Wordcatcher Tales: Noukanshi, Encoffiner

納棺師 noukanshi ‘encoffiner’ (lit. ‘closing-coffin-master’) – I learned both a new Japanese word and a new English gloss from watching the Japanese movie, Departures (おくりびと Okuribito lit. ‘sender, dispatcher’, 2008), about a cellist who became an encoffiner. I initially scoffed at its premise and was not overly impressed by its Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, but decided to give it a try, as much for its potential musicality as its morbidity.

It far exceeded my expectations on both counts. Although quintessentially Japanese in so many ways, it could be adapted to every other human culture on earth—even Neanderthals, who buried their dead with some indications of ritual. The original cello score by “Joe Hisaishi” (久石 譲 = Kuishi Joe < “Quincy Jones”) was an added bonus, as was the interview with the director, so full of surprises. Highly recommended, despite being recent and award-winning!

In Japan, the 納棺師 noukanshi ‘encoffiner’ is hired by the 葬儀屋 sougiyafuneral director’. Not so long ago (perhaps even nowadays), anyone who was hired to handle dead bodies, or even leather, would have been of outcast status, although until recently the family of the deceased would more likely have been responsible for preparing the body.

In fact, a more traditional, less exalted, and more sexist term for the same role appears in the 1996 novel by Aoki Shinmon that inspired the film, 納棺夫日記 Noukanfu nikki (‘encoffiner diary’). The 夫 fu on the end of 納棺夫 noukanfu literally means ‘man, husband’ (in the latter meaning usually pronounced otto or fuu) but implies a manual laborer, as in 田夫 denpu ‘peasant (field hand)’, 農夫 noufu ‘farmer (farm hand)’, 牧夫 bokufu ‘herder (ranch hand)’, 漁夫 gyofu ‘fisherman’, 工夫 koufu ‘coolie, workman’, or 車夫 shafu ‘rickshaw man’. As one might expect, the role of encoffiner is often performed by women.

In the film, the encoffiner—in full view of the assembled family—carefully exchanges the deceased’s bedclothes for a typical sleeping yukata without ever showing more than the corpse’s head, feet, and forearms; then reaches under the yukata to wipe down the body and plug its orifices; then carefully dresses the body in funeral garb, applies cosmetics, arranges the hair, crosses the feet, and clasps the hands to make it ready for placement and viewing in the coffin. After the wake and religious funeral, the body is cremated inside its wooden coffin.

The job title of the noukanshi is not easy to translate into English. Although he prepares the body for public viewing, he doesn’t embalm it (out of public view in a morgue), so ’embalmer’ is not a good gloss. Although he performs a comforting ritual in the family’s presence, he handles only one phase of the death ritual, unlike today’s multitasking morticians, undertakers, or funeral directors. Nor does he add any religious message, as would an imam, pastor, priest, or rabbi. So encoffiner seems as good a gloss as any. Even though most of its attestations in cyberspace seem to postdate this film—as does 納棺師 in Japanese Wikipedia—the related term encoffinment (especially premature encoffinment!) has a longer pedigree.

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