Ritual undertakers help Japanese families bid dignified farewells

Japanese ritual undertakers who use highly specialized skills to restore bodies badly disfigured in accidents or even murder have long been underestimated for the work they do for grieving families.

Because there is no certification system or standardized techniques in the profession known as “nokanshi”, the services provided by funeral directors such as Chiemi Tsunoda are often misunderstood or overlooked by Japanese funeral directors. Kyodo News visited one to investigate how the complex and important work is done.

Ritual mortar Chiemi Tsunoda (L) and chairman of Toubi Co. Ltd. Yukihiro Someya restores a body in the Adachi district of Tokyo in March 2023. (Kyodo)

Tsunoda, 56, who plies his trade with the medic Co., uses special waxes and nearly three decades of experience to restore some 100 bodies to be seen each year so families can “greet, touch and say goodbye to their loved ones”. “

In March, the bodies of four men and women lay in the company’s premises where the ambient temperature is kept at just 12-13°C.

Toubi, who has received requests for the restoration of the corpses of bereaved families, handles various death situations, including train accidents, suicides, and people who die alone and are not found for an extended period.

Tsunoda promises each family member that she will restore the body “as the person was”. In this case, she applied layers of wax to the dry, chapped face of an octogenarian woman who had been dead for about a month, restoring fullness to her cheeks.

“I see you have a mole here,” Tsunoda said, addressing the dead woman as if in conversation, comparing her lifeless face to a photo in which she smiled softly.

Deep wounds on other bodies are closed using adhesive tape, while forehead and nose impressions are reshaped using cotton. With their neatly styled hair and applied makeup, their faces take on a tranquil look.

A special wax used to restore bodies is shown in a photo taken in Tokyo’s Adachi district in March 2023. (Kyodo)

The term nokanshi gained attention due to the 2009 Oscar-winning film “Okuribito” (Departures). The Japanese drama, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film, tells the story of a young man who, by mistake – and to his horror – takes a job as a ritual mortar through an offer employment.

The film explores the subject of death, which is often avoided and considered taboo and “unclean” in Japanese society.

It addresses the universal theme of dignity in death in a solemn, mysterious and sometimes humorous way through the eyes of its protagonist, who makes a living preparing the deceased for cremation despite ostracism from family and friends. in a rural Japanese community.

The photo provided shows a record of the condition of a body that was restored by Toubi Co. Ltd. The description of the person who died in a train accident lists a fractured skull and amputation of both legs, among the injuries. (Photo courtesy of Toubi Co Ltd.)(Kyodo)

As detailed in the film, the main duties of the job are to clean the bodies, dress them in white clothes, apply makeup, and place them in a coffin. Tsunoda says that Toubi is going the extra mile to repair major body damage. It receives a steady stream of business through the funeral homes of deceased families in Tokyo and its surrounding areas of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa.

Tsunoda, now a full veteran after 26 years in the business, saw a job offer to become a nokanshi when she was 29 and working part-time. She decided to change to become a full-time ritual undertaker.

But what convinced her to master the craft was a murder victim she cared for several years ago. The female had long since died, resulting in significant bodily decomposition and leaving no trace of herself. “I promised to restore any corpse, regardless of condition,” Tsunoda says.

She became completely absorbed in the task she faced for two days. Although Tsunoda never met the family in person, when she returned the body to them in Tokyo, she could hear a voice behind a curtain say, “It’s her!” and tears welled up in his eyes.

The Chiemi Tsunoda Ritual Mortuary of Toubi Co. Ltd. restores a body in the Adachi district of Tokyo in March 2023. (Kyodo)

“Looking at someone’s face and saying goodbye, he won’t feel any regret. Even if he’s sad now, there will come a time when he can look ahead and move on,” Tsunoda said. .

According to Toubi, since there are no public qualifications or uniform standards to become a funeral director, funeral homes working with bereaved families may be reluctant to explain these services due to a lack of understanding, resulting in bodies that could have been restored being left untouched. .

To improve the current situation, Toubi strives to establish cooperation among ritual undertakers, establish industry-wide techniques, and train future workers.

Yukihiro Someya, the 56-year-old company president, hopes to raise the public profile of the profession so that people have more opportunities to express their gratitude to those who have passed away.

“We are sending our loved ones back, and one day we will be sent back as well. We want to make this process something that warms people inside,” Someya said.

== Kyōdo

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