Friday, March 24, 2006

A Death in the Family

I'd never been to a funeral before. My other grandfather might've even died in the States, but I was too young. Being that my father was his father's only son, and me my father's only son, it was important that I go this time, but I would've gone regardless.

They say that funerals are for the living, and this case was no different. It was good to see my father's family together (minus one sister as she couldn't make it). And it was good to see our families paying our last respects. I'd written my grandfather off a long time ago as his mind had already gone: Alzheimer's. Technically, I think he died of heart failure, but really, all his major organs were fighting for the title.

The Saturday following the Friday I arrived in Taiwan, the family went to pray for him in a ceremony that I think was to feed him in his next life. There was a lot of bowing, a lot of food offerings, and a lot of chanting by the temple priestesses (I don't know their actual title). I don't know the exact religion, but I think it's a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism.

The actual funeral was on Tuesday. We arrived in the morning and we met some family that arrived later. There was no rehearsal, but it was a fairly complex proceeding, with a man directing each of us as to what to do.

I'd never seen a dead body before, either. Of course I've seen them on TV. And real ones on the internet. Still, seeing my grandfather that day was startling. His body was emaciated from malnutrition and twisted from rigor mortis. It wasn't a pretty corpse like in Western funerals. I didn't recognize him. I'm not sure my Aunt did either as she confirmed the body with the tag. He was covered up to his neck, and the head that stuck out had its eyes closed, but its mouth opened like the mouth in "The Scream" by Munch, and the skin was waxen. After identifying the corpse, they brought it back and dressed it in some traditional clothes and laid it in an open casket. The casket was placed behind the ceremonial altar, behind a wall of cloth.

My father asked me to prepare something to say. I didn't know my grandfather too well. Particularly since the Alzheimer's took hold and he lived in Taiwan, there really wasn't much of a chance. I scraped together what I had and realized it didn't amount to much, so I wrote a poem instead. Afterwards, we each placed the papers we wrote our last words on into the casket.

After all the words and all the chanting, the body was taken to be cremated, casket, papers, and all. The furnace door went up as the family stood outside the threshold of the crematorium, the coffin slid in, and the door went back down. Apparently the process of cremation, as performed there, takes an hour and a half, so in that time, we sat around and chit-chatted.

When the cremation was done, they called us to a table and brought us the remains, among which were quite a few large pieces of bone, including skull fragments. A large pair of chopsticks was used by each of us to place a piece of bone in the urn. The bone was very light; much lighter than I thought it'd be; and very fragile as I'd soon see. After we each took our turns, the person who brought us the remains scraped up a mound of bone and dumped it on top, smashing it down with very audible crunching. The skull fragments were saved for last and placed specifically on top. Then the lid was glued down and we made our way to the temple along with the urn for my grandmother's ashes.

I think the temple was built specifically for the military deceased. A custodian showed us to the specific cabinet that we were to place the urns. A ladder was used to open a double-sized cabinet, and the custodian asked if we wanted him to put the urns in, but we said we would. With my grandfather's urn, I climbed up the ladder, slowly, but the ladder was very sturdy. My father followed with his mother's urn. The cabinet was closed and we were told that if we had anything left to say, we should do it now. Of course, the temple would always be available, but just very far away.

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