Family

A Final Drive With My Dead Mom

Photo: Odua Images, Arisara_Tongdonnoi, Canva AI | Canva
Woman driving in hearse to lay her mom to rest

“Moshu-sama, please take the passenger seat and hold this photo.”

The young man in a black suit gestured to me, holding a large umbrella over my head. It was Friday afternoon. The heavy rain had subsided but it continued to drizzle.

That day, I was the moshu — which means chief mourner — at my mom’s funeral.

I thanked him and slid into the white Toyota, which didn’t resemble a traditional hearse. Hearses in Japan used to be black cars adorned with gold, float-like decorations, but this symbol of bad luck seemed to have become obsolete.

I buckled my seatbelt and held my mom’s photo in my lap. It was a picture I had taken five years ago when my father was still alive and we enjoyed tea together at a nearby cafe. Her smile was genuine, with no hint of her husband’s approaching death and her fate in her countenance.

I turned my head and glanced at the white wooden casket loaded in the back of the vehicle, still feeling like I was in a bad dream. She died at the age of 70, just five days before her birthday. I had placed a package containing two slices of strawberry shortcake for Mom and Dad inside the casket along with her favorite CDs, but I wasn’t sure if she would notice them.

RELATED: When Your Mom Dies, The Sadness Never Really Goes Away

If Buddhist teachings were true, her soul was supposed to be here. But she died from a heart attack. She might be too confused and disoriented to celebrate her birthday.

It felt strange because even after the non-religious funeral, I was somewhat biased by the widespread belief that a deceased person’s soul stays in this world until they cross the Sanzu River on the 49th day after passing away. I wondered if my childhood visits to a temple in Niigata still had any influence on my thoughts.

With a clatter of the door, the man settled into the driver’s seat. He was in charge of today’s ceremonies, though his earpiece was already removed.

“Now we’re heading to the crematorium,” he said with the ease of someone who had made this journey countless times.

I nodded, running my fingers over my cheeks. I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t finish my short speech without tears at the end of the funeral.

I hadn’t anticipated a large turnout that day. Both my parents had been raised in quiet cities in Japan. To make things more complicated, a typhoon was sweeping across the country. Yet, to my surprise, nearly everyone I had invited had come, dressed in somber black attire. Their presence moved me deeply.

The car started moving forward quietly. With two other cars in the funeral procession trailing behind the hearse, the man drove carefully, even stopping at a green light if the pedestrian signal was red. Feeling awkward, I fell silent and blankly stared at the fleeting view outside the window. On the nondescript street, my eyes caught a space where the Baskin-Robbins shop my dad used to take me to once stood.

A Final Drive With My MomPhoto: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

“Were the people in the front row your mother’s family?”

I heard the man’s gentle voice and turned to him. He looked like a young office worker, his clear skin spotless and black hair neatly combed ― not the typical image of an undertaker that comes to mind when you call a funeral service.

“Um, yes, they were my mom’s brother and his wife. They came from Fukushima,” I replied.

“And the people who were sitting behind you?”

“They’re our lawyers and accountants―”

I stopped in the middle of the sentence. Calling lawyers to a funeral isn’t common. People don’t need lawyers in the first place in this country where people believe most things can be talked out. But that wasn’t the case for my family. I had to prevent my mom’s assets from dwindling day by day like tissue paper. Her brother was the bad apple in her family, asking for money all the time.

RELATED: 15 Healthy Ways To Mourn When Someone You Love Is Suddenly Gone

“She had a mental disorder and I needed them to manage her assets,” I explained. “She didn’t want to move into a nursing home. And the inheritance procedures were so complex when my father died. I still have no idea what to do with two vacant homes, especially the one in Niigata.”

“Ah, yeah, someone mentioned Niigata during the ceremony and it brought back memories. I’m also from Niigata.”

Surprised, I peered at him. A shy smile graced his lips.

“Really? Which part of Niigata?” I asked, instantly feeling a connection. He answered the name of one of the biggest stations in Niigata, which happened to be the closest to my grandma’s home.

For the next couple of minutes, we exchanged stories about local stores and reminisced about the famous fireworks festival. I noticed a slight sense of joy in my voice, and strangely, it felt easier to breathe in the hearse.

He maintained his professionally calm demeanor, just as he did when he first appeared at the police station to pick up my mom’s body. It had been one of the most stressful days of my life. No one usually expects police officers and forensics when their parents die, but an investigation had been required since she drew her last breath alone at home. I remember feeling safe upon our first meeting.

“I was living in Niigata until recently. My mother passed away a couple of years ago in her 50s from cancer. When we discovered it, it was already too late and I had to focus on palliative care. That motivated me to take this job.”

He talked quietly about the last days of his mom and the other premature farewells he had experienced with his family members including his parents’ divorce.

Losing a parent is tough, isn’t it? You never really understand your ‘see you again’ doesn’t necessarily guarantee next time until you lose someone important.” He spoke as if we had been long-time friends.

   

   

Looking into the side mirror and catching a glimpse of my husband’s car behind us, I swallowed. I had to try hard not to think of any future funerals I might need to attend.

“Your mom passed away too early,” I muttered. My mom lived nearly 20 years longer than his, witnessing my happy marriage and the birth of her grandchild.

He looked to be in his late 20s ― young to lose his mother. But his stories somehow clicked. His maturity and composure, and the sense of subtle pensiveness in his black eyes were something I hadn’t encountered. In my 20s, I had been a bit more brash and fearless.

RELATED: 2 Years Without My Mom: How I Triumphed Over The Sadness

“Is it still common to have a traditional grave at a temple in this neighborhood?” I asked, careful not to intrude on his privacy.

“Not really. Tree burials in gardens and communal graves are more popular these days. They don’t put a heavy burden on children to manage them.”

No temples seemed a good option to me. My dad had been diligent about visiting his relatives’ graves, regularly bearing the costs for their maintenance and temple renovations, but I found it quite excessive.

The car soon arrived at the crematorium. I was asked to lead the procession toward the cremation chamber. My family supported the casket, my daughter holding my hand and asking me what would happen next. The crematorium workers efficiently carried the casket into the chamber and encouraged us to put our hands together and pray, saying it was time to bid our final farewell.

While I was waiting for cremation to finish, I couldn’t help but recall my feelings when my dad passed away. Back then, I despised the idea of cremation and wished I could have kept his body intact in a coffin. Seeing his bones reduced to fragments shattered my heart. I couldn’t stand up straight in those moments.

This time, however, the warmth of my mom’s urn oddly made me feel relieved. All the troubles we had faced, her emotional ups and downs, and the lifelong insecurities that had haunted me were now burned to ashes and fading away.

As the final ceremonies concluded, my uncle’s wife approached me in the parking lot. “Live a happy life, Yuko-chan,” she said, looking straight into my eyes. Her purple eye shadow felt out of place and I looked away, giving her a faint nod. I knew I wouldn’t see them again, given my disdain for their audacity in taking advantage of my mom’s generosity. What I wanted was their disappearance from my life, not their empty wishes.

As the rain began to let up, I stared at my Nissan, which came to a stop in front of me and my daughter. I secured my girl in her car seat and took my place next to my husband, who was rolling down the car window to thank the funeral service employee.

The man stood beneath the roof, bowing deeply. I expressed my gratitude from the bottom of my heart. “Please take care,” he replied with a gentle smile and bowed again until our car started moving.

We would never share another ride, and even if we were to cross paths in Niigata in the future, we wouldn’t exchange words. Nevertheless, after the strangely therapeutic 15-minute drive, I didn’t need words to know we both truly wished for each other’s happiness.

I finally came to realize that these ceremonies were not only for the departed but also for the grieving bereaved to close the chapter of their lives and move on to a new page.

“We lucked out with the rain not getting worse,” my husband said as he drove. “Shall we grab some sushi on our way home?”

“That’d be nice. I’m starving,” I replied, catching a glimpse of the blue sky peeking through the clouds.

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Yuko Tamura is a writer, cultural translator, and the editor-in-chief of Japonica based in Tokyo. Her articles have been featured in The Japan Times, Unseen Japan, The Good Men Project, BBC Radio, and more.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.