Thursday, October 15, 2015

Who We Were, Part II: Departures

"The world's cities will be our home. Come and tour with me." Thus went the proposal of cellist Daigo Kobayashi to his bride-to-be. Unfortunately, "...reality was harsh," and the beginning of Departures finds Kobayashi jobless after the one orchestra that would hire him disbands. And so, until they can get back on their feet financially, they move to the house in the province of Yamagata that Kobayashi inherited from his mother. 

There aren't a lot of employment opportunities in Yamagata for a professional cellist, so when Kobayashi sees this ad in the newspaper he jumps at the chance.
No age restriction, good salary, short working hours, full-time employee, NK Agent working with departures.
Kobayashi soon finds to his horror that there was an error in the ad and that departures should have read the departed, and that the job consists of casketing or encoffinment. He is appalled at the idea of dealing with dead bodies; however, the large salary, and the lack of other opportunities soon lead him to begin his career as a ceremonial mortician.

In Japan as in the United States, the task of preparing the departed for burial was originally performed by the family, but now it has become the job of professional morticians. There is however, a major difference. Instead of whisking the body out of sight of the grieving family until some mysterious procedure has been performed in secret, the encoffinment is a ritual ceremony performed in the presence of the family and friends. The ceremony is very slow and peaceful. Each movement is thoughtful and respectful of the fact that this body is a part of the father, the mother, the child of the people who are observing the preparation. It is always easy to imagine that in our mortuaries, the bodies of the deceased are manipulated in some way that we don't even want to imagine, but there is none of that here. Everything is beautiful, and though it is sad, the families are quietly brought to a peaceful place.

In Departures, we see how Kobayashi gradually comes to that place of peace himself; however, he still has to contend with the misunderstandings of those around him, especially that of his wife. His profession is considered disgraceful, and it is a long time before he can tell his wife the truth about his job. He has to endure the contempt of his neighbors, too, but he doesn't let them dissuade him.

 Along with the main narrative of the movie, there is the story of Kobayashi's relationship, or lack of relationship with his father. He cannot even remember his father's face, only his desertion. This tale unwinds slowly in the background of the movie like the haunting music of Kobayashi's cello. 

The movie is not without flaws. It begins with a comic scene that I think would have been better placed later in the movie, and some of conversations that Kobayashi has with his boss are a bit incomprehensible to me. And then, after the ceremony, the bodies are cremated, although this is understandable since this is a crowded and mostly non-Christian country. However, it seems like a curtailment of what so far has been a process that is very much in accord with nature.

Watching this movie, I can't help but remember the day that my mother died. She was sitting in a chair in her apartment, and while my sister and I sat, and waited for the funeral home to come take her away, it was just like many other days that the three of us had sat together visiting. I wished more than anything that we could just take her in the bedroom and lay her out ourselves. It seemed so much more the right thing to do. Why do we give these personal. loving tasks over to other people?

Neither Departures nor Still Life is a religious film. Both Daigo Kobayashi and John May perform their offices for people of all faiths or none. Nonetheless, both of these movies seem to speak of a view of taking care of the dead that shows much more understanding of the reality of the value of our bodies than the notions of many Christians. Our bodies are not just disposable shells for our souls. They have played an integral part in every moment of our lives: all our joys and sorrows, all our loves and hatreds, every fear, every Sacrament. Between the time of our loved ones' deaths and their burials, they are still with us in a very real way, and if we spend this brief period with that in mind, it can help us move more peacefully into the time to come.



  1. Both these films seem to underline that there is a reason beyond public hygiene that burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy.

    As Spenser puts it of his personifications in The Faerie Queen:

    The sixt had charge of them now being dead,
    In seemely sort their corses to engrave,
    And deck with dainty flowres their bridall bed,
    That to their heavenly spouse both sweet and brave
    They might appeare, when he their soules shall save.
    The wondrous workmanship of Gods owne mould,
    Whose face he made all beasts to feare, and gave
    All in his hand, even dead we honour should.
    Ah dearest God me graunt, I dead be not defould.

  2. I have never laid out a corpse, but both my mother and my grandmother were waked at home. That is a small act of reclaiming the care of the dead from the professionals, but it made a huge difference. My mother's body stayed in the house all night between the wake and the funeral and it was akin to having a tabernacle in the living room. (Also, on a practical level, it is much easier to care for small children at home than in a funeral parlour.)

  3. Many people in the.parish where I work have wakes in the Church and when I come in in the morning, I am alone with the body. as Of course, there is the real tabernacle thiere, but I'm always glad to have a chance to pray there alone with the deceased. When it's a child, I know I'm with the relics of a saint. AMDG

    1. The above is a good example of why I should never comment from my Kindle when I am in bed for the night.