A female mortuary worker reveals the hidden work style of “Departures”: “I don’t want to make the bereaved family cry at the funeral.” | FRIDAY DIGITAL

A female mortuary worker reveals the hidden work style of “Departures”: “I don’t want to make the bereaved family cry at the funeral.”

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Mr. Kato interviewed by this magazine

When someone dies, I think everyone has a sense of fear, such as a fear of looking at the grim face of the deceased. In fact, I was very afraid of seeing my husband’s face when he passed away. But in reality, he had a peaceful face, as if he was still alive.

When I saw his face, I finally felt saved. The people who attended the service stopped for a while, and I think they were able to say goodbye to the chairman properly. It was a moment that completely changed my values.”

Tomomi, wife of former Japan Boxing Federation President Akira Yamane (84 years old), who passed away on January 31, recalled the funeral service held in Osaka City. When a funeral service is held for a deceased person, it is common practice to have a person with the title of “nokanshi (coffin collector)” take care of the body and make up the corpse. However, for the Yamane family’s funeral, a body preservationist was hired.

Before the chairman’s death, I happened to meet a friend of the manager, who happened to be a mortuary technician. We jokingly said, ‘When our chairman passes away, we will ask her to take care of the body.

Chisato Koto, 50, who has been working in this field for about 20 years, is the person in question. Unlike nokanshin-shi (coffin-maker), body preservationists focus on restoring and repairing the remains of the deceased. Even if a body is severely damaged, they have a special technique to restore it as if it were still alive. Sometimes he is confronted with bodies that make him want to cover his eyes, but Mr. Kato does not turn away.

Recently, I think people’s view of life and death has become strange,” he says. Funeral homes are too careful, and they say that it is better not to touch the deceased if he or she is a young person, or not to show his or her face. The funeral service ends without a proper final farewell, and the bereaved family returns to their daily lives with a sense of sadness.

I want to face the deceased properly. Nowadays, he says, bereaved families come to him with such thoughts in mind. He has been asked to preserve the remains of many people, from governors and other politicians to businessmen and even victims of crimes. While still unfamiliar to the Japanese, in Europe and the United States, body preservation has become widely accepted in society.

The main reason for its popularity in Europe and the United States was war. It started with restoring and reconstructing bodies damaged in war and delivering them to their families. However, because skin tissue differs by race, if Western drugs and techniques are used on Asians, they may end up looking like dolls. In order to bring them closer to life, we preserve the bodies according to the yellow race.”

The war had no small bearing on Ms. Kato’s decision to become a mortuary worker. Her father, a native of Hiroshima, was an atomic bomb survivor. Many of her friends, including her father, were A-bomb survivors.

She said, “Growing up, I spent a lot of time watching people who were victims of the atomic bombing up close and personal. My father was also an A-bomb survivor, and I saw up close the scars on his body. When my father had a stomach ulcer, he contracted hepatitis B from a blood transfusion during surgery. It was a nosocomial infection. Now it would be a matter of litigation, but at the time there were no guarantees regarding hepatitis B. When I was 10 years old, my father died. My father died when I was 10 years old. There were only three of us left: me, my sister, and my mother. I was afraid of infection in the family, so I took a test, but only one of my sisters tested positive.

However, I was still very young and did not know about it until just before my sister passed away. When I saw my sister’s corpse, there was nothing I could do. I really wanted to dress her in a kimono and clean her up before sending her off. I thought that I should not touch the corpse, and regret remained as a thorn in my heart for a long time. It was then that a friend of mine introduced me to the work of preserving corpses.

When Mr. Kato turned 30, he changed jobs with a yusho company that bathed and cleaned corpses. However, that company could not specialize in the preservation and repair of corpses. His passion for the preservation of corpses grew stronger, and at the age of 36, Mr. Kato started his own business. It was around the time he turned 40 that he mastered the basics of corpse preservation.

Mr. Kohto with his tools for work.

I don’t want to make the bereaved family cry one more time when we say goodbye. My most important job is not to receive money, but to replace memories. I don’t want them to remember the pained face of the bereaved when they meet the body.

For example, for identification, we are shown a photograph or taken to the mortuary, but in the case of a badly damaged deceased, some people are traumatized when they are confronted with the body. They say, “This is your son, isn’t it? I want you to stop that. It may be unavoidable, but the family is extremely hurt there. That’s why we want to replace the memory. I want them to remember this face, not that pained face.”

In her hands, “it is possible to make a corpse look 20 years younger,” she says. However, people feel uncomfortable if they are made to look too young. The deceased’s face and skeletal structure are used to create a picture in the mind of how he or she looked before falling ill.

The deceased’s death certificate only describes the cause of death. However, the circumstances leading up to the death are all shown on the corpse, so I use that to find out what happened. The color of the skin also differs depending on the disease, whether it came from the brain or heart disease. Is it from water in the body? Even in people who have died from a hard blow to the head, if the bleeding has stopped inside the head, the color changes quickly. So you have to pinpoint that bleeding and pull it out. These techniques were explored and improved with the advice of a doctor friend of mine.”

In some cases, he had to watch over the body 24 hours a day in order to monitor changes in the body. Mr. Kato also says, “Many of the requests we have received recently have been for suicide cases. Many of the requests we receive these days are for suicides and solitary deaths. The bereaved families turn to her as a last resort.

One person called me from the police station in tears a long time ago,” she says. It was a father who had lost his daughter who spoke, saying in a sad voice, ‘Can you please put it back together? They were waiting for the train together, father and daughter, when the daughter jumped into the train right in front of them. Her body was mutilated and the damage to her face was severe.”

Bullying was the cause, he said. Since she died before she came of age, her parents wished to have her wear a sun dress.

We made a bridge across her nose to restore her beautiful face, and then we dressed her in a kimono and placed her in a coffin that showed only her profile. At that time, only the profile was restored and repaired. The parents were very happy and said, ‘We should have had a bigger ceremony. People always say things like, “We should have invited more people,” or “We shouldn’t have had a family funeral. The same is true when a loved one commits suicide. There is no correct answer for how to hold a funeral service for each person. Whether or not the bereaved family can say goodbye properly is what is important.

Parents, who were the ones to send their children off before the bereaved, especially feel a sense of relief when they see their children’s faces restored to their original color after such a tragic situation. They say it looks like a sleeping face. There are actually many bereaved families who have lost a loved one who blame themselves. They wonder what they did wrong. But I tell them. It is no one’s fault. Everyone blames themselves more than necessary. I also believe that my real job is to preserve the hearts and minds of the bereaved families.

Mr. Kato’s work in dealing with the bodies of the dead will continue in the future.

  • Interview, text, and photographs Kei Kato

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