A Stroll Through The Cemetery During Sakura Season

I am possessed by a morbid fascination with cemeteries. I`ve pin pointed its genesis to the stories told at my Grandfather`s supper table about the flooding of Elba, a small town in south Alabama. He sat on the roof of his boyhood home and watched coffins bob down the flooded street- many of them containing his relatives. I always hoped the story would end with one of his great uncles, the civil war sheriff, hopping out, pistols primed, pissed and ready to fight. The finale couldn`t have been more disappointing:

A mere phone call- “Dan, we`ve got your Daddy and a cousin down here in Opp. They`ll be here when you can come get`em.”

I`ve been pining for an excuse to dig around a Japanese cemetery for months and Sakura Season-(Cherry Blossom) provided appropriate cover.Cherry blossoms burst forth during the first two weeks in April and if no rain or wind blows them off the tree, they cause a botanical frenzy of viewing parties and outings accompanied by bento boxes and sake. Surprisingly, Aoyama Cemetery, the location of these pictures, is a prime spot for viewing.

Sakura season in the cemetery provides quality time for many Japanese couples looking to rekindle the flame. Little does he know she wants it nice and clean before she tosses him inside when no one is looking.

If ghosts exist, they are everywhere but Japan for the people take special care to make sure anyone intent on sticking to their old stomping grounds moves along. At death, a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks stuck upright in the middle is set by the deceased`s head. The chopstick`s placement indicates this is a “to go” lunch and is a friendly reminder to the newly deceased that they are in fact, dead. Because of this practice, placing one`s chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice while dining in restaurant in Japan will cause several reactions- none of them positive. On the pro side of the cultural faux pas equation, it will remind any dead patrons in the area to vacate pronto.

Many Japanese keep small Buddhist shrines in the home. At the time of a person`s death, the shrines are covered with paper. This practice keeps the spirits from returning. Aunt Fumiko-san will probably not make it across the threshold to see the shrine however, because two salt tablets will have been placed on either side of the front doors to bar her comings and goings. I`m guessing that`s why there are rampant salt-licking deer running around Tokyo causing this warning of their presence on a construction site.

This man and his daughter were indiscriminately waving incense at both the permanent and non-permanent residents of the site. Maybe welcoming a new resident.

There is a saying in Japan that Japanese are “Born Shinto, Married Christian, and Buried Buddhist.” Most Japanese are buried Buddhist and cremated. Several tombs have drawers for easy access to ashes as multiple generations are interred in the family plot. Critics complain overly easy. In the past, ashes of famous people have been stolen and held for ransom. Unfortunately, this cemetery did not have any obvious drawers. I wasn`t going to ransom anyone (although it`s a nice retirement back up plan) but I would`ve liked to get a picture. Of the occupants. Just kidding. It was too crowded.

Several of the more elaborate plots had basins of water. My guess is these are for purification.The cat provides an instructional pictorial example.

The round symbol is a family crest. I`ve read that some Japanese tombstones are available with bar codes so visitors can download pictures and anecdotes about the person contained within. This truly appeals to the nosy side of me. Story time in the cemetery. With a cappuccino. Spiteful me would write a new life for myself full of shocking exploits and scandalous pictures for anyone who might stop by for a post- mortem visit.

When a person dies in Japan, a Buddhist monk assigns a new name (called a kaimyo) to the deceased which is then printed on the wooden sticks below. (Called sotoba) The cost of this service can be extremely expensive ranging from $5,000- 15,000. The higher the cost, the better more ancient the name. Again, assignment of the new name prevents the deceased from returning should the old name be called. The new name is not likely to slip off one`s tongue as they are similar to, “Honorable Wind,” therefore unlikely a family member will accidentally call them back.

It`s a mixed bag here at the Aoyama Cemetery.

What you can`t see are the lines of cars patiently waiting for me to vacate the middle of the road. Unlike the guy on the left, I wanted the exact center.

The red lettering on the side of the tombstone below is for a family member not yet among the departed. Apparently it`s much less expensive to engrave once and repaint the letters black “later.”A girl tree. I mean, there`s a girl by the tree.

Size always matters, neh?

I am looking forward to this summer`s visit to one of my favorite cemeteries in Texas – complete with pictures on the tombstones. I feel like I`m visiting old friends.

Anybody got a good cemetery story or picture to share?

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23 Responses to A Stroll Through The Cemetery During Sakura Season

  1. Rurousha says:

    Another cemetery lover! During my recent cherry blossom excursions, I came across an old couple sitting ON a grave at Gokoku-ji, quaffing Asahi Super Dry. That’s the way to do it!

    Next cherry blossom season, try Yanaka Cemetery next to Nippori Station, although … it’s in dasai eastern Tokyo. 🙂 If you don’t want to wait a full year, it’s also gorgeous in autumn. I always hesitate to self-promote, but since you invited us to do just that, here and href=”http://rurousha.blogspot.jp/2011/09/for-anniversary-of-my-death.html”>here.


    • Love it! I tried to comment on your blog but couldn`t get it to go through- RRRRR. ANYHOO- I love ginkos and that is a beautiful post! I just had ginko nuts for the first time a few weeks ago- who knew something that smells so rank could taste so good?


  2. Sakura season was always my favorite, and I too love wandering through cemeteries. My favorite, so far, were in New Orleans or the one in Independence, Kansas which was the best place for a walk. I think I posted about walking there a while back.


  3. Shannon says:

    I never heard that story about Elba! XXOO miss you!!!!


    • If I really wanted to write a popular blog, I’d write one titled, “You Might Think Your Family’s Eccentric- Growing Up a Clampitt” I need to wait for a few folks to take up residence in one of the condos above first! You can collaborate! Thanks for saying hey!


  4. mcgeeles says:

    The trees blossoming are such a stark contrast to all of the cold stones. Really cool. Did you do any grave stone etchings?


    • I thought so too! So alive- and so not…. I didn`t do any etchings- unlike other places I`ve been, there isn`t any additional decorative etching on the tombstones. Although I`m getting quite fascinated with the crests….


  5. Me and my mom like to go grave walking on Halloween night, and the last one we went to was a really old one. Apparently, it was where most of Australia’s oldest settlers had been buried, so you had tombstones so old you could hardly read them, and I had to shine my flashlight sideways along the lines to read them.

    And then suddenly there was a woman in the graveyard who spotted us. It was soon apparent she had been drinking, and she told us all about the graveyard and little tidbits about the surrounding area; for example, nearby there was a lake that was hard to spot, in a park nearby. In the days of the convicts, they would release convicts into the lake, and promised that whoever could make it to the other side would be set free. Then they started shooting at them in the water. That’s why it was called Freeman’s Reach.

    She also showed us to a grave that she admired, and tried to keep up. Nobody up-keeped that cemetary, she told us, and sometimes drunks would come in here and wreck up the place. And we sat around to talk. Apparently, she thought we were just visitors to Australia. We didn’t correct her.

    There’s a story for you.

    Also, I just wanted to reply to something you said in your post, about the Japanese saying, and just say that I’d never heard of it; I’d always heard that Japanese believe in Shinto and Buddhism, and that they shifted between the two for certain occasions, but I always thought that Christianity was something that they were simply curious about because of Western culture.

    So that saying surprised me. Is it really true?


    • Thanks for that story! I would have been truly afraid of that frightful woman- she did give you some good info though! Wow! It seems to me that Japanese people don’t really switch back and forth between religions as much as adopt different pieces of each. So what one ends up with is a belie system that incorporates a little of several different religions.


  6. The Nose says:

    LOVED your post. One of your best yet! I also had forgotten the story about ELBA. A family favorite. Along with Granddaddy’s boyhood story of the “monster” coming out of the river- which turned out to be a cow with a mouth full of river slime!

    We know you actually pushed the guy in the street to the side to vacate your shot. Since the Japanese are impervious to your stare (they being the original masters), I’m sure you had to forcibly move him to the side, rather than just make eye contact and “suggest” it.

    Maybe the guy with the incense was trying to get rid of you?

    Miss You!!!


    • Hmmm, you’re usually standing right behind me ready to snap pictures as soon as the obstacle is removed. Then it makes great fodder for your journal entry later. Anyway, it was fortuitous the guy fell over a tree limb which suddenly fell in his path. Wish you were there to hold the drawer open!


  7. Beautiful, and I too love cemeteries. Have visited the ones in New Orleans which are truly haunting, and I’ve got a most awesome, fantastic, amazing cemetery nearby, none other than Highgate Cemetery, and so, when you ask “Anybody got a good cemetery story or picture to share?” I have to nod, and say “yes, yes, I do” lol. I wrote a post about it a while back, I’ll attach to the end of this comment.

    You lived in New Orleans? I almost moved there in 1995 but ended up in London instead.



  8. Dana says:

    One of the most powerful cemeteries I’ve ever visited was in the old Jewish Quarters of Prague. The grave dates went back FOREVER, and the only reason why the whole area wasn’t obliterated during WWII was because the Nazis wanted to have a ‘museum of a lost civilization’, and they chose Prague to be the museum’s HQ. One of the synagogues (Pinkas Synagogue) in the quarters acts as a different sort of cemetery– the names of all the Jewish residents who had been exterminated by the Nazis are written right onto the synagogue walls, and every single wall in the whole synagogue is COVERED with names. I burst into tears when we visited– it was so powerful. http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/a-ex-pinkas.htm


    • I’ve always wanted to go there. If we live multiple lives, I must have been killed in the Holocaust. As a small kid I used to dream about soldiers burning my house and taking me from my family although I’d never seen any images like that. Later in life I recognized those images in movies and pictures from prison camps and the movement of the Jewish community to camps. So sad to think about how the world would be different had all those people lived. Thanks for the story and the link Dana.


  9. Profesor says:

    Great. I love cemeteries and am now feeling a bit nostalgic for Japan


  10. Profesor says:

    Yes. There are some great gothic cemeteries here but it’s nice to be amongst things you haven’t grown up with sometimes.


  11. Pingback: Tombstone Code - BlogDogIt

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