Mostly unheard of in Western culture, where the document most commonly associated with death is a will—a binding legal document descriptive of property but little poetry, jisei, or death poetry, is a poem completed near the time of death; a profound, personal epitaph for a once in a lifetime event—suitably fitting farewell to one’s life.
While death as a theme in poetry is not uncommon; witness death as one of the main themes of Emily Dickinson:
More than the Grave is closed to me
More than the Grave is closed to me –
The Grave and that Eternity
To which the Grave adheres –
I cling to nowhere till I fall –
The Crash of nothing, yet of all –
How similar appears –
or as sublime meditation on the nature of reality:
I and Death
My body saw death
My heart conquered death
My soul embraced death
I employ death
With no hesitation.
—a poem written to mark one’s own death, or more accurately, to uniquely commemorate a life lived, is a practise that reached its eventual refinement in Japan, in Zen Buddhism in particular. It was also common in China until the twentieth century.
Jisei by convention are written in a graceful, natural manner, and never mention death explicitly, using instead metaphoric references to nature, often in the form of sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossoms:
When autumn winds blow
not one leaf remains
the way it was.
As elsewhere in Japanese art, feelings of bitter-sweetness and impermanence dominate, a feature of the Zen Buddhist informed aesthetic mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), a conception of beauty virtually part of the national character.
While the popular image of jisei is as a part of ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide), death poems were also written by Zen monks, haiku poets, and from ancient times literate people on their deathbed.
Poems were not always composed the moment before death; respected poets would sometimes be consulted well in advance for their assistance, and even after death one’s poem could be polished or even rewritten by others—a deed never mentioned lest the deceased’s legacy be tarnished.
Had I not known
that I was dead
I would have mourned
the loss of my life.
Normally highly poetic and somewhat oblique, jisei could also contain elements of a traditional will; not the mundane affairs of an estate to be settled, but for example reconciling differences between estranged relatives.
Prominent exponents of jisei include the famous haiku poet Basho; Asano Naganori, the daimyo (fuedal leader) whose forced suicide was avenged by the forty-seven ronin—now almost a national myth; and Yukio Mishima, prominent Japanese writer of the mid-twentieth century who inexplicably committed traditional seppuku in 1970:
Yukio Mishima’s Death Poem
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate