Grief Is a Two-Way Street

By Jodie Noel VinsonJanuary 5, 2015

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

WHILE THE ISLAND NATION was still reeling from the devastation of the 2011 tsunami, Marie Mutsuki Mockett traveled to Japan to learn how to cope with overwhelming loss. Shaken by the unexpected death of her American father a few years earlier and determined to bury her much more recently deceased grandfather, she sought solace in her Japanese mother’s homeland. “Grief is not a one-way street in Japan, for the dead miss us as much as we miss them,” Mockett writes in the record of her travels, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. “Even if we cannot take the time to go on a pilgrimage, the dead are always longing for us and waiting to return to us.”

But Mockett does go on a pilgrimage — several, in fact, in the year following the tsunami — to temples all across Japan. Her travelogue does not follow a linear chronology, but instead conforms to the contours of her internal journey, skipping across time and weaving several trips into one narrative. She submits to the intense training of Zen Buddhist monks at Eiheiji, dons a hazmat suit to visit a radiation zone, summons her father’s spirit through one of the last remaining itakos (female mediums) at the base of Mt. Doom, and shadows Kaneta, a Buddhist priest committed to counseling those still wrestling with ghosts of the tsunami. Through him and various spiritual guides who comfort, cry, exhort, and exorcise, she meets survivors, also in mourning — like the grandmother who invites Mockett’s son to “play with” her dead granddaughter at an altar of toys, and Maruyama, a woman haunted by the sound of the car horns set off by the pressure of the engulfing wave.

Mockett participates in traditions on the other side of sorrow as well, recalling happy memories from her childhood visits to the country. She describes traveling with her mother to participate in several Japanese festivals, like the celebrations that welcome the cherry blossoms in spring. But persistent questions around grief and loss are what fuel her exploration into Japanese life and lore.

“What if,” despite time passing, counseling, and support, “you remain in the grip of grief’s madness?” she asks, still reeling after her father’s abrupt death from an unspecified illness. At the time of the tsunami, her father has been dead for almost three years, and yet she is unable to cope with her sorrow. “Who can help you if the one thing you really want is to talk to the person you have lost, just one more time?” she wonders.

The experience of so much tragedy within the span of a few years deeply unsettles Mockett. As the devastating storm followed closely on the heels of her Japanese grandfather’s death, she feels her heritage slipping away, fueling her determination to pass on a rich cultural history to her son, just as her mother bequeathed her Japanese language and legacy to her. Through the prism of this personal pilgrimage the reader is introduced to the healing traditions of Japanese culture.

For example, at the beginning of Obon, a Buddhist celebration for welcoming the spirits of the dead, Mockett visits Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto, where she rings a bell to call her dead home. Soon after, at the close of Obon, she attends a tōrō nagashi, or “lantern floating” festival on the shores of Matsushima Bay, where she climbs aboard a boat, lights a lantern, and sends the souls off again. In each case, the ceremony is a collective experience.

“There was nothing private about our grief,” she observes in Kyoto, listening to those waiting to ring the bell as they alternately criticize and praise the efforts of the people ahead of them in line, in what Mockett describes as “a curious mix of peer pressure and sympathy and group comfort.” Instead of finding their comments intrusive, Mockett is amused and grateful. “My bell ringing,” she realizes, “was one drop in a sea of collective mourning.”

Nor are those she has lost isolated in death. As she watches the lanterns ride the currents, she notices them clustering together, “as though some of the souls out at sea were in fact not alone but traveling home to the horizon with each other.” By immersing herself so completely in Japanese tradition, Mockett finds not only a way to heal, but also a sense of belonging. Because she has lost not only family members, but also the culture they carried with them, her way toward healing must be within the context of a community. “It worked,” she tells her mother after ringing the bell in Kyoto. “Everyone is here with us.”

Toward the end of the book, Mockett travels to the base of Osorezan, or Mt. Doom — an extinguished volcano on the Shimokita Peninsula where it is said the dead pause before disappearing into the afterlife. There she consults an itako who channels her father’s spirit. “Do you have any questions for me?” the medium asks. Unsure what to say, Mockett poses a random question about work. Later, she feels as she did when, as a child, she woke her father from a nap to ask him something trivial. Now, as an adult, she remembers his benevolent amusement at being interrupted back then, and her memory serves to make the ghost real. The experience restores her father to her, and, in recognizing how her need for him has changed, allows her to begin to move on.

But sometimes consolation can be subtler than a conversation with spirits. For a writer of Mockett’s keen sensibility, it can even be found in a pile of bones. Her relatives own a temple near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where radiation levels have prohibited her grandfather’s burial for over a year. In 2012, as the Obon festival draws to a close, the family decides it is time, that the soil is safe enough to touch. They gather at the temple to finally lay her grandfather to rest.

While cremation was once a privilege only of Japanese nobles, the rite is now required in most parts of the country, a mandatory step in a process, which, according to Mockett, can cost around $14,000. Curious to know more, she visits a crematorium, reporting that in Japan the procedure takes about an hour, during which the ovens reach 500 to 600 degrees Celsius, much lower than the temperatures of a typical Western cremation. For the Japanese, it is important to preserve some bones.

When Mockett’s father died and was cremated in America, she was handed a small, sterile urn. In Japan, after giving the mixture of ashes and bone thirty minutes to cool, the family of the deceased is called in to sort through the remains with long chopsticks, beginning by placing the feet at the bottom of the urn so the departed will not be upside-down. An attendant helps identify the most important pieces, such as the horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone from the Adam’s apple, said to resemble the Buddha’s hands in prayer.

With her grandmother’s funeral, several years prior, there was dissension in the family over where the remains should be buried. At the time, Mockett and her mother sided with her grandfather, who was eventually granted the small box containing his wife’s hyoid bone. Mockett recalls how he fussed over the box and made offerings of flowers and bean cakes. “When he dies,” Mockett’s mother whispers fiercely to her in one of the most startling lines in the book, “I’m going to cremate him with that Adam’s apple.”

Years later, as a relative arranges her grandfather’s remains on newspaper (after ensuring that the newsprint and images are mundane, nonviolent, and appropriate), Mockett notices, mingled with the ashes, the dust from a gold-ink painting of a Buddhist deity, which her mother had insisted on placing in the casket before cremation. “Looking at the bones now,” she writes, “in their luminous golden glory, I had the feeling that I was seeing my grandfather’s true interior; he was a sparkling, rich, and beautiful creature, despite the temper tantrums to which he had subjected us when he was alive.”

Mockett’s narrative is sprinkled with such insights, which gleam like treasure throughout her quest to bury her dead and absorb her mother’s culture. These moments are almost always visual and vividly described, which makes them all the more Japanese. “Japanese stories often end with a beautiful image,” Mockett observes, a phenomenon that the Japanese psychoanalyst Kawai Hayao refers to as “the aesthetic solution.”

One beloved Japanese folktale, which Mockett refers to several times, is the story of Kaguyahime, or the Moon Princess, a child rescued and raised by a bamboo cutter, who as a young woman was loved by many, including the emperor. Eventually, though, her true identity could not be hidden, and she was taken by the Moon People back into the sky. The emperor burned a letter telling of his sorrow on the top of Mt. Fuji, which, it is said, continues to smoke as a symbol of his grief.

“Beauty is the ultimate democracy,” explains Mockett, “because a beautiful thing, particularly if it exists in nature, belongs to everyone.” From cherry blossoms to lantern festivals, joy and grief in Japan are collective emotions, expressed in community, shared through aesthetic ritual and tradition. “Beauty heals us,” she claims, by helping us to accept the fleeting, changing nature of life. “So it is that we might heal a bit by experiencing the passing beauty of a dance gesture, a fading ghost, or a flower.”

When one of Mockett’s cousins finally places their grandfather’s remains in the dirt, he leaves two white flowers. A Buddhist priest, he does not want the bones to be the last thing the mourners remember. “When you go to sleep tonight,” he tells Mockett, “and you remember the funeral, you are going to see two white flowers.” Now when Mockett recalls the day, she sees golden ashes and white petals against red earth.

Thanks to her prose, lyrical and precise, the reader is left with similarly vivid impressions of Mockett’s experiences in Japan. Among the most powerfully described in the book is the simple gesture of a young man, witnessed during his hossenshiki, a combat dharma ceremony for a Buddhist monk in training.

Though the trainee holds a symbolic bow, explains Mockett, a combat ceremony isn’t physical. Instead the conflict is verbal, as the young monk is drilled with catechism-like intensity to test his knowledge of the Zen canon. The questions are shouted, sometimes by a young child who will one day be a priest. During this particular hossenshiki, a boy in the temple suddenly asks: “And what will you tell the people who lost someone in the tsunami about their loved ones? Where do the dead go?”

The monk-in-training breaks his ceremonial posture to lightly touch his chest. “The dead remain in our hearts,” he replies. “That is the only place we will find them and the only place to look.”

True, perhaps, but Mockett’s travels in Japan affirm the lost art of pilgrimage, a participatory form of mourning that relies on collective experience as a powerful consolation for loss. If grief really is a two-way street, to reach the dead sometimes we have to start walking. Chances are good we will meet others on the same road, lit with lanterns, littered with blossoms.


Jodie Noel Vinson's essays and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in Pleiades, The Gettysburg Review, Rain Taxi, Green Mountains Review, and Minerva Rising, among other places.

LARB Contributor

Jodie Noel Vinson received her MFA in non-fiction creative writing from Emerson College, where she developed a book about her literary travels. Her essays and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in Pleiades, The Gettysburg Review, Rain Taxi, Green Mountains Review, and Minerva Rising, among other places, and she is a recipient of the St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award. Jodie is Managing Editor of Longitude Books, an online travel bookstore, and lives with her husband in Minneapolis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!