Joy Beside the Coffin

Death is something that we all must face sooner or later. But before then, we are likely to encounter it through the people around us as they meet their end. My recent birthday — a personal reminder of our fleeting existence — led me to contemplate on these issues: How do we deal with family or friends being here one day, and gone the next? What is a good way to tend to mourners?

The Japanese film, Departures, offers ideas relevant to my questions. It tackles the theme by exploring how encoffineers deal with the deceased. A holistic approach is demonstrated as being concerned with preparing the body with utmost care, while exhibiting a presence that serves as a conduit of closure for the affected.

It is a noble task, to say the least. Regrettably, the general impression of work that involves the handling of corpses is one of disdain. People may already think twice about catching a movie centred on this theme, let alone consider a career in the field.

As a man seeking a new start with his wife, Daigo wasn’t much different. The only reason that he ended up in an interview at the local funeral home was because the job advertisement stated “departures” (which he interpreted as pertaining to a travel agent), when it should have been “the departed”. The error was no doubt a strategic misprint employed by the boss, Mr. Sasaki, for the purpose of luring a few naïve applicants to an otherwise quiet office. On this note, I wonder if any moviegoers were also hoodwinked into seeing the film.

Daigo’s reaction to his job description.

Daigo, somewhat desperate in unemployment, decided to commit to a trial run as Mr. Sasaki placed a sizable stack of cash into his hands to reveal the lucrative nature of the business. Little did he know that he was going to receive a lot more from this occupation than getting well paid.

Nevertheless, there are always challenges to taking on a new job. In his first task, Daigo had to participate in the making of an instructional video in regard to the procedures of casketing. His designated role was none other than to play dead. Covered only with an adult diaper and pale with makeup, he was thrust into an awkward stillness before the camera as Mr. Sasaki used him as a docile prop.

Comedy abounds in this scene, but for Daigo, there was just discomfort. Stepping into the shoes — or in this case, the coffin — of the deceased, he observed an important lesson that would serve him well for treating future clients; that even for those who have passed, their remains must be handled with as much respect as the living deserves. This is done not so much for the satisfaction of the dead (for they feel nothing), but more for the people affected by the loss, as often family and friends have a tough time accepting that a loved one has gone. Ultimately, in preserving the dignity of the body, the life of the individual prevails within present memories, unhindered amid the odious discontinuance caused by death.

The filming session, however, ended on a less harmonious note when Mr. Sasaki sliced Daigo’s face while attempting to demonstrate the complexities of shaving. Unaccustomed to the skin texture of a breathing man, the veteran shot a peculiar gaze at the fresh blood that trickled down the cheek, as though the fault lay with it, instead of with him who held the blade. Daigo came back to life from his deathly performance and panicked at the sight of red. Having had enough, he decided to call it a day.

Step #1: Make sure the guy is dead.

His first brush with real death soon followed. It was with an elderly woman who had expired for two weeks before neighbours took notice. “You picked a bad one,” said Mr. Sasaki. Indeed, it was horrible — a putrid corpse surrounded by spoiled leftovers rife with maggots, all much more than Daigo could manage on his debut assignment. He could barely withstand the sight; moreover, the stench induced instant nausea, the effects of which lingered long after they had dealt with the case.

The ungodly aroma intruded upon other passengers on the bus ride home. Conscious of becoming the centre of attention, Daigo hopped off the vehicle and into the waters of a local bathhouse. There he lathered up like a madman, hoping to renew himself before sitting down for a nice, hot meal with his wife.

Yet as dinner commenced, a plate of raw chicken (courtesy of their generous neighbour) was brought out onto the table. From among the fragmented pieces of fowl flesh, a severed head stared lifelessly at Daigo, sending him straight to the kitchen sink, gagging. In that moment, his senses were again contaminated by death. The thorough cleansing that he did earlier was futile — weakness and vulnerability returned. Sometimes it just isn’t enough to rid ourselves of decay; in search of restoration, one may also require an invigorating breath of life.

Such sustenance stood before Daigo in the form of his young, attractive spouse. Right there and then, he proceeded to peel away at her as he would a mouth-watering fruit, thrusting his face into her underwear and absorbing the fragrance emanating from her tender skin. She smelled good and, more importantly, alive!

Justified panty sniffing.

This physical and spiritual source revived Daigo and gave him the fortitude to withstand his job on a daily basis. As time went by, he grasped the skills of the trade, learning from his dear boss the matters of cleaning, dressing, and applying makeup on the departed — all with sincere gravitas.

Furthermore, he deepened his understanding of the impact of these actions. He saw that often, whereas the dead rested in peace, the living were stuck in turmoil. The demise of a spouse, a parent, or a child usually sent people into a devastation that dragged them closer to death than the situation demanded. And just as Daigo was lifted up by the presence of his wife, there were many who suffered under debilitative grief and needed someone to lead them back to the land of the living.

A prime example of such transition occurred to a man during the funeral of his late wife. Upon seeing the masterful and compassionate Mr. Sasaki at work, the husband was able to let loose a hearty wail that drowned the poisonous anguish festering within his heart. Although he initially showed hostility toward the protagonists who, as he claimed, made their living on the dead, he apologised after the service and even conceded that his wife never looked so beautiful. Mr. Sasaki went beyond the preservation of memory for the man; he managed a revitalisation of the love that perhaps dimmed through a struggling marriage. Who knew that a post-mortem makeover could lead to a relational transformation?

By witnessing the entire process, Daigo was filled with admiration for Mr. Sasaki. The case also acted as a defining moment that motivated him to commit wholeheartedly to this career. He would later advance to become a reconciliatory force of his own, carrying the torch with the grace of his mentor. Against the permanency of death, it was his mission to ensure that bereavements stayed temporary. For life, as they say, must go on.

Getting ready for farewell.

As for me, watching Departures turned out to be an inspirational experience that lightened my concerns. While it may never reach the extent of generating eagerness for funerals, the film has very much shown me that there is joy to be found even in mankind’s darkest affair.