A Travellerspoint blog

The Funeral


On Thursday May 29, we learned that yeye's uncle had died at age 73 (only a decade older than yeye). It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm but not too humid, after a day and a half of rain had ended a streak of humid very hot days and cleaned the air of smog. For about 3 days before the rain, someone had been lighting strings of firecrackers in the parking lot of our village 27. Skyler found the noise interesting, but perhaps a little apprehensive because of the volume. Zhewei explained that a resident of our village had died, and firecrackers are part of funeral ritual. I knew about some of this, and had read about it and the burning of paper money, in articles about grief over earthquake victims. Traditionally, the body would remain at home (the casket on ice in warmer months) for 3 days to allow friends and family to visit, and each of those days firecrackers would be exploded -- the noise to help drive off evil spirits. Now I would experience more of that ritual first hand.

The man who died, Mr Huang, was a younger brother of yeye's mother, and was the last one of Z's grandparents' generation still living. His wife had died in 1992, hit by a vehicle while crossing the street to bring her husband home for lunch. The couple had 5 children, three daughters and two sons. Zhewei remembers visiting this family every new year, and receiving red envelopes from them. After his wife died, Mr. Huang had remarried but divorced again some years later, and so was living alone (with daily visits by a housekeeper to help with food, cleaning, and medications). It was kidney failure that eventually caused his death. The eldest child, a daughter, is married to a local government official (in some suburb of Wuhan) with some considerable power, and he sort of "rules" the family. Because of his influence, many people came to this funeral to give him respect (and face), despite not knowing the deceased.

Mr Huang lived in an apartment (floor) of a four-story family building near the second Changjiang bridge. The building is owned by several family members jointly, one apartment (total four) each, although the others (including two of yeye's sisters) live elsewhere and rent these apartments out. Yeye grew up quite nearby in this neighborhood (map), although the area is now wholly changed.

Yeye was gone most of Thursday making funeral plans and arrangements with relatives, returning after 10pm. Friday we stayed home mostly. The funeral procession was to begin at 6.30a, we were told, so we needed to get an early start Saturday morning. The earlier you arrive at the crematorium, the less you will have to wait for the cremation process to finish. Plus, traffic is light, so it's easier to get the procession of vehicles through the city.

We got up at 5.15a on Saturday and didn't eat breakfast, because some food was going to be provided at the home. We had arranged a neighbor who owns a car to drive us at 6.00a (paying him a little bit, of course). I'd never seen traffic so light in Wuhan as I did at 6.05am. There were quite a few heavy trucks at that hour, though.
We arrived at the house (map) at 6.12a only to discover the procession had already left! The street was littered with red paper wrappers of exploded firecrackers, a good half block out to the main street. It must have been very loud, and woken all the neighbors, some of whom we now saw milling around. I was sorry to have missed it, but it's good Skyler wasn't there. A canopy was erected in front of the house door, and there were paper bowls littering the ground from guests having eaten noodles provided. We quickly collected black armbands to wear, which are marked to signify relation (or generation, really): yeye and nainai wore bands with a white dot for children's generation, Z and I wore bands with a red dot, and Skyler's had a green flower for great-grandchildren. Someone gave us information about where they had gone and it hadn't been long since they left, so we piled back into the car and tried to catch them.

We caught up with the procession, it must have been about 30 vehicles including two large buses, each tagged with a red ribbon on the left mirror and a white paper flower attached to the front grill. We drove up towards the front of the procession, since we were family, and edged our way in. An open truck behind us carried the dozens of huaquan (="flower loops"), large round paper flower constructions on stands that had been sent or given to the family in mourning. These serve something like flower arrangements and wreaths common at American funerals. (Yeye and his siblings each bought one, for a total of 7 from our family. When yeye left their house on Thursday night, there were already 48 that had arrived.)
A guy on the passenger side of the truck would regularly toss out a lit string of firecrackers into the street. Pedestrians adjusted their paths to avoid the nuisance. Once the firecrackers were close enough to our car I was concerned about sparks damaging the paint, and the driver closed the windows to keep stuff from flying inside. Finally the procession entered a narrow street leading to the crematorium in an older neighborhood. There were numerous food and service vendors near the crematorium; I guess residents on that street must be used to lots of firecrackers going off daily (and starting at 6.00am!) as processions drive in.

Also hired and in the procession was a brass band of sorts, about 5 or 6 pieces including a drum, to play a traditional funeral dirge. They even played a few bars from the truck as the procession drove along.

We arrived at the crematorium (map). The parking lot was pretty large for a Chinese parking lot, and still mostly empty, but we were not the first of the day. We waited a little while as the casket was carried into a visiting room (there were a number of identical rooms on the same hall) and various articles were arranged. Then a line of people went into the room, walking around the casket, to say goodbye to the body and greet and comfort the immediate family, who stood along one side of the casket. A photo of the Mr. Huang was on one wall. Mr Huang himself was hard to recognize, his face partially covered, but he looked wrinkled like you'd expect, and slight of build. I shook hands with several of the family as we walked in and then back out, mostly men, even though I'd never met them before. Several of the daughters were crying and I felt sympathy but could think of no way to express it that would not seem quite awkward. It felt somewhat rushed, actually: I didn't observe anyone stopping for long or talking with the mourning family members, just some brief hugs. Exiting the building, we stepped against the wall as a group of red-faced men carried another body into the building, this one encased in a casked-shaped refrigerator with a glass lid. It sure looked heavy, and the bamboo shafts they used were thick as my arm.

Back outside in the morning sun we waited. Bottles of water were handed out. Numerous guests were taken with Skyler, one of the deceased's daughters particularly, who took him and carried him around for a while. Skyler also sat and climbed around on the lap of a woman in the passenger seat of a white BMW 5-series. We didn't know them. One of yeye's sisters brought us some noodles -- she had thoughtfully saved four cups in plastic bags for us. We walked to the larger bus (now mostly empty) so we could sit down and eat. It was cooler outside, so yeye took Skyler out, where he was promptly picked up again by the same daughter, who carried him around to other cars of guests, yeye following to keep an eye. I watched as several processions of mourners who arrived before us did the next step: a short procession on foot bringing the ashes from the crematorium to the vehicle, waiting at the exit, that was to carry them to the mausoleum. Zhewei was talking to some relatives, one woman in particular has a daughter who asked about studying abroad. Skyler was quite tired at this point, rubbing eyes. Zhewei took him back to the bus to see if she could get him to sleep, where we found people on the bus were exiting because the ashes should be coming out soon. Zhewei said I could stay with her on the bus, but after a few minutes I decided I wanted to go witness and participate in the next part.

I went looking, but couldn't find any of the people I recognized. There were maybe 20 people I knew in the group of 140+ for our funeral, but I didn't see any of them. Outside the buildings were probably 75 people or so milling around and waiting. I wandered into one that had a series of open doors, and found a large dark waiting room, quite full, with air-coolers blowing on a crowd of several hundred people. I wanted to take a picture but didn't want to offend or attract attention -- it would probably be blurry without a flash anyway. Looking at the crowd I didn't see any of yeye's family, so I went back out. Later I learned yeye (and maybe the rest of the family?) had seen the ashes after they came out of the incinerator -- he said some of the heavier bones were still reasonably intact and had to be smashed to go into the box with the ashes. Call it morbid curiosity (quite literally I suppose), but I regretted having missed that too. In China, people are not cordoned off so much from the unpleasant parts of life and death as Americans tend to be. Overall I think that's a good thing.

I went back to the bus. Skyler still wouldn't sleep -- the environment was too unusual and stimulating. I went back outside to watch another procession or two -- one had only 7 mourners! Finally it was our turn. Zhewei was outside again with Skyler. One family member carries a photo of the deceased at the front, followed by a special wooden cart carrying the ashes in a cloth-wrapped box. Two young men in white military-style dress uniforms arranged the procession and one pushed the cart. The cart is wooden, with carvings of tall narrow geese on the front, and includes a canopy and a drawer for a radio playing a tape of music. But live musicians were also present: apart from the ones we brought with us, there were four people who played a couple minutes of dirge for each procession from the crematorium. Descendants and other family follow the cart, then other mourners, with musicians at the rear. Two yellow lines on the pavement indicated the path to the parking lot's exit, where a vehicle was waiting. More firecrackers are lit at the exit as the ashes-box was transferred to the car. They were loud; I was carrying Skyler so I covered one ear while he buried his head against my shirt to cover the other.

Then one of yeye's sisters directed us to a car to ride in, instead of the bus, a car driven by and belonging to a young man we didn't know. It was a pretty nice Nissan (automatic, power everything, 5-cd changer, with about 65000km on it). It was somewhat strange to me, despite spending at least two hours in the car with this guy, he was quiet and didn't say anything to us except when we asked him about directions, and we didn't ask anything or chat with him, although he did smile for Skyler and we directed Skyler to thank him ("xiexie shushu" =thank you uncle). It's a sort of politeness, I suppose, this keeping to yourself. In China, asking what someone does as a profession is not the first and friendly way to get to know someone; more often, you ask about family, but that's already somewhat personal. And since this guy was one of the many people there who benefited from a good relationship with the husband who was the official, perhaps the details of his work or business are best left unasked. Yeye later estimated that 3/4 of the cars were people like this, whose presence increased the respect and face of the official and maintained or improved a positive relationship with him which in turn increases their chances of favorable business or work opportunities with the government he directs. Interesting how corruption works its way into personal lives of families this way.

The procession of cars headed northeast through the city. We passed a wedding procession, cars decked in red ribbons, going the opposite direction. On Jiefang Lu we passed a bunch of freshly-washed cars with red and white flags on them celebrating the Olympics. Sure enough, the Olympic torch was in Wuhan on the same day of our funeral, and these cars were going to join a parade. Eventually we climbed a muddy dirt road over the levee on the north side of the city and parked in the dirt by a small group of two-story mausoleum buildings, each enclosed (as are most developments in China, btw) in spiky steel fences, and secured with a locked metal door. We walked along the dirt road and down the steps to the proper building (map). This would be a temporary home for the ashes, because the family was going to be moving the mother's remains as well to a new location where they would be together, and room for later generations as well. Many men stepped off the side of the road to relieve themselves. The open truck with the huaquan was unloaded in the grass on the side of the road, and once most of the mourners were down at the mausoleum compound, the paper things lit on fire. Clothes of the deceased were also pulled out of some plastic bags and thrown on the fire. Five rolls of firecrackers sat a dozen meters away, to be unused.

Down the steps I entered the mausoleum compound, where two large vessels for fire sat in front of the building's entrance. The brass band situated itself at the top of the steps to the covered entrance and played more dirge. A sizable plastic bag full of fake money, made of something like yellow construction paper with cheap printing (and bundled just like stacks of cash), sat to one side. People pulled apart the stacks of the fake cash and burned it in the vessel; the smoke was thick.
We also burned our armbands, symbolically ending our obligations as mourners. Some walked inside to see the mausoleum and the Mr Huang's place in it. Each wall is floor to ceiling rows of boxes with glass doors. Inhabited boxes were locked with little padlocks. The framed photo is usually in front, and often other trinkets are inside, sometimes including some fancy fake cash. As we left the mausoleum, at the top of the steps, two small piles of paper were burning. Each guest stepped over a fire as they left, cleansing them of misfortune brought by the gods of death to this family in the first place.

We walked back to the cars, and got back in the same car we arrived in. We drove up the the levee, and waited there, car idling, for some time. It turned out to be a long time, well over an hour. It was too early to go to lunch. We're not sure what the hold-up was, but Z suspected that the route to our planned restaurant was blocked because of the torch relay, and people were trying to find an alternative. I now think we were waiting for the torch to pass and the street to be cleared, because the restaurant we went to was just next to the second Changjiang bridge, there were some barricades there which had been moved, and we saw lots of spectators leaving the area (and coming down off the bridge). Sitting in the car, idling with the air conditioning on, we entertained Skyler and chatted. I pulled out my paperback and read a dozen pages or so. The whole time, the CD player was playing pop music of the driver's preference. At one point, the driver got out and walked a ways off to smoke a cigarette. One of Z's cousins, Zhemin, daughter of san-yeye, came over and swapped cars with nainai, so they could visit more. Zhemin, around 22, is planning to marry this year, to her boyfriend of three months; the date will be either on Aug 8 or Oct 1.

Finally the lead cars set off again, and we drove after them. We took a different turn than some before us, following along the levee -- until we ran into a traffic jam. There were no side streets, so we had to return back the way we came and go back into the city to find our way to the restaurant.

Our group used about 2/3 of the restaurants tables (all round again, of course), about 16 or 18 tables of approximately 10 each. Two tables held yeye and his brothers and sisters and spouses and kids who were present, one table for descendants of an older brother of the deceased.

Before the meal began, we were still waiting some for the final guests to arrive, and there was tea and soda to drink. I got up several times as nainai and Z were walking around watching Skyler. Once he was picked up by a woman and carried back into the smoky restaurant, and nainai didn't see, so I pointed him out to Z and she interrupted her conversation, got nainai and the three of us went back there.

Finally the meal began. The food was good, as usual, better than the wedding food, but not quite as good as the birthday banquet food. The baijiu (rice liquor) was distributed liberally among the men, and the smoking thankfully stopped for a time. In China, one should never drink alcohol without food. I think the motivation is health-related, but doing so might also get you labeled as a lush.

There was a bottle of Chinese-made red wine on the table, and it was open, so Xianjin shushu (for Skyler, he's san-yeye "=third grandpa") offered and poured some for me, after I tried a little bit to determine the taste. It was quite dry, which I appreciated, although unremarkable otherwise. I got up or turned around for a moment, and didn't notice that shushu filled the rest of my glass with Sprite until a few minutes later when I took a drink. Yecch! So much for the dryness - it was now a sweet fizzy thing. I guess this is how red wine (not a common beverage, by any means, except at such large celebratory occasions) is typically consumed -- most people probably don't have a taste for it plainly dry. I was careful on the next refill by san-yeye to stop the pop from going in.

At some point, yeye and his brothers decided I should go round toasting some important relatives. Yeye would make it happen, but didn't even carry a drink of his own. Z came along to help translate, also without a glass, although in many cases no translation was necessary. I began with hongjiu (="red wine"), but after a couple tables I was empty. Yeye found some more and refilled me. A few more tables along, and I was out again. Z tried to convince me to use water instead of baijiu, but somehow it didn't feel right to me. (It would, though, certainly be acceptable for women, who generally don't drink; gender roles are quite strongly different in China, but those who buck the trends are not widely frowned upon. It's a role, not a rule! China's going through yet another disruptive social evolution with it's economic boom, everyone recognizes it. Enough rambling.) We refilled with baijiu for two more tables, and then back to red wine. Doesn't the saying go, "beer then liquor, never sicker, liquor beer, never fear"? Well I was mixing it up royally, not a good situation in any case.

One table in particular, all men, were already apparently pretty loaded (perhaps not yet crapulent -- your word for the day!) were calling me to come toast them. After finishing at one table, I directed myself to them and toasted them, draining my glass. They were impressed and laughing loud, and the only question Z translated for me was one asking where I was from, and I answered "meiguo" (=american) to their roars. Later I learned we had no idea who they were, surely some friends or associates of the government man who was in control of the occasion. I should have guessed, knowing the odds, but was too tipsy myself at this point to care much.

At the final table, I toasted and drank, but one besotted uncle refused to stand and drink with the rest. I recognized him from earlier in the day -- he was the younger brother of the government official, but I didn't know the relationship at the time. After the toast to the table, Z translated that he wanted to toast with me personally, and only if we drank an entire glass together. I had no choice, but didn't mind really, as I had red wine in my glass, they filled it full, and I made the drunk happy by downing it together with him.

After the toasting was done, I sat down and ate some more. After a few minutes, Z suggested I toast her aunts, particularly her eldest aunt at the table behind us. I asked san-yeye to pour me another finger of baijiu despite Z's reprovals ("use water!"). I got up alone, went to yeye's eldest sister and held up my glass. She seemed a bit confused at first, but then realized what I intended and lifted hers. She smiled and responded approvingly with an English word she knew: "yes! yes! yes!"

This is how friendships and relationships are made, in China.

As the meal ended, we were brought styrofoam and plastic bags to take home food, which I was happy to see (despite the styrofoam). Only a few tables, family, packed up some of the uneaten goodies, though. When I asked later, yeye explained that for business associates (or similar) to take home food from their boss' banquet would be seen as a loss of face. Also, everyone including family generally leaves the unfinished liquor behind, because the host can collect that and take it home himself, to be consumed. Unlike food, the liquor doesn't go bad.

As we were leaving, the host (the government official), was near the exit. Yeye took me and we went to say thank you and goodbye to him directly. He had not been the target of my toastings, because he had not been seated at the time (probably floating around making sure everything went smoothly). Apart from thanking him for hosting, it was good to give him respect and face doing so.

We hailed a cab and rode home. The driver was the small and nervous type, and drove (and braked) fast.

We gave Skyler a good rinsing and Z tried to get him to nap, as he'd been up since 5.15a and had only napped about 20 minutes the whole day, during a car ride. The rest of us were also pretty tired, Z and I hadn't slept well. I lay down with them and dozed off quickly. I woke up in an hour or so, and Skyler was not in bed -- he hadn't sleep so Z was still entertaining him. I went to take a shower; it felt great to remove the stickiness. Skyler finally went to sleep around 5.30p, and slept through dinner somewhat fitfully and then the rest of the night until around 5.30 the next morning. For dinner, we ate most of the banquet leftovers recooked in the wok. Yeye offered me baijiu, as usual, and I had to suppress a laugh. I'd really had enough at lunch!

At lunch the next day, yeye brought out a dusty bottle of Martell cognac and opened it. I wondered what the occasion was for the special stuff? It was Children's Day (June 1st), he smiled, and of course I had a child. But I thought: yeye is now the oldest member of the family. Why not drink the best you've got? And this is really great stuff, with a very deep, complex aroma. I spent several minutes just enjoying the smell. It's the kind of liquor I wouldn't want to mix with food, alas.

In the evening, as I was asking the reasons for various customs, nainai explained today's funeral was much simplified over experiences from her past. We hadn't knelt before burning our offerings. The person carrying the framed photo should never look up, only down at the ground. The mourners should wear white robes of sorts, the length indicative of relation, tied around the waist with belts of twisted grass.

In still older times, rather than a photo, the deceased would be represented by a wooden plate with the name carved into it. The name plate would return to the home after the burial (historically more common than cremation) and be passed by one family member under a bench placed to bar the door to another family member. The name plate would be put in a small house, kept prominently in the main room of the house. The eldest son, sometimes accompanied by other sons, would keep vigil in the room with the name plate for 3 days, never leaving it alone. At each meal, fresh food would be placed in offering before the little house, before the family ate. (The food would be eaten at a later meal as leftovers.) The offering of food and prominent placement of the house-with-nameplate would continue for three years, and the eldest son must remain in residence at the home during this time. After the three years had expired, another ceremony would remove the house and name plate to be burned. Prosperous families would have another nameplate carved, this time in stone, to be kept in a family shrine, forever.

Posted by myrrhlin 02:17 Archived in China Tagged events

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

This blog requires you to be a logged in member of Travellerspoint to place comments.

Enter your Travellerspoint login details below

( What's this? )

If you aren't a member of Travellerspoint yet, you can join for free.

Join Travellerspoint