In the Japanese film ‘Departures’, a young unemployed cellist, Daigo, inadvertently finds himself in a job preparing recently deceased for the coffin. This is done in a highly ritualised manner, at the house of the deceased, in front of the family. His new boss, Sasaki, is an older man of few words. However, when Daigo follows him to his assignments, he sees with what care and attentiveness Sasaki prepares the bodies. Following a closely-prescribed ritual so the body is always treated with respect and never exposed, Sasaki washes the deceased, dresses them in a beautiful kimono, applies make up and arranges the hair. Family members are invited to wipe the face of their loved one with a cloth and say good-bye. Through his gentle tending of the body, Sasaki creates a space for the family to be with their loved one final time before they are locked into the coffin. Daigo witnesses the gratitude of the families at being able to participate in this ritual. Despite the stigma associated with the profession, and the opposition of his wife Mika, who thinks it is disgusting, he finds the job deeply rewarding and stays committed to it.
What is beautifully portrayed in this film is the healing power of taking care. There will be no national honours for Daigo and Sasaki, no widespread adoration, or lucrative engagements running motivational seminars. In fact, they operate at the edge of their society, shunned unless needed, constantly dealing with prejudice and rudeness. But the service they provide, and it is a service in the deepest meaning of the word, is profoundly healing and transformative for those whose houses they enter. The healing power doesn’t lie in the job itself, but in the tender, mindful way they go about it. The ritual space they create allows the families to grieve, to express their love, and to begin the long journey of saying good-bye.
We come across people like Daigo and Sasaki every day, but often we may hardly notice them. They don’t draw attention to themselves, and their tasks can be mundane and unglamorous. But we know when we are in their presence, because the care they take when interacting with the world leaves us feeling at ease and appreciated.
Weekly practice idea:
Find an ordinary, routine task and perform it with attentive care throughout the week. Take time to notice how this feels.