Mom’s Body at the Funeral House

Nagahama Keiko, 29, Housewife, Kobe-shi Nada-ku

On January 17th, I was wakened by a prolonged and violent earthquake that struck early in the morning. As soon as the quake stopped, the sirens of numerous fire engines of the Nada Fire Station started to fill the air.

“Fires?” I got up to check, and although the room was pitched dark, I could see that the electrical appliances and pottery figurines were scattered all over the place. My husband, in-laws and I quickly ran out of the house. The house next to ours seemed to have been crushed. At this moment, it did not occur to me that my parents’ house at Nada Minamido-ory, about 10 minute’s walk from where I was, had faced the same fate and that my mother had lost her life.

Her body lay in the funeral house at the Ouji Sports Center for the nine days before the cremation. During this period, including the two nights that I stayed over at the Center, I traveled in and out of the funeral house many times. What I experienced and witnessed then, I will never forget.

On January 19th, I stepped into the funeral house for the first time. The bodies of the victims were wrapped in blankets and quilts, and carried in one after another. In the Ken hall where my mother’s body was kept, more than 100 bodies lay still. When my sister and I reached the funeral house, we found that Mom’s clothes were cut open, and she was wrapped in blankets for post-mortem examination.

Mom was killed near the staircase of her house, caught between huge beams. Her body could not be retrieved on the same day. It was only with the help of a construction contractor the next day that we managed to get her out. It was then that we first saw her body – her four limps had turned blue.

During the examination of her body, my uncle and aunt, my sister and I held up the blankets to form temporary blanket walls around her, so that nobody else could see the process. I was stunned during the post-mortem. Looking at the traces of the beam still visible on her back and the expression on her face, I figured she had probably died an instant death without prolonged suffering. After the post-mortem, I finally came to accept the fact that Mom had passed away.

After the examination, we dusted the dirt off her body. Then, my sister and I tried to apply cosmetic foundation on Mom’s face, lipstick on her lips and even manicure her nails. However, as Mom’s body was congested with blood and had turned blue, her skin shrank when we touched it, and there was no way we could put on a proper foundation for her. Her fingers had turned blue too, and manicuring them did not help at all. The sight of all these greatly saddened me.

After we were done with the makeup, we noticed a couple cutting open the clothes of the victims lying nearby for post-mortem. This couple, about the same age as I, lost their two children. As they put the scissors to the clothes, they started to weep miserably. Judging from the size of the bodies, now wrapped in blankets, the victims could be 7 and 3 years old respectively. They were very young.
Although I have no children, at my age, I could have one if I chose to. The sight of the couple really pained me. I could not help asking myself, “If I had children, would I be able to protect them from the earthquake?”

At the night of post-mortem, the casket finally arrived. I helped lower Mom into it. Her body felt extremely cold. I had never touched a corpse before, and was shocked at how cold it felt. It was tough helping Mom into her kimono and the casket. I was also surprised at the weight of her body. When I saw it on TV, I used to wonder why it took many men to carry the corpse of a disaster or accident victim. Now I knew why.

I spent that night with my mother-in-law at the funeral house. The Ken hall was very chilly. I was able to sleep soundly for two or three hours although the lights were not turned off – probably due to the fatigue from being unable to sleep on the 17th and 18th back at home.

Once I was awakened, however, I was bombarded with the wailing sirens of the ambulances, fire engines and patrol cars, which aroused the fear of aftershocks in me. I could not fall asleep again.

The nine days from January 17th (the earthquake day) to 25th when mom was cremated at the Nishikami Funeral Hall was a very long moment. I did not know how I had managed to survived the ordeal.

Two months after the earthquake, I finally came to terms with the fact that Mom is no more with us. Although I can remember the coldness from her skin, her death still feels so unreal to me. I think I would really accept that she is gone only after I have given birth and raised my own kids.