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Chopsticks, Death and Love

I’m in Monterey Park and after dropping a chopstick on the floor I grab a new one. Just one. As my hand hovers over a dumpling my friend practically shouts, “Don’t do that!”

Alarmed, I drop my hand and ask, “Don’t do what?”

“Never use mismatched chopsticks,” she says, “it’s bad luck.”

Not being superstitious I raise my chopsticks again and start to grab a dumpling when I am interrupted by an older woman at the table next to us, “We use chopsticks like that when someone is dead. It’s for the bones.” And she gave me a look that made it abundantly clear that this wasn’t about superstition, this was about manners.

I waited and asked a server for fresh chopsticks. But I was obsessed with learning more about the chopsticks rule. So I ran home and started reading about Chinese funerals. We’d been to dim sum, right?

I’d inadvertently learned about Japanese funeral customs while in a Chinese restaurant surrounded by mostly Chinese and Chinese-American people.

Japanese Buddhists cremate their loved ones differently than Americans typically do. I was interested to learn that, much like observant Jews, Japanese Buddhists perform their funerals within 24 hours. Also, like observant Jews, the body is never left unattended. After the funeral, the body is escorted to the crematorium where it is incinerated at a much lower temperature than we are accustomed to, and that is where the chopsticks come into the picture.

The family accompanies the body to the crematorium and witnesses as both casket and remains are placed in the cremation chamber. They are there two hours later when the remains are taken out.

The family then begins the process of placing the remaining bone fragments into an urn that will later be buried in a family plot.

The ceremony of placing these remains into an urn is quite beautiful and, I imagine, healing, as religious rites are designed to be. Special chopsticks are used to start at the feet and collect the bones to place in the urn. It’s important that the loved one is upright in their urn, and part of the ritual of picking the bones (kotsuage in Japanese) is passing them from chopstick to chopstick on the way to the urn.

Here is a striking photo of kotsuage.

Like any other religion or region, there are many steps, clearly defined, to the Japanese Buddhist funeral. Too many for this groups of words. But they’re comforting steps that serve to honor the dead while soothing the living. Funeral rites give rules to the family table, to the community, and to a nation first and the world second.

Even in good health we are planning for deaths. We keep our rituals sacred so that when the time comes for the people we cherish most the chopsticks are mismatched and the feet are at the bottom of the urn.

It’s not a Japanese thing, or a Buddhist thing, or even a chopstick thing. It’s a human thing. The way we preserve these moments, these rituals and their tools. We withold their use from daily existence so that the chopsticks that don’t match become tools for healing. What a waste it would be to use such a thing for just one dumpling.

This all got me to thinking about the ways we run from death. We keep death from our lives as though it’s a separate entitity. There’s living and there’s death. We’d like to believe they are two different states. But that’s not quite the case.

Ask any night nurse or hospice worker, ask widows and emergency responders. There are things we all do when we’re dying. Sudden deaths lend themselves to proclomations, grand and otherwise. Long illnesses or simply fading away in old age carry a predicability that leads to the moment. There’s a lack of hunger, and then of thirst, the eyes close and the breath slows, and if you’re very lucky there are no gasps before the permanent silence. If you’re even luckier someone will hold your hand and breathe slowly with you.

Then someone will sit with the body. And perhaps they will chant, perhaps they will pray, surely they will cry. Mostly though, there will be rituals, some of which make sense and others will be carried out with no understanding of why, and no desire to know. And death sort of bleeds into life as we care for those who pass before us.

With special chopsticks.