Saturday, May 18, 2013

Departures: A Reflection on Death

  • I am sitting next to my sister as she lays in her hospice bed dying, not from the cancer she's been fighting since August but from a side effect of her most recent chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. So devastatingly ironic. Pat beat the cancer but not a side effect and it has blindsided us. 

    The family is working hard to keep her comfortable. She hasn't had any water for a week so we know her time is very short.

    I am grateful to be present with her just as I have been for most of the last nine months. Once in awhile she'll open her eyes and I think perhaps she recognizes me. It's so hard to let her go. Her body is not letting go too easily either. But without water it will be forced to release her precious soul to God.

    I know if Pat were to suddenly become conscious of her surroundings, she would be so disappointed to still be here. She had expressed that disappointment the morning after she started hospice. A few days later she lamented how much harder it was to die than she thought. I think she underestimated the strength and will of her body to stay alive.

    Waiting with my sister in this very difficult time has stirred up many reflections on death and the process of dying. If you were to look at Pat's face, you'd never know she is dying. She is as pretty as ever. As I gaze at her face and stroke her beautiful bald head, I can't help but think about one of my favorite movies, "Departures," which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2008 (it's on Netflix streaming).

    It caught my attention for two reasons. First, it is set in Japan (I am half Japanese born and raised on the island of Okinawa). Second, the story centers around a cellist (my husband plays the cello).

    The cellist loses his job in the symphony which forces him to sell his beloved instrument and look for another job. He falls onto a completely unexpected career path, training to be a "nakanshi" or one who prepares the dead for burial. He also falls into disfavor with his wife and friends who are abhorred by his "unclean" work.

    I have watched it 4 or 5 times now, most recently with Pat's husband and their adult kids. I am continually struck by how differently death is treated in America compared to Japan. Or more specifically, how different the perspectives are concerning the body when the spirit has departed.

    I have been to a few memorial services. I have been to even fewer viewings of the body. In my experience people stand in line and spend very little time, usually seconds, to capture their last memory of their beloved family member or friend. Not once have I viewed a body prepared in such a way that it captured the essence of the living person. I never had the expectation that a body could look the same on either side of death.

    Until now.

    In "Departures" as you watch the young cellist transform from a vomiting apprentice to a professional, you quickly sense the Japanese have a different view of the body. It is treated with such tender care in a ritualistic preparation for burial. It is beautiful to watch.

    One thing that caught me by surprise was the location of the ritual. It is not performed in a cold room of a mortuary. No, in Japan, it is a community affair as both family and friends gather in a home to watch the nakanshi prepare the body of their loved one.

    As his training progresses, the cellist learns there is a story behind every departure. His job is to make space for that story to emerge and provide what the subtitle suggests: the gift of last memories.

    The ritual is done very slowly, giving time for the onlookers to respond to each movement of his hands as well as to the other people in the room. Eventually there is a noticeable change in their response to the departed one. The facial expressions and verbal exchanges reveal stories either filled with conflict and pain or filled with love and wonderful memories. Certainly all are filled with deep grief and loss.

    Another thing that caught me by surprise was the goal of the nakanshi to capture the essence of the life of the departed. For the first time I realized how little value we place on our physical bodies once the spirit departs. We hurry to bury or cremate it. We minimize its place in our journey of grief, in our loved one's journey to eternity.

    As the cellist/nakanshi gently shapes each face to its previous living resemblance and meticulously applies makeup, I begin to see each body as a redeemed, restored vessel for all the memories of both the departed and the left behind. A vessel with its own unique glory shaped by the years it lived with a soul. No matter the story, the last memory for the onlookers will be the memory of the departed's best self.

    Pat was prepared for and unafraid of death. One of her first statements after receiving the diagnosis was, "I have lived a good life. I am ready to die." Even now as death approaches, her beautiful face still celebrates the good life she had. Her current unconscious state of transition into eternity still betrays her incredible strength.

    Both "Departures" and being with Pat in her dying has changed me in profound ways. I want to be able to say at the end of my life, as Pat did, "I lived a good life and I'm okay with dying." And I want my body to tell my story. I want my body to display the glory of a life filled with love and beauty and God.

    Recently a  high school classmate of Pat's posted a quote on Facebook:
    It takes a heart-filled person to live, a courageous person to fight to live, but the ultimate instance of honor and bravery comes to those who are willing to face the end of life.
    It's rare to find one like Pat who displayed all three. Her lasting memories are reflected on her face and in the faces of the multitude of friends and family surrounding her. Her glory is the extravagant love she so freely gave and the faith she embraced in the last months of her life.

    Pat, I honor you, my brave little sister. May your departure be filled with peace and grace.