Michaeline: The Japanese Coffin Experience

painting of a cholera victim who has been prematurely buried, struggling to get out of a coffin.

We can ignore impending death, or allow it to concentrate the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson would have it. Just in case you need more motivation this NaNo when time is running out. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine you are trapped in a wooden coffin, wide as your shoulders, slightly longer than your length. You are waiting to be incinerated, or buried, and the crying and pounding are done. No one is out there, and you have time to think back on your life. What would you have done differently?

This isn’t bizarre sadism out of the blue; I watched a most remarkable Japanese TV program this morning about how lost men in Japan felt after retirement. After forty or fifty years of daily work (often at the expense of family life and hobbies), they expect to spend their golden years as full-time kings of their castles. During their worklives, they only enjoyed the undivided attention of the household for short periods of time after work and work-related socializing. They are astounded to realize that their wives are not willing to turn an hour or two of gentle servitude into a 16-hour-a-day event. Lost, without hobbies, without religion, without meaningful work and their workplace relationships, and now with resentful wives, they find their golden years turned to ashes.

Enter the Japanese coffin experience. At least one funeral home offers a counselling program for these men and their wives. First, they identify the problems. Then, they dress the man in full Japanese funeral attire, and stick him into a coffin. Japanese coffins have little doors above the face for . . . well, for viewing, and for calling for help, I suppose. These doors are shut, and the man is left in the box to contemplate his existence in the darkness. The wife and the funeral director, I assume, sit in quiet contemplation as well, in front of the Buddhist altar. When the time is up, they open up the little doors, where the man continues to play dead. In the show, this was quite a moment of psychological revelation for the wife, as well. He really does look dead. What would she do without him?

But this show is about lost old men – the wife has her social networks still in place, and is taking up new interests like mah johngg. She doesn’t need to be distracted from impending death, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she said, “*I* don’t need to get into any coffin. You may drag me along on your journey of self-discovery, but I’m not getting into any box.”

The man is given homework for self-evaluation, and after a week, he, his wife and the funeral director meet at lovely restaurant overlooking a harbor to celebrate his resurrection. He’s now got a plan. He holds the piece of paper (oddly, still like a barrier between him and his wife – I don’t know what the success rate for this kind of ceremony is), and reads his five-year plan out loud, formally. This year, he will listen to his wife, until she finishes speaking. Next year, he’ll find a hobby. The next year, he’ll make his peace with the gods and the universe. And so on.

Then he apologizes. He apologizes for not recognizing her contribution to the household, for yelling at her when the babies cried in the middle of the night. “You gave up your sleep so I could sleep.” It’s hard to explain how this simple act of acknowledgement melted her resentment. The week between his mock funeral and his resurrection must have been a very hard week for her, too, full of contemplation about what she wanted from the rest of her life.

So, let me bring this back to writing. If you spent a half an hour in a coffin, reviewing your life and previewing your future, what would you regret? What would you cherish? What promises would you make? Among other things, I think I would regret not leaving a record of my creativity. My kids are almost on their own, my dayjob can be done by other people, and I’ve made peace with my spirituality for now. My husband would be sad, but he’s a good, attractive man and could find someone else. But as far as my thinking? The only thing I leave are some scattered whispers across the internet, buried under a million other comments. Only I can write the stories that I am writing. I want to be seen, if only for fifteen minutes.

There’s still one-third of National Novel Writing Month left. There are 31 days in December. There are still twelve months of 2017. The doors to the coffin have been opened. I open my eyes. They see I’m alive, and they lift off the lid. I still have time. And I’m grateful.

(Premature burial has been an extremely effective metaphor for being buried alive by mediocrity in life – see Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” from poestories.com, and others who exploited the fear. But with our aging societies, preparing for the end of a very long life just seems like common sense. If you are interested in more about Japanese shukatsu – aka, preparation for the end – this Daily Mail piece has a different viewpoint of the practice. There are pictures of people trying out caskets that are definitely the equivalent of these thousand words. Don’t think death makes for great romantic feelings? The grave’s a fine and quiet place, but none, I think, do there embrace. See this Guardian article for a discussion and the text of Andrew Marvell’s poem.)

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: The Japanese Coffin Experience

    • I have to admit, I was crying my eyes out this morning while watching the show. I’m not sure if the couple can go hand-in-hand through the rest of their days on earth, but at least they tried to fix things. It was extremely shocking to see him in the coffin through that little viewing window, his eyes closed. (-: As writers and readers, maybe we can skip the expensive coffin and get the same results with imagination.

    • (-: I think we keep getting reminded, and we keep forgetting. My first look at my own mortality was a Thanksgiving when I was 22, I think. A bunch of friends were heading for a get-together, and we hit an icy patch. The car swung around 360 (maybe even 540!) and my regrets flashed before my eyes. It made me realize how much my boyfriend meant to me, because I thought of how sad he’d be. I vowed to change. A few months later, I was living like an immortal again (a low-rent immortal). This time around was only a minor revelation, but maybe when I begin forgetting again, I can start to live like a high-life immortal (-:.

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