Recently I saw a film, or should I say, I rewatched a film called Departures. It’s about a gentleman who lives in the city. He plays the cello in an orchestra. He spends a significant sum of money–I believe it was 180,000 yen–and he gets himself into debt to buy this cello so that he can fulfil his dream of playing in an orchestra. And he fulfills that dream.
Very shortly after he fulfils his dream, the orchestra disbands and he’s left wondering what he’s meant to do with his life. To clear his debt, he sells off his expensive cello. As soon as he sells it off, he feels like a weight has been lifted from him. He’s relieved to get rid of it. At that point, he realises that maybe that was not his true dream and that his real dream was something else altogether.
He moves to the countryside with his wife and returns to his childhood home. His mom had passed away a few years prior, but still, he decides to re-start a new life in his hometown.
One day, he flips through the paper and sees a job ad that says something about ‘sending people off on a journey’. He thinks it’s for a job at a travel agency. But when he finally goes for the interview, he realises that it’s for a job for an encoffiner.
He’s a little hesitant and taken aback. He’s like, “Well, I’m not sure,” and this and that. The owner tells him, “Look, it’s fate. Why don’t you just try it out, I’ll pay you daily.” The owner offers him a significant sum of money and he decides to try it out.
The very first body he goes to see is of an old lady who had died alone. She’d been dead for two weeks. He and his boss went in to see the body. When he walked in, there was this terrible smell. So he threw up. In the car, on the way back, his boss tells him that it’s a pretty tough one for a first body viewing.
The Open Secret
Throughout the time that he’s going through this journey to becoming an encoffiner, he keeps it away from his wife, because in Japan, it’s not considered a very great profession. People who work in the so-called ‘Death Industry’ are shunned. But he continues this work. He finds meaning and his true self through doing this work.
Later on, the townspeople and his wife–they find out he’s doing this work. The townspeople shun him. His wife, in particular, tries to talk him out of it. She says, “Don’t do this. Why don’t you get a decent job and have a good life…” He tries to explain to her that he needs to do this. She shuns him and exclaims that he’s filthy. When he refuses to stop working as an encoffiner, she leaves him and heads off to stay with her own family. She issues him an ultimatum, saying that she won’t come back till he quits.
He continues on his path alone. He even starts playing the cello again. With time, he begins to do the embalming rites himself. And with each family he encounters; you see the unresolved issues, the unspoken affairs, all the things that we do not speak about, refuse to speak about and refuse to acknowledge during one’s lifetime.
In death, however, everything comes clean. The regrets people have, the disputes that they had with the deceased, the love they had, the challenges–everything just comes to light in this moment of darkness. Death is what brings out this light in everyone, to make them see how poorly they had all lived their lives and how much better they could have done with what they had been allotted.
Some time passes and one day, his wife comes back. She announces that she’s pregnant. And so once again, it begins. She tells him that now it’s time for him to settle down and get a decent job. He doesn’t respond to her demands. And then finally, his wife gets a letter that says that her father-in-law, whom her husband hasn’t seen in years and who he describes as ‘a lousy father’, has passed away.
Initially, he doesn’t want to go and see his father. But at the encouragement of his wife, he goes to see his dad whom he hasn’t seen in so many years. For the longest time, he thought that his dad had abandoned him and his mother to run off with a waitress. But when he arrives at the house of his father, he realises that his dad had been alone this whole time and that there was actually no one else.
In his father’s hand, he finds a gift that he had given him many years ago.
It reminded me so much of the mistakes we make and the regrets we have that we take with us. You know, right up to our final moments, we remember when and where a certain decision was made–a decision which cannot be taken back–but whose consequences we live with right up to our final moments.
His father lives in another town and all his father has are a couple of cardboard boxes. The people who come to do the funeral rites, they’re nowhere near as professional as him because he’s an encoffiner. They’re very careless with the body. They just want to take it and toss it into the coffin and they’re very hasty with all his belongings. At this point he’s like, “Hey, you know, this is not how you do this.”
His heart changes and he starts doing the final embalming rites. And as you’re watching this moment where he is lovingly sending his father away into the next world, he finally finds the resolution that he’s seeking. Because that’s the end.
That’s the end of a particular journey and the beginning of a new one.
In that moment, knowledge that had been hidden from him is finally revealed. He’s finally able to come to peace–not only with his father–but with the work that he’s doing. Even his wife is able to come to peace with the work that her husband is doing. Up until that point, she had been ashamed of the work he had chosen to do. But in that moment, she, too, finds and comes to peace. She’s even proud of him.
There’s this scene towards the end–even before he sends his father off–where he meets the gentleman who performs cremations. The gentleman sees himself as The Gatekeeper as he’s the one who sends souls onto their next journey. He says something along the lines of, “I’m the gatekeeper,” cause he’s the one who is there for the ultimate departure.
He allows souls to pass into the next phase or the next part of their life’s journey. Because that is what death is. It sends you off on your next journey.
The thought that came to me very strongly as I watched this film was, “What is your true dream?”
It’s probably not the one that you thought you had: the one that we develop through going to school or embarking on a career path. It’s probably not revealed through all of the accolades that we receive, through whether or not people glorify us or demonise us, or through whether people accept us or whether people shun us.
It has nothing to do with whether people say to us, “Wow, you’ve done this great thing,” or “Wow, you’ve done this terrible thing.” It has little to do with how much money you make, how intelligent you are or whether or not you actually get to do the things you want to do and create the life you want to create.
The whole crux of this story is that your true dream remains hidden until it rises to meet you. And it’s probably something that we truly want and yet it is hidden from us. It is probably a talent that you have that you’re not even aware of. And it’s something that you’re meant to do and maybe when it first appears to you, you may look at it and think, “No way. This is this is just ridiculous. Like you have to be kidding me like, this is not what I am meant to be doing with my life.” You may even have a sense of, “No, no, no, no, no.” But whoever is there with you at the time says, “No, this is your path. This is your dream.”
And so you start walking and as you’re walking down this path, you face fear. You face rejection. You are shunned by people whom you know and knew. You are told that you’re worthless. You are told that your work is worthless. And all of this continues till the point that someone faces that loss and they call in the encoffiner.
And he’s there. He’s there for all these people who had shunned him. He’s there and he says, “I’m here to send off your loved one onto the next journey.”
Perhaps that is the dream. To find the place from where you can depart and never return.