My new job starts today, washing corpses and coffining them. It made me nervous just thinking about it, and I wanted to back out, except I’d already gone and told everybody a few days ago. Finally, I decided, hell, I’ll just do it.

There’s more to washing corpses than meets the eye. It’s not just bathing them. You’ve got to wipe them down with alcohol, put them in their white “Buddha-robes,” fix their hair and faces, put their hands together with an ojuzu [rosary]—all of this in preparation for coffining.

Just my luck my first customer was a hefty fellow. Once a carpenter, this old man of seventy years was weaving his way home on his bicycle after a night out drinking, when he tumbled into a gutter and died. I’d had plenty of chances to watch other people wash and coffin corpses. That was part of my training for this line of work. But I sure had a heck of a time doing it myself, and soon found myself sweating like a pig. The arms of the corpse were so stiff I couldn’t get them through the sleeves of the Buddha-robes. And unless you held on to the corpse from behind, you couldn’t tie the straps around the waist. There I was in action, with two or three dozen family members and next-of-kin watching me with bated breath.

Then we got to the part where the corpse has to be positioned to sit in the coffin. Here I was stumped. As I was shuffling around looking uncertain, an old man who must have been a village elder came up to me and said, “What’s the matter, sonny, ain’t never done a sitter before?” and proceeded to help out. It had never occurred to me there were still places that buried their dead sitting up (this was a small hamlet on the outskirts of Toyama [in Japan] where they said no one had died for the past four or five years). With ropes and long strips of white cloth on hand, the old man began to fold the legs into a position where they could be tied to the torso. It was hard to bend the legs, and we couldn’t get them in the right position for the coffin until the old man bound them so tightly they made a popping sound.

There were quite a few things in this business of last rites I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of.

From Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, © 1996 by Shinmon Aoki. Reprinted with permission of the Orange County Buddhist Church’s Buddhist Education Center.

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