Departures: how to let go with beauty and dignity

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Recently, I watched the film ‘Departures’, a 2008 Japanese drama by director Jōhirō Takita. The film is about a young man (Daigo Kobayashi) who, after a failed career as a cellist, stumbles across work as a nōkanshi, a traditional Japanese ritual mortician.

Daigo’s work is to prepare bodies for cremation in a ceremony called encoffinment. In this ritual, the deceased are washed, dressed and beautified in the presence of their family and close friends.

I was deeply moved by the scenes showing these encoffinments. The care and respect that Daigo shows during this ritual brought tears to my eyes. With great dignity he shaves or applies make-up to the faces of the deceased, giving them a serene and unearthly beauty. In Daigo’s own words, ‘Now grown cold, but restored to beauty for all eternity.’

When my father died unexpectedly, I had my own personal experience with encoffinment. The funeral director had asked us if we were interested in preparing my father’s body for the funeral, and I immediately agreed.

For me, it was a crucial step in my mourning process. My father’s sudden death seemed surreal, and by taking care of his body I faced the irreversibility of this sad fact. It helped me in healing and acceptance. It also helped me in getting a bit of control. I could do something for my father, something valuable and respectful.

Although I did not hesitate to help with the encoffinment, it was not an easy thing to do. Like most people, I felt a sense of fear when I saw my father’s dead body. As soon as he had released his last breath, my father was no longer my father. Something had disappeared, something that had enabled me to make a connection.

Why is it that we feel a sense of fear when we face dead people?  I can think of the following reasons:

  1. Dead people confront us with our own mortality. They make us realise that our lives will come to an end.
  2. Death is something beyond our control. It also evokes the fear of the unknown. Unless you have a strong belief in an afterlife, many of us don’t know what happens when we die. Death is something beyond our understanding and power.
  3. There is an evolutionary component to it. Dead people are often accompanied by danger, like predators or disease, and so we instinctively withdraw.
  4. Death makes us feel a sense of disconnection. Just as I mentioned above, when someone dies, we have the feeling that the essence of a person has left. The person we saw alive an hour, a day or a week ago is not the same anymore – we cannot make a connection any longer. It’s like we face an empty vessel, and this is a striking experience.

Letting go of a beloved one can be extremely difficult. Recognising your own feelings, fears and needs when being confronted with the deceased is important in the healing process. In the days before the funeral, it can be helpful to share these emotions, respecting each other’s needs and wishes. For some people it can be healing to be confronted with the dead body of the deceased, whereas other people prefer to remember the person as they were during their lives.

Everyone has their own way of bringing dignity, respect and beauty to the departure of their beloved ones. Preparation of the body or an encoffinment ceremony is one way of doing this. Other examples are: decorating the coffin, the lying of flowers on the coffin, sharing memories during the funeral ceremony, listening to the deceased’s favourite music, and reading tributes.

When someone dies, we have to let go of their bodies. It may be a comforting thought that their soul continues to be with us and that we may meet our beloved ones again: in the eyes of our children, in the smiles of other people, in the whispers of the wind, in stories we keep telling about the people we love.

Or, as someone says in ‘Departures’, ‘Maybe dying doesn’t mean the end. It’s a gateway. You go through it and onto the next thing. (…) Off you go, then. We will meet again.’

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