Remembering Loved Ones on the Other Shore

On the morning of Saturday, August 8, we will begin our Obon Observances by visiting the graves of our loved ones to conduct memorial services at four local cemeteries. Later that evening we will have our Obon Odori Dancing at the temple. The following morning, on Sunday, August 9, we will have our Obon Service in the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, including the Hatsubon Observance, which is an opportunity for all the families who have also lost a loved one this past year to come together and find comfort and support in the Sangha. All of these activities are treasured Buddhist rituals that help us to appreciate the truth that birth and death are not two opposite ends of our lives, but constantly present with us in each moment.

A few years ago when my parents were visiting from Minnesota, we observed the Fifty Year Memorial Service for my paternal grandmother Norma Elizabeth Corcoran Adams, who passed away suddenly during a routine operation when my father was just fourteen years old. As an only child, losing the single mother who was raising him turned his whole world upside down. He rarely speaks of that difficult time in his youth, and when I first suggested that we observe the Fifty Year Memorial, he did not seem particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of revisiting memories of his mother’s passing. He was even less enthusiastic about my suggestion that one day we might visit her gravesite in Montana. However, as the date of their trip drew near, he began to take an interest in the memorial service.

My father loves to digitally archive photos, and enjoyed going back through the scanned pictures he had of his mother to find a beautiful image of her as a young woman in military uniform from her service during the Second World War. On the day of the memorial service, we set the framed photograph along with a simple arrangement of flowers made by my mother on a small table in front of the incense burner in the main hall of the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. It was a simple service with just my parents, Shoko, Ryoma, and me. After the service, my father told me that it had been decided when his mother passed away that it would be too troubling for him to attend the funeral. The Fifty Year Memorial that we held was his first opportunity since her passing to formally express the gratitude he feels for his mother.

Prior to the service I explained that while offering incense is a Buddhist tradition, one need not be a Buddhist in order to participate in the ritual. Offering incense in remembrance of someone does not make you a Buddhist, nor does it negate any other religious beliefs you might have.  Likewise, if the person who passed away was not a Buddhist, offering incense in their memory is not an attempt to convert them to Buddhism in the afterlife. Even though my parents are Christian and my grandmother Norma was a good Irish Catholic, a Buddhist memorial service provided an opportunity for us to come together in the remembrance of her life and the way she touched us all.During the service, we discovered a special closeness as a family remembering the wonderful woman who raised my father to become the kind and caring husband, father, and grandfather we love.

A few years later after we moved to San Mateo, my parents drove out here for a visit. Along the way they stopped in Montana to visit my grandmother’s grave. My father called me up on his cell phone from the cemetery and talked about the feeling of peace it gave him to visit his mother’s gravesite. My father would not call himself a Buddhist. And yet, I have observed how participation in these Buddhist memorial practices has helped to transform the sadness he felt when his mother passed away into gratitude for the life they lived together. Indeed, that togetherness of mother and son continues today in the care my father shares with his own wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandsons.

Even though I never met my grandmother Norma, the love she gave my father and the appreciation for stable family life that he learned from parting with her at such a young age had a great influence on the way my father cared for me as I grew up.  In her life and our experience of remembering her, I encounter the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha at work in my life. Now her photo sits next to the Buddha Shrine in our living room in San Mateo. We remember her daily as we light incense and join our hands in gassho. Visitors to our house often ask questions about the photo. As we share her story with friends, we are reminded that her life made the lives we live today possible, and in that way she is always present in our lives.

May this Obon season be an opportunity for all of us to come to a deeper appreciation of how our family and friends who now dwell on the Other Shore and continue to guide and support us each day.


Namo Amida Butsu