A year ago Japan was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 quake causing a tsunami that claimed over 20,000 lives. In the city of Kamaishi, 30 foot waves destroyed the inner-city killing 1,000 of its 40,000 inhabitants.
When the waters receded, rescuers entered the city’s devastated streets and started pulling the dead from the rubble. They carried the bodies to the gymnasium of a vacant middle school that had escaped damage, which became a large morgue. Atsushi Chiba, a 72-year-old retired undertaker went to the gym to look for friends and family, and was struck by the mounting numbers of bodies. Most of the dead were wrapped in plastic, still in muddy clothes with their rigid limbs sticking out.
Mr. Chiba, well trained in the ancient Buddhist rituals of preparing the dead for cremation looked at them and thought “if the bodies were left this way, the families who came to claim him wouldn’t be able to bear it”….in Japan we treat the dead with respect as a way of comforting the living”. So the first thing he did was wipe their faces clean, then he massaged their stiff limbs so the bodies looked less contorted. He wanted every family to know that somebody had taken care of their loved one, until they had arrived.
Mr. Chiba’s attempts to honor the dead quickly caught on; people put together school desks to build a makeshift altar, and each time the body was carried out workers lined up with their heads bowed to pay their last respects. Mr. Chiba said it didn’t make any difference whether people were religious or not mourning for the dead is a fundamental need… this simple gift of humanity offered comfort to the living.
In our culture, we dramatically underutilize rituals and ceremonies in the pursuit of healing. Rituals and ceremonies provide the structure by which people get in touch with their feeling hearts and souls. When we share our humanity in community, it reminds us that we do not face our sorrow alone. Gathering in this way creates a passionate energy that lifts the human spirit and renews the bonds that bind people together.