Japanese Death Poems

shira ume ni akuru yo bakari to nari ni keri

the night almost past
through the white plum blossoms
a glimpse of dawn

© Buson

‘Yosa Buson died on December 25th 1783 and the above haiku was, what we call, his Jisei or death poem.’ Kristjaan at Carpe Diem Haiku Kai shares this poem and information for our inspiration.

. . . . .

How strange it is to us in the west, to write a last poem on your death-bed. I have a wonderful book of them. So many favourites. Most, like Buson’s, use natural images to do with transition. But here is one of Ervin’s favourites.

I long for people—
and then again I loathe them:
end of autumn.

© Chogo

. . . . .

I have written before about my father’s death, how we, all five of his children, had our hands on him, were moving him to change the sheets. Did he choose that moment? What would have been his last poem if he wrote haiku?

all the faces
of the ones I love
the last light of day

last sunlight
the endless blue sky
is darkening

. . . . .

I wasn’t there when Mum died, though I wish I was. She ailed and rallied, ailed and rallied so often in that last few months that I couldn’t keep jumping on a plane. And she was missing in action quite a lot of the time too. One of my sisters and one of my brothers were with her. It was peaceful. She was old and ready. Here is part of a haiku sequence, called wildflowers, that I wrote shortly thereafter:

inevitable news
each needle on the pine tree
is completely still

packing
Mum’s laughing photo
dawn

flying foxes
black in the dusk sky
stories of her

feeding
the resident magpie
body-viewing day

wildflowers
adorn her coffin
voices waver

from our hands
into the deep hole
rose petals

glaring sunshine
on my shoulder
my brother’s hand

between us
tears and laughter
scotch and ice

her hand-mirror
eyes that look like hers
are looking back

 

 

26 thoughts on “Japanese Death Poems

  1. What a beautiful suite of haiku made even more powerful by the context in which they were written. Writing can be healing.

    The following haiku deeply moved me:

    inevitable news
    each needle on the pine tree
    is completely still

    packing
    Mum’s laughing photo
    dawn

    her hand-mirror
    eyes that look like hers
    are looking back

  2. a wonderful roll… here where as your hiakus seem to ring the natural breath of sadness at death busons haiku almost reflected hope… as if he was welcoming death… really enjoyed!

    1. Thanks Hamish. my sisters and I kept calling the funeral a wedding. something similar about rites, I suppose. but also how family and friends turn up from all over and you celebrate, with a lot of laughing and crying.

  3. It is always difficult, for me to think of death. Being so much a part of my life.
    Not understanding, then not being allowed, to knowing to many …
    Closer is difficult when there is the added distance of miles.

    I didn’t get to know my MIL until much later. She once spoke of not being able to visit the a memorial where one of her friends had died young – because of war.

    I like how your verses spoke for your loved and of their fond memories for you and your siblings.

  4. This series of haiku inspired on the deathpoem by Buson is breathtaking and touched me deep. Very strong haiku in loving memory of those you have lost … thank you for sharing these with us all.

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