Movie Review: Departures (“Okuribito”) 2008

If you think being a hospice chaplain is not your cup of tea, just wait till you see this film. What could be weirder, you say, than being a hospice chaplain? Maybe a Japanese “encoffiner.” A what? A deliberately misleading classifieds ad draws an unsuspecting unemployed cello player to what he thought was a tourist company. But surprise surprise, and with the help of an advance, the boss cajoles the young man into learning how to ritually prepare a body in front of the mourners and gently place it into a coffin. This is a young man who has never even seen a coffin before, let alone touch a dead body.

As I watched his first days on the job, and subsequently other people’s reaction to his new career, I thought about the beginnings of my own. Both the movie and my own story share many elements: the sense by some in society that the young man and I were contaminated by our work; that there was the “eesh” factor; that we were plain old weird.

As the movie progresses, I suspect that along with me, the average viewers feelings evolve with the protagonist’s and ultimately with those of his wife and of the broader society. We feel less afraid, then curious, and then finally, in awe of a ceremony that can get family conflict out in the open or help mourners release their feelings, or take “honoring the dead” to a refined level.

This movement from fear to admiration is the main plot in the movie (This is no spoiler, because the way this happens is of supreme interest.) But there is another significant plot not referred to at least in the very short reviews I read: The protagonist felt unresolved intense anger at his father for abandoning him when he was quite young. As he confronted these feelings—I  cannot tell you how without it  truly being a spoiler—this somehow forced me to confront my own feelings about people I have not yet been able to forgive for abandonment of a different sort, and thereby be done with some of this hurt at long last. What more coveted review can there be for a movie or book or other creative work than for the reviewer to say that it provoked a healing change within?

Disclaimer: I saw this movie for free on television on September 20, 2014. I was not required to write a positive review and was not asked to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


See this link for a comprehensive article about Jewish perspectives on hospice care. I was one of the rabbis interviewed in this September 15th article by doula Amy Wright Glenn:


6 thoughts on “Movie Review: Departures (“Okuribito”) 2008

  1. Consuelo M. Beck-Sagué says:

    What a beautiful review! It’s amazing how all of us have, in addition to the anger and hurt of loss, the excess baggage of unresolved and unforgiven (is that even a word?) wrongs? But turns out it’s so much harder to make ourselves forgive and heal than it is to suffer with the burning wound of unforgiving memories.


  2. I challenge all my readers to comment on why it is so hard to forgive, even with its high emotional cost. My own answer is this: we might find it humiliating to forgive, while the anger involved in withholding forgiveness can do the opposite; making one feel self-righteous and on a higher plane than the offender. Another factor may be that if the hurtful person is still alive, there is always the potential that they may cause hurt again.


  3. Interesting article. I feel our hospice here in Wichita Falls does a super job & is very needed to help in process of our dealing with death. It is 1 of the hardest things humans face.


  4. Consuelo M Beck-Sague, MD says:

    Where did you see the movie? I just think if we could somehow forgive the dead (ideally, like we expect to be forgiven ourselves, without reservation… but failing that, to just move on)… it would be a GREAT, GREAT thing! People think that it’s easier to forgive those who can no longer hurt you than those who are still around you. Mistake. It’s the ones that died and left this mess here! As ironic as it seems, they are the ones that are hardest to forgive even though heaven knows they’ve often more than suffered for their wrongs, and can never, ever wrong anyone again.


    • I think what you are talking about now is that once a person is dead, there is no longer any opportunity for him/her to “made good” on their wrongs. As you can see, forgiveness is a very complicated affair. For some people, forgiving before the death is easier, for others, after the death. At any rate, I dare say you and I are thinking about some very specific situations in our own lives; i.e. we are not talking in the abstract. May we continue to resolve whatever it is that is interfering with our finding meaning and enjoyment in the present.


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