the house.

Until the funeral, close friends and family often visit the immediate family and pray over the body. After a day or so of sitting around a room with a body on an ice futon, the initial shock wears off, or perhaps it’s just numbness from everything being so overwhelming. Either way, I was mostly composed and could focus on trying to be helpful. I learned how to properly serve tea and snacks to the many guests who visited us in that small room. However, I didn’t feel entirely useful until the funeral.

The funeral process can vary greatly in length. It really just depends on which days are auspicious according to the Buddhist calendar. Typically, each prayer service or ceremony follows the same basic pattern. As the priest chants, everyone takes turns burning some incense while praying, and then the priest chants more and maybe even gives a short sermon. The funeral differs slightly in that there are some additional speeches and the spouse bows to the attendees as each comes up to the incense altar to pray.


While I was clueless as to what I was supposed to do most of the time, I realised most of our family members were equally clueless. It also seemed like everyone was so caught up in trying to follow traditions unknown to them, that they ended up completely missing the point. It was my understanding that a funeral is supposed to be where friends and family say goodbye to their loved one and support each other.

My mother in law was beside herself with grief, so when she got up to bow, I was worried about her. The entire hall was filled, so my mother in law was going to be doing a lot of bowing. As she made her way from the family seats to the area in front of the incense altars, she stumbled quite a few times and broke down in tears. She could barely stand.

I started panicking like a loyal dog whose master is in trouble but doesn’t know how to help. I could tell that other family members were concerned as well, but nobody was doing anything. I quietly consulted my husband, and he agreed that something should be done, but he didn’t know what to do. He also felt like it wasn’t his place to do something. I asked him if he would mind me doing something. He turned to me and said one word.


So mustering what little courage I had, I solemnly got up and went to stand next to my mother in law. I tried to make it all looked planned. Nobody questioned it. I put my arm around her shoulders to hold her up and proceeded to bow with her. Granted, the woman only comes up to my chest, so in order to bow with her, I had do do an awkward curtsey with a bow. I can only imagine that I looked like a bowing horse.

Everyone praised me for being such a wonderful daughter. Yet, nobody else did anything. I realised that if I didn’t take care of my new family, nobody else was going to do it. Later that day, my husband and I talked. We decided that we were going to move back to the family home and take care of things for a while. We only intended to move back for a short time, but after 6 years of living together, I don’t think we have any intention of leaving. Then again, intentions sometimes have nothing to do with how your life plays out.


UPDATE: Read the continuation of this story in Quincy’s latest article.

  • Boey Kwan says:

    Thank you for this post. I pray you and your family continue to bond, as well as grow together 🙂 Your thoughtful move is inspiring as it makes me think of the times I and those around me have sat quietly, letting such a thing pass by even though we all agree that something should be done. Especially in Japan, I guess I might think that it would be out of etiquette to help, but I was wrong! Thanks and good job.

  • Rent Life Japan says:

    Thank you for posting this article. My condolences go out to you and your loved ones.
    My Japanese father-in-law lives with us here in Japan. Unlike your father-in-law, mine has not made any preparations that we know of.although I have discussed this life issue with my parents in America, it seems almost taboo to bring it up with my Japanese father-in-law. I wish I knew how to approach him regarding this sensitive subject. As usual, my wife will probably have to pick up the pieces and run with it just as you did.

  • Quincy Fox says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your daughter’s experience. I’m so sorry for her and your family’s loss. It is truly wonderful to know that in our darkest hours of loss and loneliness, there are still deeply good people in the world around us.

  • Quincy Fox says:

    Thank you all so much. Everyone has their own unique experiences with loss. It would be foolish of me to equate my grief with anyone else’s. Anyone who has suffered through a loss has suffered, and nobody can quantify it. However, knowing that you are not alone helps considerably.

    Six years ago, I did not have a narrative to give me insight into Japaneses funerary customs. That lack of knowledge added unnecessary stress and confusion to an already difficult situation. Hopefully my story can provide that insight and help others avoid similar complications.

  • Patrick Drazen says:

    The little I know about Japanese Buddhist funerals comes from TR Reid’s Japanese memoir “Confucius Lives Next Door”, odd clips I’ve seen from Juzo Itami’s first film “Osoushiki (The Funeral)” and other pop culture references. I turned to one of those–Mamoru Hosoda’s anime feature “Summer Wars”–to get through it when my wife of 25 years had a heart attack and died one night. They’re never easy, but the instinct to reach out to friends and family is the proper one, I think.

    • Quincy Fox says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience, and my deepest condolences. Indeed, loss is never easy. Finding the strength to get through it is just as difficult. I’m not so familiar with those works, but I will certainly check them out.

      • Patrick Drazen says:

        TR Reid was Asian Bureau Chief for the Washington Post for a number of years; “Confucius Lives Next Door” is his memoir of that time–a very interesting lens into the broader Asian culture. “Summer Wars” involves the 90-year-old matriarch of a massively extended family. I highly recommend the anime which was partly based on the director’s life and shows family dynamics in a way we seldom see in the west anymore.

  • Jason Maitland says:

    This brought tears to my eyes. I really thank you for everything you have written. I have had a funeral experience and it was deep but after reading this I have an even deeper understanding. Once again a heartfelt thank you.

  • Larissa Bhöñam Polletté says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m really sorry about it and I hope/wish everything goes well with the family and your “new” plans. I just have one question, what are the words or the things you say in this kind of situation? ( as condolences) Such as we say in Mexico” I’m really sorry for your lost” …

    • Quincy Fox says:

      Thank you. Here is an expression for condolences:
      ご愁傷様 (goshuushousama) + whichever ending you need to use for politeness.
      ご愁傷様でございます (goshuushousama degozaimasu – very formal)
      ご愁傷様です (goshuushousama desu – formal)

  • This was beautifully written. I’m sorry for your loss.



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