In March 2017, six years after the Fukushima Disaster, ENDPAIN published Kotsuage, a story that weaved together the author’s personal experiences with the death, the story of a couple’s loss of family to the 2011 tsunami, and funeral traditions in Japan.
The ritual kotsuage is a sacred Japanese tradition in which relatives of a deceased loved one use chopsticks to carefully remove bone fragments from cremated ashes. In all other instances, it is considered improper for two people to hold the same item at the same time with their chopsticks. However, during kotsuage, family members jointly remove the bones, as if to eternally seal themselves together as their share these final moments with their loved one.
There is much debate between the living on how best to conduct a memorial service, with rituals varying by culture or religion. Some would squirm at the thought of participating in kotsuage, but I was curious. Publishing this story came at a time when I was recognizing the two-year anniversary of my cousin’s death. She was 24 when she died, and her death signified my first intimate experience with the passing of a loved one.
I’ve never been one for an open casket—I’ve thought it a bit weird. On the day before her memorial, my mom and I visited the funeral home to drop off some things for the service. As we began to leave, the funeral director asked if we wanted to see her. Given my feelings on seeing a dead body, I hesitated, but my mom said “yes,” so we were led in.
If I were to pinpoint the most tragic moment of my life, this would be it. My mom and I sat together in the pew holding hands, maintaining a few rows of distance from my cousin, while crying uncontrollably. We stayed for just a few minutes, then attempted to collected ourselves and left, knowing we would see her again tomorrow.
To me, ENDPAIN has always been a tool I use for self-reflection, connectedness and understanding of the human condition. Within each story we share I see a piece of myself. Sometimes, it’s a nuanced reflection, and other times, like it was with Kotsuage, it stares right at you. The next day, before I left my cousin’s memorial service, I did something that I didn’t expect of myself but felt like I need to do—I gave my sweet cousin a kiss on the forehead, wishing her goodbye, knowing I would never see her again. Her skin was ice cold to the touch, even though the room temperature was mild. And then, I felt peace. Her spirit was no longer in that body, and I felt it.
Death, like pain, is a universal condition, and the rituals that we practice to honor our loved ones can greatly mitigate the suffering we experience in a loss. Says author, Roland Kelts, of kotsuage, “The experience stirred feelings that grew peaceful and intensely intimate… There was just us: me, my family, grandmother.” I chose this story as my most beloved in 2017 because it reminds me of the power of ritual for healing. For me, seeing and touching my cousin one last time deeply impacted my experience with her death, leaving me with feelings of peace and tranquility, knowing that her suffering is now long gone. I am grateful to our author, Roland Kelts, for giving me an opportunity to share in this experience through his narrative.