Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Death Rites

I know, a rather glum topic to embrace just as we are celebrating the start of a New Year. But, in order to explain Ken’s parents’ absence while he and I chowed down on jiao zi, I have to put this topic right here.

In China and all over Asia, death is seen as an integral part of life. It is inevitable. Everybody and everything must and will die. That is an accepted fact here. And it is seen in the reverence held for the ancestors, in the burial rites and in the remembrances to the deceased.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t sadness, grief or mourning for a loved one’s passing. However, how that passing is marked and handled and celebrated is as opposite to the Western way of marking a death as cold is to hot.

In the West, death rites are performed for the living. The funeral, the services, the processions and the burial are executed for the benefit of the living. Before you get into an uproar about this postulate, let me explain how things transpire in China.

When a loved one passes, he or she is cremated within 72 hours. That is because of growing health and sanitary concerns. Until recently – say, thirty years ago, it was not uncommon to bury a loved one in the fields that he or she had cultivated all of his or her life, sometimes with and sometimes without the benefit of a coffin. If there is a coffin, it is not sealed. It generally consisted of a handmade, handpainted box. As the body decomposes… well, you can just guess what happens to the crops, right? Thus the government passed the edict that only professionals can handle dead bodies, and the bodies must be cremated.

That is not to say that there are no cemeteries in China. Of course there are. But here again, you have to remember the massive population of this country. Can you imagine dedicating enough land for each full-sized coffin? That would be too much land, and it also would not account for deaths that happen in the country and in the villages and in the smaller towns. Thus, a nationwide edict of cremation.

Upon the death of a loved one and after cremation, the processions start. At the head of the line is the first born offspring, holding a picture of the deceased. Following that heir come the ‘pallbearers’, those bearing the box of cremains, usually mounted upon an altar and surrounded by burning incense. After that comes a band, playing loud music. The rest of the procession consists of family and friends, each singing loudly, wailing and tossing yellow paper into the air. This procession is paraded around the neighborhood or the village of the deceased, both to proclaim that soul’s liberation from his earthly body and to announce to the departing spirit that here is his or her home. Should he or she ever want to come back and visit in spirit form, he or she would know where home is.

At some point during this procession, depending on the ethnicity of the deceased (there are 58 ethnic minorities in China, and one majority: the Han) the family will prostrate themselves before the procession 49 times, wailing at the spirit of the deceased to not leave them. They get up in time to not be trampled to death by the procession, run ahead and prostrate themselves, wailing, anew. In every case, yellow paper is thrown in the air and/or burned. This yellow paper symbolizes money, so that the deceased will have money to spend in the afterlife.

The procession continues, all the way to the burial site – however far that may be from the deceased person’s home. The shouting and singing continue and the pall bearers are changed out so that no one gets too tired. If the way is long, stools are carried to provide a temporary rest for those weary of walking. Invariably the songs and shouting consist of instructions for the deceased to find his or her way back home, because they are being moved far away from where they lived.

As I understand Western death ceremonies, the loved one is talked about but not invoked. Sometimes strangers (Priests, ministers, pastors, ect.) offer platitudes, and sometimes eulogies are offered up. Sometimes those that knew the deceased well will offer up anecdotes. Sometimes – well, often, music is played. For me, Western burial rites are sad affairs: grief at a loved one’s passing, where sadness and gloominess prevail. There also seems to be a sense of embarrassment. What does one say to someone whose mother or father just died? Is it as uncomfortable an ordeal for everyone as it has been for me?

There is a finality in Western burial rites: the deceased is gone, their time had come, they’ve passed on, gone on to their reward, are in a better place, home with the Lord… but might he or she ever find his way home to his loved ones again? Usually, ‘home’ is heaven. It is implied that that person will never again occupy space or time on Earth.

Not so in the East. Here, strange as it sounds, the deceased are as much a part of things as they ever were. They are just not physically present.

For days, as I wandered the streets of Xi’an I noticed people drawing small chalk circles on the sidewalk, and then burning yellow paper in those circles. Vendors even sold a particular type of paper that would burn especially well. Everywhere there were piles of ashes. Some intuition led me to circumvent them; somehow I sensed the reverence of this rite without really knowing what it was about.

Until Ken’s parents went downstairs to burn paper. And then, my Question Queen self emerged and I assaulted Ken with a barrage of questions regarding this custom. After all, Ken was the one who gave me the name Question Queen (remember, from the Quest for Shoes?)

As Ken explained it, paper is burned for the loved ones to have more money to spend in the afterlife. And, this paper is burned right there, where the living members of the family reside, so that the spirits of the loved ones will be compelled to return and visit. Especially during the momentous occasions like New Years or birthdays, or the birth of a new family member.

A final note about burial rites: the Chinese observe a holiday especially reserved for the reverence and celebration of their ancestors. It is called Qing Ming (pronounced ching ming). That is the day set aside for the remembrance of loved ones and people flock to burial sites to play homage. That is, to my knowledge, the only time that the living travel to where the dead rest. Any other celebration or occasion, the dead are remembered where the living reside, and they are a part of the living’s celebrations. There is no segregation between life and death in China (or maybe throughout Asia; I would need to travel more to assert that as fact).

Somehow, that is beautiful and right to me.

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