Friday, November 22, 2013

Sticks and stones

"This is where my brothers and sisters rest," the woman said. I strained to hear her whisper of a voice above the steady wind. "And my parents, and theirs before, going back five generations, as long as we've lived on the feet of Fuji."

In my travel I've learned that cemeteries match their adjacent cities. Back home, I recall buildings and stones on wide lawns stretching out on the horizon in a blur of rock and fresh sod. Families lived apart, died apart, and were buried in plots connected only by endless highways and fading memory.

"What about your children?" I asked.

She didn't answer as she walked ahead of me. In Japan I found density and emptiness. This cemetery on the outskirts of Sengokuhara was more a cluster of miniature skyscrapers on a hillside surrounded by angled trees and choking vines. Each plot was a mix of black and grey stone of varying heights, and each ran up so close to adjacent ones that the dead couldn't help be neighborly and rub elbows. The yard was connected to the town by a leaf-covered path through the forest and next to a Buddhist temple and miles of pristine countryside.

I hurried after her. We stopped at a ground well water pump where she filled a mossy wooden bucket with frigid water. Then we walked down the cemetery's narrow lanes. When we reached the end of a row and hit the trees, we'd turn around and walk back and start over in the next one.

"Honda. Fukui. Akiyama," she said. "There are only so many families here. Some came once upon a time and lived until they were all gone. Others would come after and care for the stones. And then suddenly it was only me."

"You take care of this all by yourself?" I asked.

We stopped at a set of stones in almost the exact middle of the cemetery. In the center of the cluster was a massive rectangular stone that rose above my head and was carved with characters I vaguely recognized. Secured to this larger stone were five brown wooden stakes bundled together with string and marked with red, painted characters. Running out in front of it were two lines of smaller, egg-shaped stones that only came up to my knees. Each was marked with a single character painted white into the carved rock face. The ground beneath them was a mix of black and white pebbles of every imaginable shape. A white wooden fence bordered the entire plot.

She began by washing the headstone using the water in the bucket and a small ceramic cup that was placed at the headstone's base. The water looked to vanish immediately as it hit the stone, turning to minuscule droplets that reflected the sunlight, making them shine like stars. She did this for each stone, moving from large to small. Once each was wet, she took a rag out of her jacket pocket and wiped the stones, moving from the largest to the smallest but not ignoring any of them. She then removed a bundle of incense from another pocket.

"Got a light?" she asked.

I pulled out my copper zippo and flicked it to life. She briefly held the incense sticks in the flame until they caught and began emitting a pungent rose smoke that stuck in the back of my throat.

"My honored parents and grandparents always go first," she said as she traced a pattern with the smoking sticks before setting them into a holder at the headstone's base. "And the rest of my family. Then I can move on to others."

I stood on my toes, looked over her head, and swiveled around. There must have been over 50 plots in the entire cemetery, some more ornate than others, featuring statues of Buddhas taller than me that towered over the diminutive woman.

"All of them?" I asked.

"Each and every one." She smiled. "Their memories and spirits deserve nothing less."

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