49 Days to the Afterlife
Rice, tea and a trillion dollars of spirit money
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.