49 Days to the After­life

Rice, tea and a tril­lion dol­lars of spirit money

Geist - - Geist - Jo­ce­lyn Kuang

Afew months ago my close friend Bran­dyn in­vited me to his fa­ther’s fu­neral ser­vice. I had never at­tended a North Amer­i­can fu­neral and had no idea what to ex­pect or what was cus­tom­ary. I wasn’t sure if I should take flow­ers or food, as I had seen done on tele­vi­sion. The only fu­neral I had ever at­tended was my pa­ter­nal grand­dad’s, when I was eleven years old. Our fam­ily had trav­elled to the coastal town of Kuala Be­lait, Brunei, where my dad grew up; the fu­neral was Chi­nese—be­cause that side of the fam­ily orig­i­nally came from Fuzhou, in China—and Bud­dhist—be­cause that’s what my grand­dad had asked for be­fore he died.

My aunts and un­cles in Brunei had started the fu­neral prepa­ra­tions as soon as my grand­dad passed away. The cas­ket was kept in a big open

area on the ground floor un­der my grand­par­ents’ home, which rested on pil­ings. The cas­ket was open and was cov­ered by a glass panel to pro­tect the body from an­i­mals. A cup of tea was placed near the cas­ket, as well as a bowl of rice with chop­sticks stuck ver­ti­cally in the rice. (When I was a lit­tle kid I had been scolded for do­ing the same thing with my chop­sticks, and now I un­der­stood why—it sig­ni­fied the death of some­one in the fam­ily.) A bowl of rice with chop­sticks placed up­right is of­fered to nour­ish the de­ceased through their journey to the after­life, which starts as soon as the per­son dies and lasts forty-nine days, in seven stages of seven days. Dur­ing these forty-nine days, there are to be no bright colours or flow­ers near the griev­ing fam­ily.

My aunts and un­cles cut holes in the pock­ets of all my grand­dad’s pants and shirts to pre­vent him from tak­ing his money to the after­life so his for­tune would be left in the liv­ing world for his fam­ily. Then they be­gan to burn joss pa­per, sheets of pa­per known as “ghost” or “spirit” money. Joss pa­per is burned in or­der to pro­vide money to the de­ceased in the after­life—the more pa­per burned, the more money my grand­dad would re­ceive. He would use the money to buy food and goods and to ex­ist com­fort­ably in the after­life by mak­ing a good impression among other ghosts, and to en­sure a smooth journey, “like pay­ing tolls,” my dad told me.

Joss pa­per comes in var­i­ous forms. Tra­di­tional joss pa­per is made of bam­boo, decorated with a gold or sil­ver foil square. Fancier ver­sions are avail­able, branded as “Hell Bank

Notes” from the “Bank of Heaven and Earth,” in de­nom­i­na­tions of 50,000,000 dol­lars. Some ver­sions are de­signed to re­sem­ble cur­rency from this world, such as Chi­nese yuan and US dol­lars, and de­nom­i­na­tions range from 10,000 to 1,000,000,000 dol­lars. The only way to move ob­jects from the liv­ing world to the after­life is to burn them. Nowa­days it’s be­come pop­u­lar to make houses, cars and mo­bile phones out of joss pa­per to burn so the de­ceased will have these goods in the after­life.

My un­cle built a fire in a large tin cylin­der near the cas­ket, and the fam­ily gath­ered and started burn­ing the joss pa­per. The fire had to burn con­tin­u­ously un­til my grand­dad’s burial. Two days af­ter my aunts and un­cles started burn­ing joss pa­per, the last of their sib­lings ar­rived. Only when all close fam­ily mem­bers were present could we call the ceme­tery to make ar­range­ments for burial.

Af­ter two more days of burn­ing joss pa­per, we put out the fire be­cause it was time to head to the ceme­tery. Six men from the lo­cal fu­neral com­mit­tee showed up at the house and car­ried the cas­ket out into the back of a stake truck (a truck with a fence around the open bed). Then my fa­ther and his sib­lings climbed up into the truck bed and sat down around the cas­ket; the cus­tom is to kneel, but for safety rea­sons they sat. The in-laws climbed into the truck next. The rest of us got into a car. (No im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers older than the de­ceased are al­lowed to at­tend the burial.) The truck with my grand­dad’s body left first, as was cus­tom­ary. We drove his body around town one last time, then headed to the ceme­tery.

At the burial, no tomb­stone is placed and no dec­o­ra­tions are al­lowed at the gravesite to let the de­ceased rest in peace; it is cus­tom­ary to wait one hun­dred days be­fore build­ing a per­ma­nent, well-decorated tomb. My grand­dad’s tomb was de­signed by my dad dur­ing our visit and built later that fall. It was decorated with images of the clas­sic Chi­nese Eight Im­mor­tals, for pro­tec­tion; two chil­dren, a boy and a girl, for in­no­cence; the ground god, who al­lows for the build­ing of tomb­stones on the ground; and lo­tus flow­ers, be­cause my dad thought they would look nice.

The ceme­tery is where bad spir­its hang around and the fear is that they might hitch a ride out of the ceme­tery with mourn­ers or vis­i­tors and fol­low them home. So af­ter the burial, to keep the bad spir­its from en­ter­ing our rel­a­tives’ home, we lit a small fire in a tin at the gate of the house and one by one we jumped over the fire onto the grounds of the home. Once in­side, we soaked pomelo leaves in a wash­tub full of wa­ter and then took turns pour­ing the pomelo wa­ter over our bod­ies, one at a time, cleans­ing our souls and bod­ies. First went the el­ders, then my dad and his sib­lings, then fam­ily mem­bers with the sur­name of my grand­dad and, fi­nally, other fam­ily mem­bers.

Once the body was buried, the first stage of the journey was com­plete. My dad, mom, sis­ters and I flew back to Canada, while my aunts and un­cles con­tin­ued to help my grand­dad through the six re­main­ing stages in his journey to the after­life. Ev­ery seven days, start­ing from the day my grand­dad passed away, they bought and burned more joss pa­per at the house.

Bran­dyn’s dad’s fu­neral ser­vice, which was non-re­li­gious, was held in a room at a golf club in Sur­rey. Fam­ily and friends talked into a mi­cro­phone, shar­ing their mem­o­ries of his dad’s life. At one point a slide show was played. Be­fore go­ing to the ser­vice, I had asked my house­mate if it was cus­tom­ary to take any­thing along. She told me it wasn’t, so I just showed up.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.