Praying for a 'pokkuri' moment: No muss, no fuss

By Dan Bloom

When it's time to meet your maker, do you want to hang in there as long as possible, even if you are bed-ridden, in pain and in an assisted-living residence, or do you just want to ''pop off?'' In Japan, there's a temple devoted to ''popping off,'' or "pokkuri" in Japanese.

I recently ran this concept by the celebrated and cerebral American film critic Roger Ebert, 67 -- who knows a thing or two about death and dying, and living and life. After reading my note, he tweeted on Twitter: "'Pokkuri' -- the Japanese word for popping off suddenly. There's even a Pokkuri goddess."

I had casually mentioned in a comment on Mr Ebert's blog that he might want to know about the Japanese concept of "pokkuri," which means to ''pop off'' in one's sleep, of a sudden heart attack in bed or outside while walking around the neighborhood -- a painless, quiet and serene death. He liked the term, apparently, noting on his blog: "I googled the term and found your own blog on Open Salon: Yeah, no muss, no fuss."

It's true, that in Japan, every year, thousands of elderly people visit Kichidenji Temple in Nara Prefecture where they pray for a "pokkuri" death — preferably during sleep or a sudden heart attack — so they are not a burden on their families during their final days. According to the Economist magazine, more and more temples in Japan are now getting on the "pokkuri" bandwagon, some for holy reasons, some for financial gain.

Kichidenji Temple was established in 987 by a monk whose mother had passed away peacefully wearing clothes that he had prayed over. As time passed, a new Japanese tradition took shape, and now elderly people visit Kichidenji to pray for a discreet and quick passing. Although most of the visitors and supplicants are Japanese, foreigners often visit the temple as well, mostly out of curiosity, and the blogosphere is lit up here and there with photographs of the temple and maps on how to get there.

Maybe "pokkuri" is a good concept to borrow from the Japanese, I thought, as I posted my first blog comment about it a few years ago, intoning this brief prayer: "God, grant me a good life, a useful (and meaningful) life, and when it's time, let me 'pokkuri' in a dignified, discreet way. Amen."

Kichidenji Temple is located in Ikaruga-cho in Nara Prefecture, between Osaka and Tokyo. Here's a link:

According to the temple's chief priest, pilgrims making their way to the temple will chant a holy phrase and beat a wooden block, which makes popping sounds (thus the term ''to pop off''). I am not making any of this up.

After his tweet, some of Ebert's followers chimed in with their reactions to this Japanese loan word. "Those crazy Japanese! What will they think of next?" one person told Ebert. A wit commented: "I thought 'pokkuri' was about premature ejaculation, for a moment there."

"I thought you were getting vulgar," said another person. "The boomers will get to know it & pray 4 it w the future of health care." And a philosopher of death countered with this reaction: "When pokkuri happens in the middle of the night, a spouse or family is/are often bereft of the chance to say goodbye."

So we're left with this: in Japan there is a temple devoted to popping off, and the word in Japanese is "pokkuri." In America, there are no temples for popping off, and there is no word for the concept in our common vocabulary.

But is it time now to borrow this word from Japan and make it our own? "God, grant us a good life, a useful (and meaningful) life, and when it's time, let us 'pokkuri' in a dignified, discreet way."

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Taiwan.

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One of the things I like about the Japanese is that they are very pragmatic about death. I have quite open conversations with my friends about it, and we sometimes discuss the best way to go (pokkuri is one of them) and also where we wish our final resting place to be. Quite a refreshing contrast to the western attitude.

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Roger Ebert is a really nice intelligent guy. He is on a first name basis with Dan Bloom, myself, and about 30,000 other people. I think I disagree with him on about... well... I think it is two movies now. Go see his blog.

Pokkuri shinu koto is an old concept in Japan which is apparently so different that it skews economic analysis. There are enough people in Japan who really do not value a long life that it affects health care decision making and models of rational behavior. It goes a long way toward explaining high suicide rates, too.

This also ties in with the practice, common up until about 10 years ago in Japan, of not telling cancer victims that they were dying. People are not afraid of death... they are afraid of THINKING about death. That is probably true of everyone, but maybe Japanese people think too far ahead. Other people just remain happy to be alive and figure that it beats the alternative.

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Why is Roger Ebert mentioned in this?

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'O God, great and omnipotent judge of the living and the dead, we are to appear before you after this short life to render an account of our works. Give us the grace to prepare for our last hour by a devout and holy life, and protect us against a sudden and unprovided death. Let us remember our frailty and mortality, that we may always live in the ways of your commandments. Teach us to "watch and pray" (Lk 21:36), that when your summons comes for our departure from this world, we may go forth to meet you, experience a merciful judgment, and rejoice in everlasting happiness. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.'

My father at 90 had a happy death. Sounds like a contradiction but he was able to have his affairs in order and say goodbye to everyone until we all meet again.

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The Japanese may be pragmatic about thinking about death, but they are less so when it comes to preparing for it. Even as the population of elderly living alone continues to rise, social workers and health care case workers find it a real challenge to get old people to do things like prepare a will, fill out an advance health directive, or make other practical arrangements; it's always "too early" to talk/think about such things until, of course, it's too late (and many older people consider it bad luck, as well).

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@Thepro, above, asked: "Why is Roger Ebert mentioned in this?"

Answer: Because Roger Ebert is dying from cancer and he understands the concept of pokkuri, even though he had never heard of it before.

This oped is not about Roger Ebert or me. Or name-dropping or first name basis things. It is about how the term "pokkuri" might or might not someday be adopted as a Japanese loan word in American and British vocabulary, when speaking about sudden death or popping off, as I almost did on November 6 last year. Heart attack at age 60. But the Grim Reaper gave me a reprieve and said "Not yet, bro, and I'll be back for you, you can count on it!" That got me to thinking: maybe pokkuri is not such a bad thing after all and maybe the word should be adopted in the West....if it works as a concept in the West. Maybe it doesn't. That's why I wrote this commentary: to test the waters and see what Western people think of it. It's not about Ebert. It's about Western views of death and how pokkuri might or might not fit in with them. There's quite a lot of interest in this now, and Ebert's comment "No fuss, no muss" uses just 4 words to say a lot. Susan Long has written a book about it. Hundreds of people in the West are now blogging about pokkuri (from hokuri, by the way). Will it stick? Maybe. Probably not. It's a very Eastern and non-Jesus way of looking at life and death. Interesting.

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Pokkuri (onomatopoeic derivation of ''hokuri'' or peaceful death, meaning 'died suddenly') (Nademanee et al., 1997). ...

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Dear Mr. Bloom,

My response to your piece on pokkuri: (1) glad it's of interest and that you're choosing to give the topics of how to die and of old age/dying in Japan the attention. (2) as an academic who has studied this I am of course looking as I read for better contextualization. This would lead to both a correction of a couple of inaccuracies, but more importantly to a more nuanced conclusion. In fact, I have translated "pokkuri" (one of many, many onomatopoedic words in Japanese) a bit differently than you have, as "sudden death." It's not always pretty, since it can also mean being hit by a car or having a heart attack at work. And there are many temples where people "pray" for a sudden death, including others that specialize in it as they attract large numbers of old people, such as Koganji Temple on the Sugamo shopping street in Tokyo.

The wish for pokkuri in Japan is not about the very last days of life as it is a response to the chronic disease burden that comes with advanced longevity and in particular about individuals (usually women?) not wanting to be a burden on their families--which for interpretation requires an understanding of how Japanese families have changed over the lifetimes of today's elderly people.

If you'd like to read my take on it, see the first half or so of Ch. 4 of my book, ''Final Days: Japanese Culture and Choice at the End of Life''. At least part of it is available on googlebooks:

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[kare wa "aishite'ru yo" to itte, pokkuri to shinda]

He said "I love you," and dropped dead. (translation)

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I wish my wife had a "pokkuri" moment, her death came suddenly but the weeks before were marred by lack of moving and speaking ability.

She said her last understandable words 3 weeks before she died. As you have guessed by now it was cancer for her.

I don't think many Japanese see dying as frightening or bad thing(similar in my culture).

Maybe it is because of different ideologies(religions if you may say so).

Just my view.

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@Zenny11: well said, sir! Condolences on the death of your beloved wife.

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Pokkuriman: I think Roger Ebert would strongly object to his being characterized as "dying of cancer." While he has had several scary episodes, and much dis-configuring surgery, his cancer has not, according to his blog, returned at this point, and he is as active and healthy as can be expected under the circumstances...

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Not sure if I can agree, lost a few family-members to cancer.

My mother was diagnosed with breast-cancer 30+yrs ago, after that it was periods of cancer re-occuring, being cleared "again", etc. She is still going strong and having another cancer-free period, so far she had 4 reoccurences and with those come chemo, etc.

Granted depends a lot on the cancer involved, so far there is only ONE cancer that is 100% cureable and that is prostate-cancer.

All you can say is that you are cancer-free for now but there is NO guarantee that it won't resurface again.

Wish all the best to Roger Ebert and his family, as it is tough for the person having cancer and very tough on their family.

Just my view.

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Forgot to mention place of cancer reocurrence also matters a LOT.

Once it hits the bones(bone marrows is bad), internal organs and even the brain there is little that can be done. Above list is what happened to my wife, Bones -> Liver/Kidney and later to the brain(hence loss of motor and speech function).

Even with the spread she had some great months where no-one knew she had cancer but than the side-effects of the medicine got too strong and she needed to go on new meds. It is a roller-coaster but the end is usually the same.

Just a matter of time for some it can take years(even decades) and for others it comes quicker.

Moderator: Back on topic please.

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@sk4ek re: "I think Roger Ebert would strongly object to his being characterized as "dying of cancer." While he has had several scary episodes, and much dis-configuring surgery, his cancer has not, according to his blog, returned at this point, and he is as active and healthy as can be expected under the circumstances..."

Good point, and well taken, sir. I meant it only in the Bob Dylan sense of he not busy being born is busy dying. But I did not mean to say Mr Ebert is on death row.

And yes, back on topic, as Zenny11 notes, above.

My question is this: pokkuri is already a popular and well-known word and concept in Japan, whatever it means, however people take it to mean there. Question is: can this word transfer as a loan word to English and find a usefulness among medical practicioners, nurses, academics studying death and dying issues, religion professors and New York Times reporters and editors? It seems to me like an important word and one that Americans and Brits and NZlanders and Australians might adopt at some point. Yes? No?

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Hmmm ... Dignitas?

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I think people all over the world generally wish for a quick, painless death, if they think about it at all. I'm not certain that we need a single word, borrowed or otherwise, to describe this sentiment. Unless and until a word and its accompanying concept organically gain exposure and comprehension in other cultures, I don't think any amount of single-handed promotion can make it happen.

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I agree with John Becker above. It's just not something that the average healthy person thinks about on a daily basis, or needs to.

By the way, have you noticed that the English language has an extraordinarily large number of euphemisms for death? Popped his clogs, bought the farm, kicked the bucket are a few that come to mind. Really fascinating.

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Isnt that a drink, pokkuri no sweat?

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By the way, have you noticed that the English language has an extraordinarily large number of euphemisms for death? Popped his clogs, bought the farm, kicked the bucket are a few that come to mind. Really fascinating.

That's nothing, compared to the number of euphemisms for parts of the female anatomy (knockers, jugs, etc.), the act of intercourse (we don't have enough space on the internet), etc. We even had to import the word orgasm from French and Greek.

Having said that, Ebert has no doubt had plenty of moments in the past few years when he thought, I'm not going to come out of this surgery alive... All the best.

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I plan to live forever.

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Terry Kaldhusdal, a reader in the USA, asked me to relay this info here, so this is his post, not mine:

"Thanking you for shedding light on a subject that has become taboo in American culture. I'm curious how long this practice of going to pokkuri temples has been active in Japan, or was it created with the advancement of medical technology? A man named Mike Bernhagen and I are currently working on a USA documentary about end-of-life issues in America onestepcloserfilm and intereted parties can find the film and us at Facebook, too. And we have a website, if you google it. It's become very clear to us that Americans treat death as a failure instead of a being a natural part of the life cycle. Thank you for giving us another perspective with this perceptive commentary about pokkuri."

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