Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My mother's not-so-fat Chinese funeral

Seen the movie 'My big fat Greek wedding?'

It's pretty hilarious, good stuff... hence the title of this post as my tribute...

My mum was an 'eater'... Yet, in her heydays, I'd say that although she was a little on the plump side, she was not exactly 'fat'...

Once, she visited Thailand with some of my siblings.

When they returned home with the goodies, my father wondered why they were such lousy shoppers.

These longans, so tiny! my father exclaimed.

The reality was, during the drive back home, mother had selectively wolloped the big ones.

I often bring mother out for a short walk in her wheelchair whenever I visited her at the nursing home.

The home was situated in a housing estate and the neighbors were always willing to exchange a word or two as we walked by.

The views of the paddy fields, the vegetable garden (which was converted from a children's playground), the various trees that lined the roads, the smell of the outside air...

I had assumed that they offered mother a refreshing change from the bare walls of the nursing home.

On the third last day that I saw her, I asked if I could get her something to eat...

Putu mayam... said she without much of a hesitation.

Oh yes, without the coconut grating...

I should have known better...

But search I did and did, in and out of and across the city of Alor Star...

But I just could not find that stuff...

The seller at the Simpang Empat morning market, where was he when I wanted him most, I wondered...

In her prime, mother reared some swine albeit for a short period, grew vegetables, raised poultry, cooked our meals, and took care of the house.

For past times, I would rate going to the pasar malam as one of her favorites.

Many a time, my missus and I would accompany her to the pasar malams... she cherished walking around the stalls, looking at the merchandises on offer and putu mayam was on more than one occasion, among the stuff she bought...

She had this habit of touching and squeezing the merchandises (fruits, particularly) to test for freshness...

I cringed each time I witnessed her doing that...

But the last time I saw her, my mother the eater, she just couldn't eat.

She would take a spoonful or two of the porridge or soup, and that was it...

I am not sure if this came from Buddhist teachings, but purportedly, our lives are measured not only in the dimension of time but also in the number of breaths.

Perhaps this is the reason why the slow and deliberate breathing of meditation is so valued.

Stretch this proposition a little, and why not the amount of food, too?

It makes sense that each and everyone of us have a 'quota' of beef, cucumbers, fried noodles, etc, that we can or are able to consume... no?

So, when a person's physical body refuses or rejects food intake, it is probably time to return to our Maker...

Being of Chinese ancestry and of the Kwangtung lineage, funeral rites take on what I suspect, is the Toaist way...

As such, my mum's wake was four nights, as was my dad's about 15 years ago... the funeral proper occured on the fifth day after death...

Prayers started on the evening of the third day after death, and did not finish until after we returned from the burial on the fifth...

Based on the experience of my father's funeral, the prayers are the part that I dreaded most...

I have never understood why there is such a need to pray so long, and so deep into the unholy hours of the night...

Prayers on the third night continued on until past 1:00 am... blistering, I'd say...

Prayers on the fourth night would be shorter, I had prayed...

But, no cigar, my friend...

The monks... they prayed, they chanted... the cymbals clinked... the gongs gonged... and my eardrums went 'pinnnggg'... even with earplugs on...

They put on comedy skits to entertain us, and the deceased...

One young monk took on the role of my mother, sobbing, grieving, wailing, and crying for us, saying that mother did not want to leave us, but, but...

I have previously learned that I had an elder sister who passed away as a child... I never knew or saw her...

Mother had told us before she died that she wanted to bring along this child with her to the other world...

And I was selected to be the bearer of this sister's paper-based 'spirit tablet'or 'mortuary tablet'(?)

So, there was no escape for me... I had to be there carrying the plate for each and all of the prayer sessions...

In the midst of it, we received rice, money, among other things, from mother...

This is to ensure that we will not starve...

On our part, we offered mother a big house to stay in while she is in the other world...

A house filled with lots of hell notes, servants, cars, flowers, clothes, shoes, and so on... naturally, all made from paper...

The finale came at about 2:00 on the fourth night...

We were to burn all these offerings, believing that in doing so, we'd be sending them all to mother...

The fires burnt in the deep of the night as we quietly watched a golden glow reaching up for the sky...

When the smoke settled, we hit the sack at past 3:00 am...

If the previous night was blistering; this night, it was, should I say, bordering on the 'murderous' (?) considering that we had to wake up early the next day for the funeral.

The funeral day attracted probably the biggest crowd of the five days...

Throughout the period, we had to provide the food and refreshments for well wishers, some of them relatives from out of state...

This funeral day, we had two big roast pigs, steam chickens, roast chickens, mushroom and vegetable soup, stir fried mixed vegetables, fried spring rolls, among other dishes...

At about 10:00 am, the rituals began...

We, the sons, had to face down and crawl on fours as they moved the coffin.

Once the coffin was placed outside the house, more prayers followed.

The sons and immediate family paid respects...

Then, close relatives, not-so-close relatives, representatives from associations and clans, fellow villagers took their turns, in that order, to pay their last respects...

An early meal followed, and at about 11:00 am, the chief monk hit the gong, gently and slowly at first, and gradually progressed to a rapid and louder pace, as if to call on the spirit of the departed to come forth...

One of my brothers-in-law was tasked to lead the funeral procession...

He had a yellow sash put diagonally across his torso...

Under instructions from the monk, he slowly raised a flag that was attached onto a bamboo pole...

Following my brother-in-law's slow cadence was the hearse...

Behind the hearse, the grieving family, and the well wishers...

We walked for less than a kilometer, after which, we hopped into the bus and the cars for the rest of the way...

At the cemetary, I later found out that I was not supposed to be watching the coffin being unloaded and carried to the burial lot.

I was there, observing and recording the movement...

It took fifteen men to carry the coffin up the slopes to the grave...

The graves are haphazardly arranged and there are no walkways or paths at all...

So, the men stepped on existing graves, as they manuevered while shouting out instructions at one another...

The smooth shellac finish of the coffin was scraped against the stones of other graves...

The lowering of the coffin into the pit required considerable skill, I could see...

Apparently, there is some kind of alignment that is connected to the karma of the deceased... am not sure on this...

One of my younger brothers who was into cock-fighting took charge and instructed the grave care takers to make the adjustments.

All these while, a live chicken with its feet tied, was placed at the side of the grave... I wondered why...

Finally, my mother is reunited with my father, and poor father, he had to wait 15 years for this moment...

It was time to leave the cemetary and the monk instructed that we must not turn back and look as we walked down the hill... if we did, bad karma...

Back home, the final prayers were conducted... and holy cow, it was then that I found out that we are to keep the live chicken for as long as she lives...

In other words, no chicken curry out of this poor soul...

And just when I thought it was all finished, I mean, yes, all finished, the monk handed us a list of calendar dates to observe...

The dates are counted in multiples of sevens...

On the 'first-seventh' day after the death, the sons should conduct prayers at the cemetary...

We did that, and had a feast thereafter albeit on a much smaller scale...

We did not have to do anything on the 'third-seventh' day... hmmm, why?

The 'fifth-seventh' day (which is 35 days after the death) is reserved for the daughters to pray at the cemetary...

On the 'seventh-seventh' day (that is, 49 days after the death), we need to observe prayers, probably hiring the services of the monk...

The 100th day is slated to be a big function...

If I can make it home, I will definitely try to look for that putu mayam for mother...

We shall most likely call up the monk again to lead the prayers...

My third elder brother who is taking charge of the whole affair (he is the 'General') is already talking about setting up ten to fifteen tables to serve meals to whoever comes by on that day...

All our relatives, big and small, close and far, are invited to join the prayers and partake in the food...

By the way, don't ask me why we don't count the even-seventh days as in the 'second-seventh' day or the 'fourth-seventh' day... I am clueless here...

Oh yes, one more thing before I forget...

My mother's spirit has up to October 3rd (Sunday) to freely roam wherever she likes...

It is believed that the spirit normally goes to visit the homes familiar to him/her in the previous life... (as in my skin-crawling experience?)

A niece of mine related that she saw her departed father-in-law returning to see her infant daughter, leaning closely on the crib...

On the final day of October 3rd, the 'Cow-Head and Horse-Face', in other words, unworldly 'Guards' from the other world, shall accompany my mother back to my youngest brother's house for the last visit...

(One of my mother's death wish was to have her body placed at my youngest brother's house for the funeral.)

We are not to kill any living thing on that day, so no swatting of that irritating mosquito or stepping on ants on the walkpath...

Equally important is to provide her with a feast to eat for that last day before she goes to the other world for good...

We are also advised to furnish sufficient food at the back of the house for the Cow-Head and Horse-Face Guards, or otherwise they will grab all the food meant for our poor mother thus leaving her hungry...

Now, after the feast, the Cow-Head and Horse-Face Guards will accompany her to the Gates of Hell or Heaven for judgement...

'Superstition ain't the way', suggests Stevie Wonder...

Now, try telling that to the Chinese...

Chinese culture goes back thousands of years... the Chinese people and their descendants everywhere, understandably, are proud of this...

However, I sometimes wish that this culture stuff could be simplified and modified to suit the changing environment and times of the locality...

Besides the need to sleep, there is also the issue of noise pollution from the chants and gongs, and of air pollution from the burning of incense, paper-mansions, and mercedes benzes...

Phew... this has turned out to be a long post... thanks for reading...