This is a very mean thing to say, but I honestly enjoyed the funeral of our landlord’s mother-in-law. It brought me back to my childhood and reminded me what a public thing death is in my culture.
Our landlord belongs to the richest. Her family lives in the only two apartments in our building that have drive-in courtyards. She owns several other units in our building alone that, I heard, are worth a couple of million U.S. each. I mention this, because I wanted to say that the setting and the scale of the funeral is not possible for average people, but the process is more or less the same.
One day, a tent was erected in the courtyard. A big group of monks chanted for almost a day. The security guards said the mother-in-law had passed away.
For many days after, the tent stood in their courtyard silently. No monk came again. A slim banner of pink paper was posted next to the wrought-iron gate. On it, there were two Chinese characters in black ink, ci zhi (慈制). It meant: this house lost a mother. It was in pink, because she died after she reached a good age. Otherwise, the paper would be white.
Many days has passed. All of a sudden, many people were in and out of their apartments one day. The guards said, “Now 49 days have passed. They are preparing for the funeral.”
Ah, I recall what my grandma used to say: Seven (days) times seven (weeks) makes 49 days. This is the longest a calendar can count to. This is how long the living mourns a family member before the burial. It shows the family does not want to let the deceased go. After 49 days, it is ok to carry out the funeral. After the funeral, the memorial ritual will be done once a year. However, the immediate family of the dead would wear black arm band (son) and white cotton flower (daughter) to symbolize their mourning. Some wear it for another 49 days, others for the rest of the year until it hits the first anniversary of the passing.
Death was an exciting event for children. When I was young, I followed the procession as long as I could walk. I watched the family members cry until they fainted. They had to be carried along by other relatives, lagging behind the procession, whimpering with their last bit of might. All neighbors would come out to watch. Bystanders shook their heads: “Aiya,” They said, “What a pity, died so early, but lucky, look what good children s/he has! They are crying themselves to death!”
It is customary that children or relatives started to cry before they reached the home of the deceased. We lived in alleys among many families. It was not unusual that some families started to cry when they entered the alley and cried their way through until they reached the gate of the courtyard. The more they were heard, the greater it was, because it showed love and xiao, filial piety, an English translation I never liked, because it does not tell the essence of this word.
Some families would leave the courtyard gate open, others would have it shut. But from the moment a person died to the funeral procession, cries can be heard every day.
I also peeked into courtyards where tables were set up and a post-funeral feast was served. The sons and daughters of the deceased still had tear-marred face and swollen eyes. They ran between the kitchen and table, bringing out dish after dish to serve those who attended the funeral as a thank-you tradition. The meal had a special name, it is called “tofu meal”.
Death is remembered through big commotions in my culture.
Unfortunately, the ritual was suspended when I was still very young. It was deemed as “feudal garbage”. Thus, seeing the rituals replay in Taipei in the 21st century is like traveling back in time.
A few more days have passed.
Then, one night, the sidewalk along their gate was lined up with flower baskets. Each basket had satin couplets with beautifully calligraphied condolence messages and the names of the givers.
The guards said the funeral was next day.
During that night, more tents were erected on the sidewalk across the street. More flower baskets were added to the row.
Next morning around 8 o’clock, monks began to chant. The wrought-iron gate opened wide and remained that way till the afternoon.
A group of women wearing green jackets and white pants proceeded from the end of the street. They played suo na, a Chinese wind instrument that is used for weddings and funerals. They played a lamenting song and banged on the gong that they wheeled with them. Suo na makes awfully loud, high-pitch sound that can be heard far, far away.
They repeated the song over and over, as if the living is begging the dead to stay. Then they stopped and I can hear the monks chant again.
This group of women retreated. A group of men wearing pink uniforms came in, also with suo na, playing seemingly the same sad tune. They came from the opposite direction of the street, proceeding in the same fashion and turned into the gate. Once inside, they continued playing like the women’s group did and then retreated.
Many cars and taxis came. Many friends and families arrived. Many small blue trucks came with paper mache temples, flower baskets, plastic cranes and cauldrons etc. Under the tent across the street, people were stationed to register the visitors, taking in the money they brought as mourning gifts.
A group of young people stood outside of the gate, handing the visitors a small packet. I could not tell what was inside, but one was a hooded cloak.
The visitors put them on before they entered the gate. They stood at the end of the line, waiting for their turn to move to the front to pay respect. Some wore pure white cloaks, a few yellow, one person wore bright red. I could not see what was set up in the front. I imagined that it was the coffin adorned with flowers and encircled in the smoke many incense made. Or, it is her name plaque with her picture as a backdrop.
When I was young, I only saw white cloaks. So I wanted to know what the different colors meant and whether the coffin was open or closed, but it was too inappropriate to ask anyone. I don’t remember that the ritual had any specifications about the coffin. We had an open coffin when my father-in-law passed away. But it was inside of an air-conditioned funeral home. This was a miserably hot day, and more than 49 days after her death. I wondered how they prepared her for this.
Most people bowed. A group kneeled. They must be the closer relatives.
For the entire morning, suo na played over and over, monks chanted, people came in and out. Gradually, around 1 p.m., men and women congregated on the sidewalks. Men wore white shirts and black pants, women in navy blue traditional Chinese dresses. They slowly formed lines on both sidewalks. Lilies were distributed to the women.
A police took position at the intersection where our alley merged into the street. He began to direct cars.The suo na players from the morning gathered their gongs and instruments and got ready to climb into their respective trucks.
A group of young, beautiful ladies wearing bright orange shirt and black long skirts were conducted into position by a young man in black, who seemed to be the general conductor of the procession.
Then, as if on timer, all of the suo nas began to play in unison, from the trucks where the women in blue and men in pink sat, and from all the small blue trucks. Loud speakers on all the trucks amplified the sound. I could hear nothing but the heartbreaking tune.
The procession began.
Several floaters, adorned with thousands of flowers lead the way, followed by a row of small blue trucks, each carrying either a suo na player, or paper mache bird or flower basket.
The coffin came out. It was painted in bright red, with the word “fu”, bliss, on its head and foot boards. A tapestry with red tassels draped over the coffin. This again was done because grandma lived to a good age. For less blessed ones, the coffin would be painted in black. A dozen strong men carried the coffin on their shoulders, just like how I remembered from my childhood. Back then, though, I thought the sons and male relatives actually carried the coffin themselves, not these hired men.
The group of young ladies in orange held their flutes in hands. They stood in front the coffin bearers, waiting.
In the middle of the caravan was an elaborately decorated floater that carries a gigantic picture of grandma in the front. It came slowly and deliberately down the street, as if hesitant to approach. That’s the special floater for the coffin.
Upon seeing it, the young ladies in orange began to play their flutes. As the floater passed, they bent around the corner and followed behind.
The immediate descendants, sons and grandsons, followed the coffin; their wives followed them. Their cloaks differed from all the rest: they were linen ones of earthy color. On the heads of the sons and grandsons, they wore a thin crown made with twisted strands of straws. The son walked in the center. He held a red box at his chest, in which stood a wooden plague with grandma’s name. This plaque will join other plaques on the family altar that will receive worship every year during major holidays. The grandson held a black umbrella over his father to shield the plaque from sun and rain, and his dad, too.
Suo na blasted through the loudspeakers, the mourners followed the family and proceeded on.
Many hours later, a smaller caravan came back. A few suo na players accompanied it. I assume they came back with the plague and the ashes. Meanwhile, the workers cleaned the area, taking down the setup. I guess at some point a tofu meal was served.
Not too long ago, I was touring Taipei with two friends from the U.S. The taxi driver was a gregarious man. We drove past a mountain side covered with tomb stones. “Look! “He said, “We Chinese leave the best sites to the dead, like this hillside with a view. The living takes the bad site.” He pointed to the foot of the hill. We laughed with him, looking at the many roof tops in the congested valley.
That, he said, is xiao, filial piety.