Death and Merry in a Burning House

 A little bird flies in, perches on the rooftop of a burning family house and starts singing,

Can´t you see all the death?

We are going to be next.

You and you and I

All of us in this Burning house

Let us find a safe Escape

Before it all crumbles down

 

*

         Grandma’s funeral date was set to be September 25th, 2018. According to the Chinese almanac, this would fall on the sixteenth day of the eighth month. This almanac follows the traditional “农历” (nongli) calendar, “农” meaning farmer and “历”—calendar. Folks say that this calendar contains essential day-to-day predictions about “suitable” and “unsuitable” dates for important lay events such as sowing and gathering crops, building and moving houses, weddings and funerals, life and death…

*

           A small crowd was gathering around the almanac. My elder uncle, guided by village relatives and friends, had called upon a local ‘Buddhist’ funeral group to help conduct grandma’s funerary rites. The funeral company had sent two representatives to visit our home in order to discuss and prepare grandma’s funeral. I was surprised to find out how one of the representatives was of similar age than myself. He was a young man in his late twenties, buzz-cut, slightly chubby, and gently resting on his flat nose oval cheeks was a small pair of circular glasses in which he used to calmly screen his surroundings. My aunt had commented on how he looked like a “书生” (shusheng) which translates to English as “scholar”. In the historical Confucian universe, scholars held privileged positions in society. However, in modern capitalist realities, the Confucian (and patriarchal) “君子” (junzi), which imperfectly translates to English as “gentleman” or “superior man”, has become trapped in networks of greed, money and profit. The scholarly funeral representative came accompanied by his business partner and/or perhaps mentor. His business partner was a man in his forties, thin built, short straw-like hair combed to the side, and sometimes he would emanate a semi-relaxed smile showcasing his cigarette blackened teeth.

        Elder uncle greeted the funeral company men by offering them Chunghwa cigarettes. Chungwa is considered one of the most popular and prestigious cigarette brands in China. Although my elder uncle didn’t smoke at all, I noticed that when he travelled to China, he usually carried with him a pack of cigarettes and he would offer these to different people he met in his everyday endeavours. As grandma’s eldest son, he carried a big load of the family responsibility for organizing her funeral. A down-to-earth and hard-working man in his late 60s, his lifetime of hard work in China and later Portugal (where our extended family had migrated to) had carved convoluted maps of wrinkles all over his face and body.

            Chunghwa cigarettes were lit so people were ready to discuss Business… With regards to the funeral business, I had overheard from people’s conversations that a “respectable” funeral for an overseas family (in local standards) hovered around 60 000 Chinese yuan… I think this local price inflation is partially connected to the fact that many families from our hometown had migrated abroad and peoples’ minds now think in foreign currency. For example, the average 2018 conversion rate from Euros to Renminbi/Yuan hovered around 1 Euro to 7.5 Renminbi/Yuan. People assumed that overseas Chinese had some spending power because their income abroad was in Euros. I noticed that with regards to funerals, my family was willing to spend a reasonable amount of money for this funeral because laypeople want to be perceived by their neighbours, relatives and friends as being “good and filial children” …

            During these funeral business discussions, the young scholar brought out a pocket-sized farmer’s almanac and showcased it to the informal “Funeral Planning Committee” which included my uncles and a few other male relatives. The aunties stood nearby and listened to their conversation, but they didn’t participate in it. Was this a direct manifestation of Chinese patriarchy? (I would say yes.) This (all-male) “Planning Committee” examined the “auspiciousness” of different days according to the farmer’s almanac. They had to allocate a few extra funeral days so other family relatives (living in different parts of the world) had enough time to return to China and take part in grandma’s funeral celebrations.

            As Chunghwa cigarettes slowly burned to ashes in these men’s mouths, a “good and auspicious day” was finally chosen by the group. The day would be September 25th, 2018. There would be a five-day funeral ceremony leading to the cremation of grandma’s body which is to be followed by a huge procession in which the family carried her ashes to her tomb in the mountains. This ritualized procession would include funeral music bands, fireworks and flower wreaths. During the four days before this final procession, chanting groups would be called in to perform folk Buddhist rituals and sutra chanting accompanied by the burning of joss paper. Joss paper, often burned in traditional Chinese funerals, is said to symbolize the act of sending “good wishes” to the deceased person. When folding these papers, the funeral chanting elders taught us to chant the mantra “南无阿弥陀佛” (Namo Amituofo) into the paper. The mantra can be translated into English as “Homage to Buddha Amitabha”.

burning house (2 of 2)
Folding Joss Papers

            While observing the unfolding of this ‘odd’ funeral ceremony (to my biased ‘Western’ educated mind), I was told about the informal arrangement in which the young ‘batch’ of the family members (my elder cousins, brothers and I) would have to stay awake at night and help guard grandma’s body up until the last funeral date. Folks believed that the “spirit” continued to stay next to the body up until the final funeral procession that leads the person to its resting place. I guess I shouldn’t complain about this intergenerational arrangement… I mean the elders need to sleep more than us (the ‘young’ ones) because they must oversee all the funeral arrangements and make sure that everyone is performing their assigned tasks. The critical tasks included:

  1. registering people who came to attend grandma’s funeral
  2. managing people’s meals
  3. organizing the funeral groups doing the chanting and rituals

            Yea a lot of work… People from the village were called in to help out with the funeral. Two meals were provided plus a small financial compensation was offered to the volunteers at the end of the funeral. I was amazed by the way in which grandma’s funeral managed to bring together so many people from the village and created a sense of “community” (albeit temporary). Old friends, relatives, neighbours and strangers came together for a ‘cause’ and everyone was assigned with a task to perform… Thinking back, I guess the tasks assigned for the young grandsons and granddaughters were to sit and mourn, burn joss paper and help guard grandma’s body until the final funeral ceremony. Maybe this is where the actual “story” begins, a young group of grandsons, granddaughters and their childhood friends trying to guard their grandma’s body throughout the nights leading up to her final funeral.

*

            The “Youth Gang” grew up coming to our grandparents’ house in the village of “港头” (gantou) in southeast China. In this special place in our hearts, 奶奶 (nainai) and 爷爷 (yeye) would spoil us with food and loving-kindness. “Yeye” and “Nainai” are two Mandarin Chinese terms commonly used to refer to grandfather and grandmother from dad’s side, respectively. When my parents were working abroad in the U.S., I was brought up together with my cousins by Yeye (grandpa), Nainai (grandma), aunties and uncles. Since I was one the youngest members of the family, my cousins would carry me in their arms and shoulders, and they used to take me around to different fun places where they used to hang out with their friends. These fun places included rollerblading rings, clubs, discos, arcade centers and public parks. I have fond memories of hanging out with my elder cousins in China before everyone migrated abroad to the U.S. or Portugal. The elder cousins from my aunt’s side (dad’s elder sister) migrated to the U.S in the early 90s. A few years later, the elder cousins from my uncles’ side moved to Portugal. In search of better economic opportunities abroad, family members left one by one and my grandparents’ home slowly became emptier and emptier… I stayed in my grandparents’ home from when I was nine months old up until when I was six years old. In 1996, I moved to Lisbon, Portugal. I missed my grandparents so much…

*

            Everyone has aged. Grandma has passed away, aunties and uncles are in their late sixties, elder cousins are now in their forties and I am in my late twenties. The “Youth Gang” is not that young anymore… Time does not forgive nor forget the impermanence of our human bodies. While burning joss paper with my cousins and brothers, I sat in contemplation. Grandma’s journey was not easy. Born and raised as a “woman” in a patriarchal society, she lived through multiple oppressive experiences such as gender inequality, arranged marriages and the forceful moving of one’s sense of “home”. Although she was born and raised in the village of 下庄 (xiazhuang), she had to ‘re-settle’ into grandpa’s village of 港头 (gantou) and into his unfamiliar family house. In patriarchal Chinese family settings, women often experience multiple oppressions as the “brought-in-wife” who has to adapt and literally survive in the husband’s family.

             “I want to go home, to 下庄 (wujio).” Grandma used to say this in her local Wujio village dialect before she left us. Although 下庄 is read as (xiazhuang) in Mandarin, in Nainai’s local village dialect, people pronounce it as Wujio. Since I lived in Gantou, I grew up learning the Gantou dialect but people from these two nearby towns can understand and communicate with each other because the biggest difference lies in the accent. Family members and her old friends who sat by her bedside would tell her, “You are already home, you are in港头 (gantou). Wujio is your brother’s home, your home is in Gantou. You have lived in Gantou for more than seventy years…” Then grandma would loosen a gentle smile and reply, “Ah yes… Wujio and Gantou are the same…” Although Wujio was her birthplace and the place where she grew up, she had been living in Gantou since her marriage in her young adult years. Nainai lived up until she was ninety-two years old. I fondly remember her saying, “好像做梦一样,我醒来已经活到一百多岁了…” (It is as if I was dreaming, I wake up and I have lived more than one hundred years…) Although Nainai wasn’t more than one hundred years old, she really enjoyed using that expression to emphasize her long life and cheer up the people around her.

*

            One night in her house in Gantou, Nainai had lost balance and crashed into her bedside furniture. She broke two ribs and hurt her hip. My uncles and aunts rushed her to the hospital. Given the fragility of her aged body, that fall was life-threatening. She was checked into the hospital for intensive medical treatment. My aunt started calling all the relatives scattered around the world and told us to return home and visit grandma during her last moments of life. Uncles, aunts, cousins all started purchasing plane tickets to return to China to visit grandma. Due to difficult work and financial pressures, my parents were not able to go to China so our family agreed that I should go first and visit grandma. I embarked on a flight with my second uncle from Lisbon to Wenzhou. We had a short layover in Beijing and a few hours later, we arrived at the Wenzhou airport. Wenzhou is a big city located about one hour away from our town of Gantou. Elder sister C kindly came to pick us up on a friend’s car and we travelled together to visit Nainai in the “人民医院” (renmingyiyuan), translated to English as People’s Hospital in Qingtian. Grandma was interned into this hospital because it was considered one the better hospitals around the area in terms of quality of care. Qingtian is a city town located about 20 minutes by car from our village town of Gantou.

peoples hospital (1 of 1)
People’s Hospital on the other margin of the river

            During her stay in the hospital, her lungs would occasionally accumulate thick layers of phlegm so she couldn’t breathe at ease. When it became too difficult to breathe, nurses would have to use the phlegm removal machine which had to be inserted down her throat. It was such a painful procedure for grandma and the whole family because we would have to help the nurses to keep her body still. With a tube inserted down her throat, she would gargle, push and kick around and people would have to hold her still. After this nightmarish medical procedure, she could again breathe at ease. When grandma was not undertaking any medical treatment, grandma and I would sit together and chat. I really enjoyed listening to Nainai’s life stories. I would like to call them “oral treasures” filled with wisdom teachings on life (and death)…

*

            During one of the many visits to Nainai in the hospital, grandma was surrounded by relatives and friends who came to send her gifts and wish her a quick recovery. I noticed that Nainai was looking weak and depressed that day. She started sharing how some of her old relatives and friends came to visit her recently and she lifted her finger pointing to the window. She mentioned their names and my aunt’s face turned grey with fear. She quickly interjected and tried to change the topic of conversation, “Don’t talk nonsense… They have long died.” Yea the majority of people are afraid of Death and dead people… When grandma mentioned their names, it felt like the hospital room environment suddenly changed colours – like a sudden wash of dark blue, white and black flooded the previously warm orange canvas… I started realizing how grandma might only have a short period of time left and this forced me to come face-to-face with my own impermanence in this world. In an attempt to comfort grandma (and myself), I remember trying to tell grandma to continuously chant Buddha Amitabha’s mantra. I had remembered how monks and nuns from different Buddhist traditions had told me how chanting Amitabha’s name could help the elderly and the dying in finding some inner peace… It is believed that if one chants with a pure heart, Buddha Amitabha would come with an entourage and guide the person to “Pure Land”… That day, I wrote a few lines on my cellphone notepad, “Being with beloved grandma holding a mirror to my ‘being’… Better practicing polishing the mind before the mirror breaks…”

            A day or a few days later (I don’t remember very clearly), I went on to visit grandma again. It was a bright and sunny day… Warm embracing rays playfully bright-washed the hospital room crowded with visitors with gifts. Beloved grandma sat on her bed and talked about her life and her regrets for not being able to further her studies. A gentle yet sad smile accompanied her journey of words, she said how her dad wanted to send her and her sisters to continue their studies (after primary school) but other family members strongly disagreed… “Why are you educating the girls if they are going to be married off later?” Grandma tried to mockingly imitate their voices using her Wujio village dialect. With mounting internal family resistance against educating young girls, grandma and her sisters stopped going to school after completing primary school.

            Despite strong family resistance against girls’ education, grandma had skilfully learned how to read and write in Chinese. Grandma became a literate person and she was into reading almanacs, Buddhist sutras, newspapers and magazines. However, when old age strikes, eyesight blurs… I remember how during one of my visits to Nainai at the hospital. She had shown the whole family how even though her eyes couldn’t read much anymore, she still remembered the Buddhist Heart Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra by heart. Through lots and lots of recitation, she had managed to memorize these two sutras and probably many others that I have no clue about… Second uncle had once told me how grandma used to be part of a Buddhist chanting group. When village folk passed away, her group would go into their homes and perform sutra chanting for the families of the deceased.

*

            While the chanting continued, the clouds had gotten thicker and thicker. A storm was brewing… Winds started to blow stronger and the chanting group started packing up their bags while their mouths were still moving. One of the elderly ladies was yelling at everyone to stay and finish their round of sutra chanting. Her yelling went on deaf ears… The chanting ladies left in small groups, they were running to catch a cab or the bus. Some members had brought their own scooters. The sky turned grey and started drizzling and the winds started blowing harder and harder… Thunder roared and lightning flashed. The golden draperies covering the makeshift ceremonial room were pushed around here and there by the wind. My relatives and I went around and tried to use pins to stitch these draperies together so they wouldn’t detach and fly away. The hung images of “Buddhas”, “Bodhisattvas” and Taoist deities were shaking around as if they would fly away at any moment… We tried to use bamboo poles to stick them close to the make-shift walls. Incense sticks and candles were extinguished by the blowing winds so we decided that it was safer to not rekindle these due to fire hazard. After we tried everything we could think of to prevent this make-shift funeral room from catching fire, burning and falling apart, we just sat and waited for the storm to pass. It rained for hours and hours, up until the good old Heavens were satisfied. Yes, the rain had finally stopped! And the cleanup process began… We had to use a bamboo pole to push out the water that had accumulated on top of the make-shift rain cover structure that the funeral organizers had previously set-up. If too much water accumulated there, the loose rain cover would collapse into the courtyard and flood…

            Around this time, family friend/cousin X came to visit with some ‘goodies’. It happened that, September 23rd, two days away from the final funeral on the 25th, was also the birthday of both my elder sister/cousin V and brother. Though we were all mourning grandma’s death, the ‘gang’ had also decided to perform a little birthday celebration for my brother and elder sister. No, no birthday cake involved, just a small celebration with wine and snacks.  I guess it was also an attempt to make the night vigil a little bit easier and less boring for the ‘young ones’…

            The group sat together on a round table placed in the square-shaped courtyard in front of the house. The snacks are taken out of their plastic containers and disposable chopsticks are being passed around. X had brought one of those bag-in-box wines, he was serving it into plastic cups and people were passing these around so everyone would get a cup. The “Gang” touched cups and wished the cousin and brother a “Happy Birthday”. “Ganbei!” Everyone raised their cups and drank the wine down. Then with our hungry chopsticks, we picked and chewed on duck tongues, chicken feet, fish cakes and tofu cakes. I munched on a few snacks, downed two cups of wine and decided to leave the party in order to continue the assigned tasks of ‘guarding’ grandma’s body and burning joss paper for her.

*

            I was experiencing a cocktail of feelings every time I burned this ‘heavenly’ money… This ‘heavenly’ money consisted of coarse yellow papers, thick gold-cardboards folded in the shape of antique Chinese gold ingots and ‘fake’ notes that were printed like US dollars, Euros and Renminbi… Haha…

burning house (1 of 2)
Burning joss paper

I keep thinking how this weird mixture of global worldly and heavenly currency is very specific to our town because it is estimated that more than fifty percent of its former residents have migrated abroad to the Americas, Africa or Europe… Once people have made enough money abroad (usually never enough), they return home to visit and burn it out. Sometimes for themselves, sometimes for their relatives…

            “Drink one more cup!” People on the table were challenging each other to drink more and more… Laughter and merry, old friendships were being re-ignited… More drinking and the ‘gang’ starts to get louder and louder… Nainai’s good old neighbour and friend W also decided to stay up for the night shift. No, she didn’t join the “young peoples’ party” but she decided to stick around and help the group perform the our night-shift duties. Many of the group members were drinking, eating and being merry at the time…

           Elder W came and sat next to me and we burned joss paper together. As we watched frail little paper fires burning and extinguishing, W shared how Nainai used to be like an elder sister to her and sometimes she would join grandma in her chanting journeys. “If someone in our village or nearby villages had passed away, and their families needed chanting services, grandma’s chanting group would go chant for them…”

            The ‘gang’ started to get louder and louder… W whispered to me to go and tell the group to make less noise because people were sleeping. I tried excusing myself by replying that since I was younger than most of them, they wouldn’t listen to me. I followed up on how it might actually be easier for her to do so because she was their elder… W decided to not do it either. We both just sat there and continued burning joss paper… As fires continued to kindle and extinguish, I wondered whether my uncles and aunts would get annoyed by the loud noises, decided to come downstairs and yell at the group to make less noise. No noises or lights turned on from upstairs…

            Elder sister C suddenly started to cry in a desperate tone, “Nainai, why did you leave us?!” Alcohol had started to take effect into peoples’ mind-bodies and repressed feelings started to come out… I had no idea that sister C was hiding all her sorrows under her lively smile and seemingly positive attitude towards life. Some members tried to comfort elder sister while others kept their eyes down in sadness because they were also experiencing deep grief… Elder sister continued to cry, scream and nobody was able to help her calm down… Meanwhile, some group members started to fall sleep in the couch while others were stuck in the bathroom vomiting. The elder W was rushing here and there trying to make some green tea and serve it to the group of intoxicated young people. I ran around and tried bringing some water bottles to the group. A cousin’s friend, who was still more-or-less sober, had suggested that honey water could help drunk people recover so elder W went on to make honey water for elder sister. Elder W gave some honey water to sister C. Sister C had a sip and then she walked towards grandma’s body in the cooling arc. C started crying in deep grief, “Nainai, why did you leave us?! I will miss you so much…” She continued to sob tears and snot. I was sitting next to her. Fearful and perplexed, I had no idea what to do… I tried to censor myself from saying anything in fear that whatever I would say might make her cry even more. Cousin continued to scream and cry… I finally decided to break out of my ‘protective shell’, open my mouth in an attempt to comfort her, “Elder sister, grandma went on to a better place. A place where there is no old-age, sickness and death. She is now in a much better place than us…”

            As I spoke, I was no longer caged by my own personal fears and insecurities, I just wanted elder sister to suffer less… To be honest, I have no idea where grandma is right now but I do believe that she is in a place where there is less suffering than what she had experienced going through the painful universal experiences of birth, old-age, sickness and death in addition to her personal experiences of poverty, patriarchy, political instability, hunger, wars and so much more… (As a counterbalance, I think grandma also experienced joy, loving-kindness and compassion towards family, friends and neighbours. Nainai held strong faith in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and with it, she tried to practice to the best of her abilities…)

*

            Elder sister managed to calm down a bit and she stopped crying. The group set up a reclining chair for her to sit and rest. She fell asleep. I returned to the little chair placed next to grandma’s body in the cooling arc. Back to the task of sitting with grandma throughout the night…

            I burn a piece of joss paper. A flame rises and stops. I burn another piece of this yellow paper. Another flame rises and falls.  I start to burn slower and slower… Up until I stop trying to do something and I just sit. Simply sit. Thoughts of renunciation come. What a mess is this experience called “Life”… Death and merry in a burning house… All is burning1… I try to gently comfort ‘myself’… A kind voice sweet like a bird’s singing gently whispers, “It’s ok my dear. Relax. Breathe.” I suddenly remember Buddha’s teachings on Mindfulness of Breathing. In, out, in, Out

 

bird 2 smaller jie wu

1 Allusion to Buddha’s Fire Sutra. I first read from link http://cuckooscall.blogspot.com/2006/07/fire-sutra.html