Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Ashes and dust

I believe the old man next door has died.

I never met him – I have only ever been an observer of his family's life, and even then only the parts that can be seen from my window – but still, the fractious relationship he had with his land revealed a bit of him to me, and I feel like a knew him a little. He was stubborn, but kind, too. I have a vivid memory from when we lived here before, of him and his grandson walking down the gravel lane, holding hands as the afternoon light, warm and yellow, tinted the dust kicked up behind them. I find myself moved by his passing. It's a reminder of the unavoidability of death, of course, and I also find myself wondering what will happen to his widow and their little farm.

The funeral began in the afternoon of the first Monday of December. I took notice of it not from my window, but from the playground, when I looked up and saw several people in our building leaning on their balcony rails, cameras in hand. I could hear something going on next door, but the wall that separates us is high, without windows, so I had to dash up to the fourth floor to see what was going on. In the clearing stood white bundles of ghost money, carefully arranged to form what looked like a two-layer cake, festooned with flowery tufts of golden paper - more ghost money - shoved into the crevices. Family members dressed in white with sackcloth smocks (yellow for women, beige for men) walked around the pile, wailing. A paper palace stood nearby. Four men picked up a sedan chair and began circling the pile of money while another man set it all ablaze. The mourners stood in a ring around the clearing, each one holding tight to a thin white rope. As the sedan was carried about, the seat began to shake - a sign that the spirit of the deceased had taken his place in it.

This went on for hours: the men carrying the sedan, which rattled quite violently at times; the family encircling the massive fire; and continued offerings of ghost money, even the palace itself, being tossed into the flames. A second team of strong men took over the chair at one point, while a single drummer beat out a continuous tattoo. The skies grew dark, but the fire threw a great deal of light on the scene, and I spent most of my evening watching the events below. The chair was sometimes carried to a spot just out of sight, to a display of what I believe was more spirit wealth, perhaps offerings made by the family, and then carried and tipped towards the fire. It appeared that the bearers were trying to convince the deceased that he would be well-provided for in the next life. He was not in any hurry to go, though; it was quite late when the chair made its final, driving rhythm towards the flames and then fell silent. The remaining money was then heaped on the fire - great bags of it - before the mourners left their positions and walked to the funeral tent across the street.

The funeral wasn't over yet, though. The next morning the same party of mourners, holding onto the same white rope, lined up behind the coffin as it was rolled down our street. A hearse led the procession, but I don't believe it was used to carry the coffin at any time. There are many graves in our village, so I expect the old man's final resting place was not too far from home. Music blared from a speaker as they made their way, but otherwise the group was quiet. It would be traditional for the mourning family to come home along a different route, to confuse any spirits who might want to follow them back, and indeed I didn't notice their return. I heard them, though, a short while later back at the funeral tent - short speeches, some more crying. Large wreaths lined the street around the house, and several Buddhist monks were lighting incense and burning brightly-colored papers.

I have read up on some of the funeral practices of Taiwan since then, although not everything I saw has been explained; even so, I certainly understand the motives, the universal desire to honor a loved one and say goodbye with a great showing of respect. Many of the traditions are based on fear, though - fear of the spirit world, of ghosts not properly appeased, of family not provided for in the afterlife. This is a challenge for those Chinese and Taiwanese who become Christians: showing proper respect without bowing to the deceased as an idol to be worshipped. I am glad for my faith, that I can look at death not as a fearful thing but as the moment of transformation from a temporal existence to an everlasting one, and as a moment of reunion. If I fear anything it is loneliness, but not death. I think my ride in the spirit chair would be shorter than a single shake.

The next day the backhoe came and wiped out the circle of ash that remained from the fire. Someone has been hard at work, planting trees in the lot and sifting through the mounds of dirt. I don't know for sure what will become of the farm, but the old woman is still picking her guava, and her son drives it to the market. That is the proof, I guess, that their lives are carrying on.


Anonymous said...

That was very moving, Kat. Thanks for sharing it with us. Your writing reminds me of Andree Seu in WORLD magazine; she's my first read when it arrives.

Kat said...

I like her work, too – she's a great writer with an amazing vocabulary . Thank you for the compliment.