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How the House and Graveyards Smell
When I was young, about four years old, I attended a Christian preschool a two minute walk from my house. Gill Grove Baptist. It was more out of necessity than anything; if there had happened to be another preschool in the area I would have gone there, but my grandmother, a dedicated Baptist born and raised, was delighted to know that I would be spending a few hours each morning devoted to learning about the Lord.
Devoted I was, because devoted I had to be. We had tests on reciting bible verses from memory, and memorizing them was our homework. I remember one of my first days there was spent being mortified that I didn’t know the pledges being recited like heartbeats, and I learned them as soon as I got home; my grandmother proud that my heart was in the hands of a higher power. I pledged to the American flag, the bible, and the Christian flag, promising each day to fight for the kingdom of God.
Gill Grove also has a tiny cemetery, and I walked past tombstones twice every day when I was little. I once asked my grandmother if I was going to be buried there. Her answer was enough to placate me; she told me that it was full and you had to buy a plot there before you died. It came as a shock, without ever fully needing to be comprehended. It had always made sense to me that I would be buried in the cemetery mere seconds away from my house. I wondered, but I never asked, and I remember thinking that I would have no place to go after death, as there was no place quite so conveniently located near my house.
The Gill Grove cemetery has tombstones that are barely just that; just little pieces of grey rock cut loosely into rounded rectangles and my Japanese mother never let me walk through them. We walked on the other side of the road, huge oak trees casting shadows that danced along the tops of graves not already covered by tall grass as the wind blew. It smelled of clean, dry, cool summer air and nothing more. The smell was carried by the wind, and as it passed over them, the stones themselves soon forgot it. They were too old to remember, they had lost their names, their dates, their purposes to time. Blood red fake marigolds were tied with a white ribbon and placed on one grave near the middle of the plot. Even the flowers smelled of nothing, and were put there to make up for forgetting. I never asked my mother if I could look at them, I just stared after them as we walked past, my mother always telling me that the dead needed to sleep.
Japanese graveyards are different and the customs are of a nation that has never given up on ritual. Cremated, then put into the center of a stone pillar with your family’s crest to join the ashes of your ancestors. The obelisks sit upon large, rectangular granite bases, getting thinner as they rise. You water these tombstones. Pour water along the sides so the dead may drink. Put flowers in the metal cylinders that jut out from cold, wet granite. Place one hundred yen coins along the edges.
I did all of these things every time I visited Japan. We bought flowers from the grocery store, my grandmother scrutinizing them for any drooping petals, any dying stems. I always held the flowers, and as I walked through the maze of grey columns, and statues of Buddhist-Shinto gods, I thought about if my being there was blasphemous. I was Christian out of chance; having a father who was raised strictly Baptist and then later became more Buddhist than anything and a mother that was just Japanese, and their religious practices go so far back, they just become tradition.
I once visited the Sanjusandgendo temple in Kyoto with my family. It has become more of a tourist attraction than anything, but 1,000 life-sized golden Buddha statues, so intricately detailed it almost seemed impossible filled the entire shrine, each with numerous pairs of arms, halos of golden fire and the faces of saints. The temple itself is just one long rectangle, one long hallway, and one walks the length of it, passing by the work of countless monks and artisans, all in the name of the Gods.
Leading the 1,000 were wooden carvings of Buddhist-Shinto gods each with their own information plaque in English as well as Japanese and I remember one was a fierce looking god, with intense glass eyes and muscles that were not human. I read his plaque, and I discovered that I was looking at the god whose sole job was to punish non-believers. I shivered, and tried to avert my eyes as I read. I finally looked up to face him, and he stared back with a look meant to torture souls who fear the pits of hell. I walked away, breathing in wafts of incense smoke, silently asking for some sort of forgiveness.
All these Japanese shrines, temples, graveyards smell the same. All monks burn the same incense, the kind used at funerals or any religious ceremony and for some reason, I’ve grown to love that smell. Musty and a dark, jade green, it smells unlike anything else, and it’s come to smell of home. I once asked my mother what it was made of and she laughingly asked how she should know and said that it was just the kind that all monks used. But its use isn’t limited to just monks, families burn it all the time as they kneel before black and white pictures of their ancestors at the household altars. The portraits are always serious, always stern, and they hang above you, always looking down and reminding you of their presence as you ask for them to guide you, wherever you are.
I don’t think my Japanese ancestors knew that the family line would come to me, even trickle down to a mixed blood and there are always so many thoughts that run through my head as my grandmother lights her stick of incense with mine, hits the tiny golden gong and prays. I always close my eyes a second after everyone else, and maybe it’s out of confusion. I look forward to that smell and yet I feel some sense of misplacedness as I pray for the great-uncle who I never knew because he passed before his parents of some sickness that I do not know the name of. He stares down at me, smiling slightly, so unlike the other pictures around him.
My prayers are always questioning, confused and jumbled, sometimes in English, other times in Japanese. I pray to a god, but I’m never quite sure if that’s the right one. I just pray to a god I hope understands and forgives me, as I struggle to define Him.
I know now I will return to the house of my great grandfather and not find him in his chair, but in a black picture frame alongside his son, my great uncle, and my mother’s favourite uncle. I will pray for ancestors Japanese and American to guide me and for God to guide me, one who simply does not know.
I have forgotten my bible verses. I cannot remember the stories of Goliath, or David, or Judas, or Jonah. I do not know the title of each book by heart, but I know that it all starts with Genesis.
I want to be buried in Japan now, in my hometown where there will always be someone to water my grave, even if the children who do so never even know me. I secretly hope that maybe my youngest cousin will point out the grave in which my ashes are, and will say to her daughter or son, “Your cousin is in there, too, you know. She was my cousin, and she lived in America all her life, but she was born here. She’s in there, now, with the ashes of my grandfather, and my grandmother, because she did not want to be forgotten by a land she loved.”
I cannot classify myself now. I am nothing, but something; just a girl who hopes that God understands the bond I’ve created with Him, hopes he takes it, and hopes that one day he might answer the questions about Him I’m just starting to realize could exist.
I will return to the house of my great-grandfather, kneel on the tatami mats, burn two sticks of incense, and greet all my spirits silently; hoping and praying that somehow it will all be enough.