text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
In the 25 years that have passed since my father’s death I haven’t visited his grave even once; this is a deliberate decision which has nothing to do with either the fear of death or the reluctance to experience the unavoidable nostalgia or melancholy these visits bring but with my belief that such a visit not only doesn’t offer anything to anyone but is actually detrimental since it promotes a kind of sentimentalism that in the end of the day acts retrogressively. This of course doesn’t mean that I don’t think about my father: every time I am in my family’s home in Kipseli, in the place where I met him and where I spent twenty one years with him, it’s certain that I will think of him at least once consciously and countless times unconsciously. Given the above, it might sound strange that I have accompanied many times Atsuko to visit her father’s grave in what the Japanese call “haka-mairi” (墓参り).
At least three times a year, in the two equinoxes and in the middle of August, in the period called “O-bon” which is dedicated to the dead, thousands of Japanese find an opportunity to visit the graves of their departed loved ones or their ancestors, be they close to where they live or far away. Like the O-bon, the equinoxes (in Japanese, “O-higan”/お彼岸) have been identified with the dead because of Buddhism: the characters mean “the other side” and although the Buddhist priests had in mind the much celebrated “enlightenment”, the people preferred the easier interpretation of “the other world” and dedicated the day to their dead –this is hardly surprising considering that in the beginning of the 9th century, when the clergy decided to establish this holiday to honor prince Sawara (早良親王) an enigmatic figure who was elevated to emperor posthumously, the majority of the people were farmers who wanted something more tangible than the priests’ abstract ideal.
Death is tangible? Probably not, but the haka-mairi is specific enough to come close. The families wash the tombstones (actually stone urns since after the Meiji era cremation of the dead has been the sweeping rule) while chatting, often very lively, while small children play around, they offer some of the things the departed liked –usually sake, coffee, tea or water- put flowers in the vases and light incense and in the end make a quick prayer with their rosaries wrapped around their hands and leave or maybe stroll around the area and have a tea enjoying the weather (it is usually good in the equinox periods) and the serenity. And oddly enough even the casual visitor gets to feel this serenity too; perhaps it is because of the differences in the tombstones’ semiology or because of the knowledge that flesh isn’t disintegrating under your feet. Or possibly because of the naturalness everybody is acting with; as if they disregard death and focus on the essence of remembrance.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.