When I have a problem, a problem, part of my brain makes an urgent suggestion to leave the country. I’m from England, which would fit Texas five times with leftovers so it’s not a huge achievement. Discouraged after graduation? Move to Mexico for two years. Friends exceeded their New Year’s Eve greeting? God I’m tired, let’s get out of the country. An impending economic collapse after a no-deal Brexit? Let’s move to Spain or something; I look inside.
And when my partner and I found Chris, his father, dead eight days later, I left the country eight times. We had lived with him for two years during the last job crisis in the UK. After moving out, we returned for Sunday lunch. Chris would gather us around the table with a cheery, “Come on, Trooperoos!” Cover up. When he stopped answering emails, I told myself for a week that he was busy.
Until we found him. Until everything stopped.
As days turned into weeks, I sat at my computer digitally tracking everyone I knew to make sure they hadn’t dropped dead too. No news is good news, but not a lot of good news seemed to satisfy me. There was always another person whom I should check, further and further removed from my circle of people.
It took me a while to realize – and longer had to admit – that during this absurd pursuit I had stopped going outside and even stayed away from the window to avoid the onslaught of terror and disgust that enveloped me as I looked at the world.
Always someone swinging from one ridiculous extreme to the other, not only have I defeated agoraphobia, I have beaten it to a pulp. While I was writing a book about how other cultures deal with fear of death, I attended seven festivals for the dead – in Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan, and Indonesia, with a stop in the US for California Life Extenders and New Zealanders interview. Orlean ghost hunters.
I picnicked in cemeteries, danced with corpses – but the emotional sucker came during what I expected the gentlest festival in Japan.
Kyoto is a delightful collection of amenities. But it’s lonely. I only speak functional Japanese after a hastily intensive week of classes. Everyone I love sleeps until around 4 p.m.
I take long walks around town looking for signs of the visiting dead. Obon, the festival for the dead that drew me to Japan, begins with an invitation for the spirits to come, and the invitation is valid for one week. On my last day in Kyoto, the mountains surrounding the city are set on fire to summon the ghosts to leave, huge campfires in the shape of Chinese characters that burn for miles.
Four months before my lonely hikes through Kyoto, I celebrated Cheng Meng, a Thai rerun of a Chinese festival for the dead. My father has lived in Thailand with his wife X (pronounced “Ek”) for over half my life. After a picnic at the grave, people burn paper money as gifts for the dead.
The tradition came about because people wanted their dead to have everything they needed in heaven and thought that this might involve bribing a judge or two. A famous Chinese scholar once said, “Only the Chinese would think of the afterlife as a huge bureaucracy.”
In recent years, Thais have branched out in terms of gifts for the dead – paper iPads, paper cars, paper claw foot baths, even giant paper mansions that cost hundreds and turn to ashes in minutes.
A few years ago, X and her mother Mae burned a paper cell phone for the first time. A few weeks later, Mae said to X, rather annoyed, “Your father never called me from heaven.” X put her palm on her forehead. “Oh no! It must be that we forgot to burn a charger for him!”
We unpacked the sumptuous picnic, lit candles and incense and deposited the paper gifts for the dead at the foot of the grave – proud of the three-piece suits made of paper with tie pins and clocks made of paper and iPhones.
“X,” said Dad, “did you bring a charger this year?”
The whole group burst out laughing. I looked at Mae as she laughed too. I think she’s still hoping he’ll call.
Today the dead are going home in Kyoto.
My guide Akari suggested watching the bonfires from the bridge at Demachiyanagi Station. I arrive an hour early to grab a seat. I expect a few hours standing on a bridge watching some distant bonfires that form the shape of the Chinese character “dai” which means “large”. I don’t expect to feel changed forever, but since Akari and I went to a temple at the beginning of Obon and called Chris over here without warning, it would be rude not to attend the farewell ceremony.
Some policemen politely distract me from the bridge and I sit on a sloping bench. The mountain is far away, but dead before me. People arrive, mostly in groups of families or friends, but a lonely Japanese woman in a black sleeveless summer dress takes a seat next to me.
The scars of the Dai symbol are visible on the mountain all year round. Right now it is full of kindles on which people have written their wishes – for the dead, for themselves, for the people who love and have loved them. The divine postal system.
It’s amazing how easily we accept symbols from other cultures. If I accepted a wish you wrote and burned it in front of your eyes in a Walmart parking lot, for example, you would probably consider it an act of violence. “Health and happiness, you say? UP IN FLAMES. How do you like me now? Less, I imagine.” Yet it appears perfectly healthy in both Japan and Thailand, with a moral weight on its beauty.
An orange dot comes to life in the center of the scar and spreads through the limbs of the symbol. The crowd gasps and oohs. Phone screens soar into the air all around like a choreographed act of worship. Since I had no one to harm, I put on my headphones and watched the ancestors drive a ride on fire smoke.
Obon Festival, Photo Credit TokyoPop
Of all the feasts for the dead I have seen, only Obon endorses a farewell ritual to ensure the dead do not exceed their reception. I wonder if other countries just assume they understand the hint, or if they just found out here in Japan that grief doesn’t heal like a cut, that it is healthy to work out a moment to revisit past losses to experience A festival for the dead is really about saying goodbye. And again and again.
And I feel it My tear ducts start to tingle. I look at the woman next to me who is watching the fires with pure love in her eyes colored with sadness and joy. It’s a 5,000 story term. She is in her own world – and so I know that it is me. Once again I have put thousands of miles between myself and everyone who knows or loves me. I am here alone. Invisible. So I let it happen. I lowered the British barrier and tears silently dripped from my cheeks.
Grief comes in waves. The wound opens and closes over years. I understand that now. And I can sew that back together later.
“Go on, Trooperoo,” I whisper as the fires fade. “Ready to go.”
And I think of Mae, 2,500 miles southwest of those flames still waiting on the phone.
Erica Buist is a London-based writer and journalist, primarily for the Guardian. This essay is from her upcoming book This Party’s Dead, a mix of journalism and memoir, in which she travels to seven death festivals. This Party’s Dead will be released on February 18, 2021 and can be pre-ordered from Unbound. The e-book is available from Barnes & Noble. She tweeted @ericabuist