How are the dead given a voice through the living? I’m not talking about seances or Madame Bovary here. As we read the “Segregation of the Dead” portion of Echoes in the Bone, I thought about how we not only treat bodies of the dead, but their spirits as well. One specific faith I know of jumped out at me – Shinto. The propinquity within which societies place their dead (either physical, spiritual, or both) in relation to themselves varies across the world, but this culture in particular places special significance on the actual treatment of all spirits, and how close they always are to us. I find it exceedingly interesting when viewing it alongside Echoes in the Bone.
Japanese Shinto doesn’t have many tenets. The main four are to value family and tradition, physical cleanliness, a love of nature, and matsuri – which is the celebration of kami, or spirits. There’s also an unwritten fifth tenet and capstone of the entire ideology, Makoto. In Shinto all things in existence have a soul, from a drinking cup, to a stone in a stream, to the clouds in the sky. Everything has an essence that is worthy of respect and courtesy. You can sometimes see this in cinema and books with a Shinto culture. In feudal Japanese settings, for instance, characters move with a sort of mindfulness and reverence not usually found in western cinema. A samurai retainer may be offered a tray of sushi by a house servant in a methodical and almost mechanical way. The servant is not only respecting the retainer, but the tray, the sushi and wasabi, and the floor on which he places his knees. Everything has a soul. Makoto essentially places the heart, and more specifically the sincerity of a good heart, as the foundation and central belief in Shinto. Due to its inherent morality, this creed appears to find a lot of common ground with other religions around the world. However, the execution of this belief is what separates it; it doesn’t matter if you follow all the rules, regulations, and commandments of the religion. If goodness and sincerity are not in your heart, following the faith is an exercise in futility. It’s very accepting of other religions, and it doesn’t tie you down with much in the way of rules. Simply live true to yourself, respect and love nature and those around you, and celebrate the spirits. Perhaps the connectedness of the departed and the alive is already shining through in that short description.
On page 50 of Echoes in the Bone, Joseph Roach claims that one of the most important parts of what constitutes a particular place is the “gregarious presence of the dead.” While the European Enlightenment may have sought the end of such a close connection between the living and the deceased, Shinto still takes the lasting of a soul after the body has passed quite seriously. It is not, however, a faith with an afterlife. There is no heaven for the good or Hell for the evil (although in Shinto you can believe in them if you wish). Instead, Shinto places emphasis on the idea that this is the only life we live. This intertwines nicely when we consider how memory plays a huge part in the impact on us when someone we know dies. If we did not know them well or are not particularly fond of them, we may feel a pang of sorrow for the loss of a life that we know we too will lose one day, or perhaps an empathy over the collective doom awaiting all of us. When someone we have emotional connection to dies, though, there is a whole new level of sorrow and fear that is perhaps not as prevalent with the stranger. We shared emotions with these people, we have memories of who they were, and the world is different to us without them. As stated on page 34, the dead may find a voice through the living. We tend to remember good people, or examples of goodness if not the vessels. This is my interpretation of Shinto’s “afterlife.” You may die but if you were truthful and good of heart, the memory of you lasts longer and influences people in a beneficial way. Your conscious self goes no further, but the soul or spirit that was not part of your conscious self goes on to disperse itself across all time and space. Therefore, when your progeny or friends visit your shrine, your spirit will meet them in memories of who you were. It is essentially a reflection of how dear and important you were to those around you, and it moves on to inhabit different things or people throughout time. To Shinto, the spirit world is right here in the same space as the physical world; after reading Roach I think it’s just called memory. And there is a memory to everything. Someone put effort into making that cup you’re drinking out of, the stream shaped and smoothed that stone that sits in it so comfortably now, and those clouds have influenced plants to grow and physical life to continue in its myriad forms through their innumerable reformations. Just as Roach claims, the living are empowered by the memory of the dead. Shinto, to a new interpretation with Roach In mind, can be seen as collective memory and trying to honor it. Shinto is to respect the eternity that has passed before you got here, and respect that an eternity waits in front of you while being mindful of the time you’re in. In this way, it’s extremely inclusive of the dead in the lives of the living, allowing their memory to influence how we may lead our lives. At the same time, Shinto is extremely segregated. Families have different shrines for one thing, and if Makoto isn’t followed, that person’s soul doesn’t become part of the collective spirit world. Much like memory, the only thing that determines the fate of your eternal soul is an internal process. We decide what parts of our past to hold on to, and we decide what ideals to follow in our lives. Moreover, memory can get away from us, or be brought back, but never in physical distance. Memory is always close by, but at the same time it could be a lifetime away.
The closeness in which Shinto places the dead and the living points to a coexistence of sorts. We continue to interact with the dead and live by their wisdom by visiting the family shrine and being near their remains, much like a cemetery. Unlike a cemetery, however, there is no segregation; we’re right there with the countless souls of our ancestors. In this light, a prominent belief in Shinto becomes much more apparent – the spirit world and real world are one and the same, and so are we to an extent. When there is a connectedness between souls and people, the memories of them can intermingle and be shared between separate entities and persons, and the whole one love and respect for nature around us serves as a sort of heaven on Earth. This might be getting a little heady, so I’ll attempt to narrow it down. When Roach discusses segregation of the dead, there isn’t any segregation but at the same time only segregation in Shinto. The shrine is thought to be a gateway to the spirit world and the remains of the body rest there, but the actual spirit world is still all around us. However, you can’t be a kami in Shinto unless you live sincerely, so anyone who doesn’t follow Makoto is separated from the spirit world forever. Much more can be said about the practice of Shinto as it relates to the churn or the cycle of life and death while celebrating the kami, but I don’t want to make a kitchen sink out of this, so I’ll just say the paradox of these extremes is interesting to me. As a final note, think of Ralph Ellison’s opening quote on the first page in Echoes in the Bone, and apply it to Shinto and kami. We’re more likely to remember people and events favorably, especially when we’re directly affected by the remembrance itself.