lostnchina

…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

Funereality – Part Two

A Buddhist monk, my sneezing sister and I are driving along in a Mercedes with plush leather seats. Something that resembles a dried up stalk of corn is wedged between my sister’s seat behind me and the side of the car.  A large, black umbrella is at her feet.  My sister, Annie, is highly allergic to all things, and the stalk of corn is not helping. My deceased father – that is, the sign on which his name is written – is in a large wooden barrel, along with three sticks of rapidly-burning incense. I’m holding this barrel awkwardly in my lap, trying to keep the sign from falling over and catching on fire. I have my seat belt on, but the barrel does not. And the thought that I may survive a car accident, but that my dead father might die…again…is causing me some anxiety.

Suddenly, the monk rings the dinner bell he’s holding in his left hand announces, “Tell your father that we’re driving down the express tunnel now, ladies!”

Like zombies, Annie and I repeat in unison, “Dad, we’re going down the express tunnel now!”

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a traditional Taiwanese Buddhist funeral ceremony currently in progress.

dashboard buddha Taiwanese Buddhists believe that once a person dies, his soul leaves the body and hangs around the living for one hundred days, before taking off to the spiritual land to be reincarnated as another person, if he’s been a good person; OR, as the thing found on the bottom of one’s shoe after he’s been prancing around in a cow pasture, if the deceased had been a bad person.

The first seven days after a person dies, he might not realize that he’s dead. His spirit may return home, only to discover he’s unable to eat bacon, pick out numbers for next week’s lotto drawing, and that wearing boxer briefs is now optional. After the spirit comes to terms with his death, he might be at a loss about what to do next. There’s no What to do in Case of Your Death? handbook. The deceased might be depressed about his fate, or he might want to visit some remote destination he’s always dreamed about, but the timing just doesn’t seem right.  It’s the peak season; too many tourists.  And his family! They might have returned from all corners of the globe and are a grieving, emotionally-paralyzed heap. How could he possibly leave them at a time like this?

Enter the Taiwanese Buddhist funeral ceremony. It ensures that the recently-deceased makes a smooth transition into his new life…that a soul can let go of his bodily existence and embrace his new, spiritual one…and that both the person who’s passed away and the family that’s left behind can achieve closure and move on.

After dad died, mom sent dad’s physical being to a funeral home, while his spiritual one was housed at an altar that contained dad’s picture, his name written on a paper sign, some offerings of food, paper money for the dead, and gifts of flowers from friends and family. The altar was among many in a three-storied building that housed the paper signs (ie. Spirits) of people who have recently passed away and have not yet been buried or cremated. The building was among many on that city block, which housed other altars. The city block contained many stores selling paper money, incense, houses, luxury cars, Rolexes, iPads, TVs and other consumer goods for the dead, urns for cremated remains, plots of burial land in the countryside. Across the street was a Buddhist temple, and across from the temple was a funeral home. This was your one-stop mega-outlet catering to the afterlife’s every need.

Altar

Dad’s temporary altar

 

Platform heels and Marlboros for the dead, who don't have bunions and can't get lung cancer.

Platform heels and Marlboros for the dead, who don’t have bunions and can’t get lung cancer.

To help us navigate through the mortuary mire, we hired Mr. Chen – a good-looking,  likable guy in his late-twenties.  He wore dark suits with white shirts and spoke to us in a quiet, hypnotic manner.  He, along with an array of attractive, well-manicured young men and women, appeared as if they should be living it up in a Jose Cuervo commercial, instead of spending days in dark, incense-filled rooms with the bereaved, touring burial plots and mausoleums, setting up funeral altars, and preparing corpses for burial.

Mr. Chen directing traffic

Mr. Chen directing traffic at the funeral

Mr. Chen is a Funeral Consultant.  His mother is also “in the business”, and he’s been “in the business” for nine years.  Death is BIG business in Taiwan, with potential earnings in the hundreds of thousand of dollars a year for someone like Mr. Chen.  But unlike other businesses, where one’s success is gauged by repeat business or Google reviews, Mr. Chen only has one chance to get it right.  And judging from his target market, who cannot express their appreciation by sending thank-you notes or home-made cookies, how could we possibly know that he might have gotten it wrong?

Bevy of beauties (standing, all in black)

Bevy of funeral beauties (with long hair, standing, in black)

Like an NFL coach before the Superbowl, Mr. Chen rattled off a play-by-play of what was going to happen at the funeral.  And even though I understood every word of what he said, I had no clue what he meant.

“About four hours before the ceremony, we’ll prepare your father for a spa day.”

“Right, a spa day.”

“The ladies will give him an essential oil massage.  Then we’ll prepare him for the casket.  Please don’t forget to let your mother know that she still needs to give me the single pearl that I will place over his mouth when he’s in the casket.”

“Uh huh…a pearl for dad’s mouth.”

“You and Annie will accompany the Teacher (Buddhist monk) from the temporary altar to the funeral home where the ceremony will take place.  He will usher the spirit with something that looks like a stalk of corn and a bell.  You will be holding a barrel with your father’s sign from the altar and three sticks of incense inside.  Make sure the sign stays upright.  The Teacher will be holding an umbrella over the barrel.  You must follow him and the barrel must be in the shade of the umbrella.  You will get into a car and the Teacher will drive you to the funeral.  Whatever he says you have to repeat, got it?”

Corn.  Dad in a barrel.  Bell-ringing monk. Umbrella, no light.”

“Once you reach the funeral site, there will be an emcee who will host the funeral and direct the proceedings.”  Mr. Chen turned to a tall, handsome man looking at me sympathetically, like a game show host who knew that his schlep of a contestant was going to miss the million-dollar question and walk home with the consolation prize of a toothpick dispenser.  “This is Mr. Wang.  He is a professional funeral host and will ensure that that everything runs smoothly.”

Mr. Wang clasped my clenched fists in his soft hands, eyes brimming with tears.  “Ms. Chang….I know how…difficult this must be for you and your family.  But I want you to know that if there’s ANYTHING I can do, please do not hesitate to ask.  I will try my very…VERY BEST to make the ceremony a truly memorable one, well-worthy of your great and honorable…FATHER!”

Funeral Altar

Dad’s altar at the funeral.  Where’s Waldo Dad?

As a pre-teen, I had attended my great-grandmother’s funeral in Taipei.  Being the immediate family, we had to wear smocks and dunce caps made from what seemed like the burlap sacks we bought our twenty-pound bags of rice in.  Whenever someone paid his respects at the altar, we’d have to get on our hands and knees and kowtow to our guests in gratitude.  Several hundred people attended the funeral, so we were on our knees the entire time.  To set the appropriate mood, my parents had hired a team of professional mourners, whose job was to moan and wail endlessly.  After a few hours of painful kneeling, listening to the depressing cries, and feeling impossibly hot and itchy, I was also bawling.  

I barely remembered my great grandmother, but felt so uncomfortable by the clothes and the ceremony…and then felt guilty about feeling uncomfortable when my great grandmother was dead: Never to breathe, bemoan her hair loss, nor sneak drinks from my uncle’s stash of Scotch again. We, the living, will eventually take off our scratchy clothes, then go home and eat ice cream, but my great grandmother will never climb out of her coffin, glance at her dead person’s Rolex and announce that Happy Hour has started and the first drink’s on her. Everyone – from the cousin of a cousin who had never met my great grandmother to the annoying auntie who’d always pinched my cheeks whenever she saw me – was a complete mess. We were a miserable bunch, and the funeral was hailed as a great success.

kneeling

Annie and I kneeling in front of dad’s funeral altar

At dad’s ceremony, a misty-eyed Mr. Wang – backed up by a well-rehearsed Chinese instrument quartet – did the job of one hundred professional mourners.  As Mr. Wang narrated the Indiana Jones version of dad’s life as an entrepreneur, who had once imported a container load of King crab legs and fur coats made from questionable Chilean rodents, only to have both quarantined, due to some kind of mange and insect infestation – the music would pause at the appropriate moments, crescendo to a fevered pitch, then soften to a minor key.  Annie and I were likened to “orphans, crippled by the irreplaceable loss of their father”.  Mom was the “devastated, grieving widow”  who must somehow “find the will to carry on in the dark void” of her husband’s death. We were told to stand on either side of dad’s funeral altar and gaze adoringly at our dad’s picture till my contact lenses dried out and nearly fell off of my eyeballs. 

“Oh, Susan, what a beautiful ceremony!  I’m SO SORRY I didn’t keep in touch with your father these last few years.  How terrible of me!” This was from a mother of six kids who were between the ages of 5 and 16, two of whom had ADHD and another two autistic.

“What a lovely man your father was.  And he donated money towards building a school for the underprivileged in China!  I had no idea, he never mentioned it before!” We had no idea, either.

Aiya! I should’ve attended that dinner your father invited us to last year, but I just had hip surgery and was in the ICU, and the doctor said I should not leave the hospital. It was a matter of life and death, they said. Ha! What do doctors know! Who knew that would’ve been the last chance I had to see your father? Curse my decrepit old body! It’s all my fault!”

Paper Lotus

Hand-folded paper lotus flowers. They are placed in the coffin for cremation. Each flower is comprised of three parts held together by a red string.  Each flower requires at least eighteen pieces of paper money for the dead, with each petal represented by one piece of paper.  Annie made over one hundred of these flowers in a two-week time period.

Regardless of what we believe happens to someone after he dies, we bereaved are stricken with grief and guilt.  We’ll REGRET not having tried harder to keep in touch with our loved ones when they were alive.  We play what if scenarios in our head, believing that we could have somehow prevented the death.  We’ll look for “clues” from our last conversation with the deceased, thinking there must be something there, which could have alluded to his fate.  And although the deceased might have had hypertension, a triple bypass, and diabetes, due to her chain smoking and obesity – her death will still seem like OUR FAULT.

The success of a Taiwanese Buddhist ceremony – while ensuring an eternal happy life for the dead – relies heavily on the guilt and misery of the living.  Annie folded impossible paper money lotuses till she got hives from the incense, her fingers blistered and she wished she were also dead.  We wore black, couldn’t wear make up, and banned ourselves from all parties, weddings, and happy events for one hundred days after dad died to punish ourselves for being alive as a sign of respect.  We took a ride with the spirit of our dead father in a wooden barrel and a directionless Buddhist monk with a dinner bell, then found ourselves going the wrong way down a busy one-way street.  On an 80-degree day with 100% humidity, we donned heavy black robes and stood in front of a massive incinerator for twenty minutes, as we were forced to count then burn hundreds of millions of dollars of dead paper money, dad’s favorite outfits, a paper house, a paper iPad and bags of gold and silver nuggets in his honor.  And, as our father’s casket was being pushed into the incinerator, we were told to yell, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, DAD!which his lifeless body failed to do – thereby forcing us to confront what was left of him an hour later.

The mini incinerator

The *mini* version of the incinerator used for cremation.

As it was explained to us by Mr. Chen, the offspring of the deceased must not only witness the cremation, but also wait for the remains to cool off, then pick up one of her parent’s cremated bones with an ivory chopstick, place it in the urn, and carry this object in a fabric sling around her neck to the deceased’s final resting place.

“Hey, Dad, we’re putting you into the urn now! Um, okayyy…uh, here we go!”

We were told by Mr. Chen to announce this as we were performing the ceremony, because even though the deceased spirits can be summoned to and from their world at our bidding, once these beings arrive, they become like children – the vapid, uncooperative kind that must be asked many times to eat the offering of sweet buns before them, or coaxed into a car with a dinner bell and a stalk of corn, or cheerfully asked to be picked up by chopsticks and deposited into a humongous jade urn that weighs more than a child who’s eaten too many sweet buns. 

As I waddled back to the hearse with Mr. Chen – me, holding the fifteen-pound urn against my stomach like a pregnant woman in her eighth trimester – Mr. Chen said that the ceremony went smoothly and that my father should be pleased.  This was very different from what I believed. If dad had dropped in on his funeral, witnessed his daughters giving a barrel directions to the ceremony, then telling a pile of human remains they’re taking a trip into an urn, and he then received the bill for the whole thing, he would’ve thought it was all a colossal joke and that he had morons for daughters…which isn’t far from the truth.

But I get it.  Funerals rites aren’t about the dead, but the living.  How we lay the deceased to rest in our minds and our hearts is something every bereaved person must go through.  Some of us may hold religious ceremonies to reassure ourselves that the deceased has successfully passed into his new life.  Others prefer to scatter their dead relative’s ashes into the ocean, or another place where the deceased had found peace and solace when she was alive.  There are also those among us who go home after the funeral, pour herself two glasses of gin and tonic then sit across from her father’s empty leather chair, the seat wrinkled and worn from years of sitting and contemplating.  She then relates an incredible story about a Buddhist monk, her sneezing sister and herself riding in a Mercedes, as the ice in her father’s drink slowly melts, condensation takes over the glass, and it becomes too dark to see.

40 comments on “Funereality – Part Two

  1. DBChen
    July 1, 2015

    Today was my dad’s funeral in Taiwan. It was not quite like your dad’s but plenty similar. The monks told us if there was anything we ABC kids didn’t understand, even after she explained things, then we should just Google it. Which is how I found this post.

    Though, specifically, I was trying to understand the red envelope of money taken from my father’s hand that I now have to wrap in my husband’s underwear for 100 days before I can use it.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 2, 2015

      I’m sorry for the loss of your dad and hope the ceremony wasn’t too tough for you. Although the Taiwanese funeral ceremony is elaborate and respectful towards the deceased, it’s pretty traumatic for the living.

      I also have a red envelope taken from my dad’s hand – it has a few hundred NT$ inside, but I was told to keep this envelope, or put it away somewhere, with my husband’s underwear NOT being one of the options. I’ve got the envelope in my wallet, like a keepsake. How does your hubby feel about a red envelope stuck in his unmentionables?

      Like

      • DBChen
        July 3, 2015

        My husband’s already gone back to the U.S. and took his underwear with him.

        My mom clarified that the Taiwanese word for “bank” and for “pants” are homonyms. So if you can’t put the money in the bank, then put them in your pants. Why underpants? Still unclear about that.

        Also, it doesn’t have to be my husband’s, just someone who doesn’t menstruate. So I’ve wrapped it in my toddler’s Hello Kitty underpants.

        Like

        • lostnchina
          July 8, 2015

          I think you have a post for a blog yourself. Let me know if you ever publish it. 🙂

          Like

  2. crawlsmith
    October 11, 2014

    Really loved this! It made me think of this scene from this Taiwanese film What Time Is It There? where they’re going through the mourning days and he finds a cockroach that his mom thinks is his dad and he kills it…anyways, so cool and interesting and can’t wait to read more! And here’s to hoping you have a great day!!

    Like

    • lostnchina
      October 13, 2014

      Thanks for reading! Haven’t had a chance to watch “What Time Is It There?” but the cockroach thing – I can *kind of* relate to (sadly). However, incidentally, Buddhists believe reincarnation into something lesser, like a cockroach, might only happen if the person was bad in his previous life. Although given the fact that cockroaches will probably survive another World War and will eventually take over the world, I’m not sure whether they really are “lesser” than us humans. A tough nut to crack for the theologians!

      Like

  3. summerflower211
    September 17, 2014

    “Corn. Dad in a barrel. Bell-ringing monk. Umbrella, no light.” … this is an awesome story!

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 18, 2014

      Thank you for reading! At least dad’s in the barrel and not over one, for once! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • summerflower211
        September 18, 2014

        I just love it lol 🙂

        Like

  4. Morguie
    September 17, 2014

    The Buddhists have a very ordered tradition when it comes to death. I find traditions like this to be very fascinating and have the utmost respect for the concept of cultural tradition as they pertain to funerary customs. I re-blogged this on my site, for my readers to share in learning about your experience with this tradition.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 18, 2014

      Thanks for revisiting my site and for re-blogging this post. The Buddhist ceremony varies in different countries, and I think in this case Buddhism was mixed in with Taiwanese superstitions, some of which were a little more pagan in nature. In any case, a ceremony, regardless of the denomination or culture, is something that (hopefully) helps people achieve comfort and insight into their loved ones’ deaths.

      Like

  5. Morguie
    September 17, 2014

    Reblogged this on A View From Under The Prep-Room Table: A Mouse's True Stories of Life In A Mortuary and commented:
    THIS IS PART 2 of “Lost In China’s” story about her father’s Buddhist funeral ceremony and her take on it all.

    Like

  6. gallivance.net
    August 26, 2014

    Susan, losing a Dad is just the most difficult thing – ever – and I’m so sorry for your loss. Your telling of the funeral is amazing, full of love, respect, and your patented wit. The ending with you sitting across from your father’s empty chair got me … because I did the same thing. I lost my dad suddenly when I was living in Sudan. Getting home in time for the funeral required a 50-hour epic journey involving Egyptian soldiers, the Tunisian Ambassador; a flight on the (now defunct) Concorde; and the drive from hell from Nashville to reach small-town Kentucky. I learned I was the appointed guardian of my youngest sister, and all I could do was sit in the dark with a glass of his favorite bourbon and ponder the universe. You honored your father beautifully. All the best, Terri

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 18, 2014

      Terri, Thank you for reading and for your heart-felt message. I agree that losing a dad is the worst thing ever, and your epic journey in returning to the States from Sudan for your father’s funeral is a testament to your love and respect for him. I still think about and am reminded of him in little ways. I’m so glad you made it back home in time for your father’s funeral.

      Like

  7. Kelsey S
    August 5, 2014

    Just found your blog today and I must say that your writing style is both witty and poignant. So sorry to hear about the loss of your father. I’m sure he’s proud of you and I wonder if you got your wit from him…

    Like

    • lostnchina
      August 5, 2014

      Mom’s the wit-meister in the family, and dad always provided the material. Thanks for visiting and for following, Kelsey.

      Like

  8. Miss Snarky Pants
    July 28, 2014

    The fact that you’re still able to tap into your sense of humor tells me that you’re healing – that, or you’re really sick of going without makeup. Your poor sister and her blistered fingers. Please tell her that the lotus flowers looked lovely (from the photos; I swear, I didn’t crash). Well written, as always; I feel as though I can now cross a Taiwanese Buddhist funeral experience off of my Bucket List. My heart continues to go out to you and your family, Susan.

    xo

    MSP

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 29, 2014

      Thanks so much for your comments. The Taiwanese Buddhist ceremony is just too weird of a subject not to write about. So glad to see you back in the blog-o-sphere!

      Like

      • Miss Snarky Pants
        July 30, 2014

        No weirder than some of the Christian funerals I’ve attended; it’s just nice to know that every religion is pretty darn weird in its own way. Glad to be back and congratulations on your marriage. 🙂 I wish you two many years love and hijinks.

        Like

  9. Jean
    July 20, 2014

    I’m sorry for the loss of your father. Somehow I doubt very much my father’s funeral will be like this at all. Nor will I be able to write so satiricly. How old was he?

    My father’s prostate cancer is moving along sadly fast. He’s 85 yrs. Somehow this year will be complicated.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 22, 2014

      Hi Jean, I’m sorry that you’re going through a difficult time right now with your dad. My dad was only one year younger than your dad at 84 when he died. And although we know the end is coming, when it does, it’s still a shock and it’s still sad. I hope your dad doesn’t suffer too much and that you have the opportunity to spend some quality time together with him as much as possible.

      Like

  10. becomingcliche
    July 19, 2014

    You make me laugh, then you make me cry. Again, I am so sorry for your loss. Another beautiful piece. You have done your father proud.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 22, 2014

      Thanks, Heather. It’s the last time I’m going to write about dad’s death. His life was much more interesting. How’s your new job going, BTW? I suppose I should read your blog to find out!!

      Like

  11. rlishman84
    July 18, 2014

    Thanks for sharing this beautifully written piece. I love the way the first few lines start like the beginning of a joke, but then immediately I’m feeling compassion and empathy with the strange situation you found yourself in. I completely agree with haggardbuthappy – this is a touching but comical look at a really interesting part of a country’s culture. Thank you.

    Like

  12. Susan…. Very sad for your loss again. Glad I got the opportunity to read this. Beautifully written.

    Like

  13. Giora
    July 18, 2014

    Thanks for the interesting post and pretty pictures. Maybe send it to Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 22, 2014

      Thanks, Giora. I hope they don’t think it’s too sarcastic of a look at Asian culture, though.

      Like

  14. bronxboy55
    July 18, 2014

    You have a gift for writing about anything and finding ways to make it both moving and funny. I love that last sentence.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 22, 2014

      Thanks, Charles. I wish I had the gift of pounding out a brilliant essay every week the way you do. And then the more difficult gift of reading what other people write in a timely manner. Onward and upward, as they say!

      Like

  15. gingerfightback
    July 17, 2014

    Nice to hear from you again – you did your Dad proud.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 17, 2014

      Jim, thanks for reading and retweeting. Must catch up with Oily George, Cotter the Potter, and sausages soon! I must always put aside a large chunk of time for reading your blog, because, like a strong whiskey that will knock your brains out of your head, you can’t have / read just one!

      Like

  16. tommyshaw
    July 17, 2014

    A really interesting post, hope all is well and my condolences for your loss.

    Like

  17. expatlingo
    July 17, 2014

    This post is all sorts of wonderful/sad. The image of you sitting across from your dad’s chair and relating this story to him is so touching. Thinking of you both. Cheers to you and your dad!

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 17, 2014

      Thanks, Jen. It’s been a difficult time, but writing these posts have helped me work through a lot of it. And thanks for the RT, too!

      Like

  18. haggardbuthappy
    July 17, 2014

    It feels strange to have found your excellent blog as a result of your very difficult circumstances. Please accept my condolences. Your post is touching, funny, beautifully written and sheds light on some of the bizarre funeral rituals that seem to exist in every culture.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      July 17, 2014

      Yes, the funeral was bizarre and rather surreal. I’m not one for ceremony, in general, but others have commented how certain rituals, like the picking up of the bones, brings a certain closure to some, since the death is basically staring at you in the face. Thanks for reading.

      Like

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