A Japanese Experience in Death – A Tribute to Jonah
Yesterday, my darling dog, Jonah, died. He was fifteen years old and my husband and I have had him since he was eight weeks. My mother-in-law is fond of saying that “even in dying, you have to have mazel “ – luck – and we were very lucky indeed. But in addition to being lucky with Jonah himself, we were treated to the best that Japan has to offer with regards to death and respect.
On Monday night, Jonah had what we now think was a stroke. He could not move his hind quarters. The vet, who made a house-call on Tuesday, gave him a shot of anti-inflammatory, thinking that the dog was arthritic or had fallen and had a bruise, but it never worked. His heart was also weakened and the vet gave him a shot of heart stimulant. On Tuesday night, he wouldn’t move, eat, or even drink. Marc tried to take Jonah outside to pee, but he could barely stand. First thing on Wednesday morning, I tried to take him outside, but he couldn’t stand then at all. I picked him up and held him on my shoulder like a baby, as he had always enjoyed, and he had a stroke in my arms. He barked twice – yelped, really. I shouted for Marc and we got him inside to lie down. He was clearly stroking and seizing by then. The whole thing lasted under a minute and Jonah was gone. It wasn’t exactly quiet and perfect, but we were with him and it was peaceful.
Being in Japan, we really had no idea what to do next once we realized that Jonah was gone. Then again, I’m not sure what we would have done anywhere. So we called the vet for advice. Dr. Tanabe of the Komazawa Animal Hospital could not have been more helpful. He was genuinely sorry for our loss – and the day before he had been lovely, noting that Jonah was generally such a happy dog, so his malaise was so unusual. The next step was to call a local shrine, which Dr. Tanabe did himself. He arranged for the people from the shrine to come get the dog and then return the dog’s ashes to us later in the week. While I was grateful for the help, I was terrified at what was going to happen.
Luckily Marc was able to be with me when the man from the shrine arrived. That morning, we had put Jonah in his bed and covered him with a towel. The man from the shrine arrived right on time, dressed in a conservative black suit, and first asked to see the dog, whereupon he dropped to his knees, uncovered the dog’s head and immediately prayed over him. He then oh-so-gently took the towel completely off of the dog and laid it in the box, arranging it so it was perfectly flat. With both hands, and making sure to keep the dog level, he placed Jonah in the box. He asked me if we’d like to put in some food or a flower. Quickly we got Jonah’s food bowl and put the remains of his last, uneaten meal into the box with him. That man did not pour the food from the bowl into the box; he scooped it out by hand, every last kibble of it, and placed it carefully next to Jonah. At every interval, the man clasped his hands together and prayed briefly.
The man from the shrine asked us if it was all right before he closed the box, which he then did swiftly and painlessly – to us. He stood and gave us a clipboard with a form on it, already filled out. We just had to sign and pay. He took a marker and wrote Jonah’s name on the box in both English and Japanese.
Interestingly, he showed us a booklet with different boxes in which they would place the ashes, and then our options for a box cover. The plain, white box could be covered in gold, silver or purple cloth. But we are Jews, and Jews are commanded to be put into the ground in the same state from which we emerged into this world – plainly. Jewish coffins are plain, pine boxes. Neither Marc nor I wanted a fancy cover on Jonah’s box of ashes; it went against our beliefs.
We paid him and he gave us a counter-signed receipt. He snapped his briefcase shut with a snap and explained that the family carries the box out to the car. We nodded.
Marc picked up the box while the man went out first to the car. I trailed behind. He opened the hatch-back of his black Toyota, which had a raised platform in the rear and the entire trunk was lined with golden, flower-patterned, washi paper. Marc gently placed the box on the top of the platform. Then the man took a thick blanket done in the same pattern as the entire trunk and draped it over the box. He tucked it in so the box with Jonah inside was completely covered and safe. The entire effect was one of majestic blacks and oranges. The man clasped his hands together one last time before telling us he was going to close the trunk. Every step of the way he had quietly explained what he was going to do before he did it, respectfully giving Marc and me time to absorb his words – in Japanese – and prepare ourselves for the next action.
He closed the hatch-back and bowed deeply to both of us. He went to the driver’s side of the car and we went to the sidewalk in front of the house. He started his car and rolled down his window. He drove by us slowly, bowing slightly as he drove by – the open window was so that we could see him paying his respects to us. And just like that he was gone – and it was done.
It was done.
Because I am a writer, I had to tell of this experience. Because I had to tell of this experience, I am a writer. The good and the bad go into my work.
The day was a particularly trying one – one I will not soon forget. But because of the rituals and comforts of Japan, it was a tiny bit easier than it might otherwise have been.
My beautiful dog is now resting in peace. We had fifteen fantastic years together – and as my grandmother might say, Jonah lived until he died. He was happy right to the end. For this, I am eternally grateful. There are many things for which I am grateful about Jonah, but mostly I am comforted by the fact that at the end, we were there and I’m positive he knew how much we loved him. And then to have this lovely experience of taking him away – so we are comforted, not further grieved – for what more could we ask?