Departures, a film from Japan released in 2008, presents a beautiful and humorous meditation on life, death and funeral rituals. This Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film can help open the door to funeral planning conversations, and so, it is today’s Friday Funeral Film.
Departures traces the professional and personal transformation of Daigo, an unemployed cello player, into a specialist in the ritual of encoffinment for the dead. Along his journey, we see families transformed as they watch their loved ones meticulously prepared for their final dispositions.
More than 99% of the population in Japan is cremated, and ritual is part of the process. That is not at all the case here in the United States.
According to the latest report from CANA (Cremation Association of North America), in the United States, the national cremation rate is now 44% on average, with some states as high as 74% (Nevada) and others as low as 16% (Mississippi).
In a recent study by the Batesville Corporation, funeral homes reported that roughly 42% of U.S. cremation families select a cremation without a service (direct cremation). Combined with private identification, about 60% of families don’t have a service. However, their research also indicates that 68% of families desire having some sort of gathering, while 32% don’t want any type of gathering. This is not the Japanese way.
Departures shows families watching the purification ceremony of washing, dressing and makeup application to prepare the deceased for their afterlife journey. Traditionally, the family did this death care themselves at home. Although the film implies this ceremony in the home is routine, these days it is usually done behind the scenes at a funeral home.
Departures also illustrates the discomfort and aversion many individuals feel about people who work in the funeral profession. Daigo’s journey to become a professional coffin man has its challenges.
He hides the truth about his new job from his wife. She leaves him after she finds out what he’s really been doing when he goes to work. He witnesses scenes of family strife, is scorned by family and friends, and wants to quit.
Yet, he stays with it and becomes adept at preparing the deceased with care and grace.
The film resonates with themes of family discord and reconciliation. After a lonely winter for Daigo, his wife returns in the spring. She learns to respect the profound impact of his work.
By the end of the film, the preparation ritual becomes personal for Daigo, as he faces his deceased father who abandoned the family decades earlier. While “washing away the weariness of the world” for his father’s departure, he is able to come to terms with his own anger and find forgiveness.
Viewing scenes from Departures can facilitate discussion of the value of funeral rituals in processing grief, while providing glimpses into the work of those in the funeral profession. Departures offers food for thought on what may come after this physical lifetime ends and beautifully illuminates the intertwining of life and death.
Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®, is the host of the A Good Goodbye TV series and Internet radio show on the RockStar Radio Network. She is author of the award-winning book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die, a Certified Funeral Celebrant and a public speaker who uses funny films to help start preneed funeral planning conversations.