Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Farewell, Po Po.

I managed to catch Departures - this wonderful 2008 Japanese film that I can safely say probably deserved the Academy Award win for the Best Foreign Language Film of that year.

The movie follows Daigo Kobayashi, a professional cellist in Tokyo, who loses his job when his orchestra disbands, and is forced to return to his hometown where, out of desperation, he takes up the job of being a mortician.

The movie offers a poignant look at how we handle the dead among us, and is told with a lot of tenderness and good humour - a beautifully human story.

It reminded me a lot about the recent trip back to Malaysia to visit my grandmother for the last time.


'It's sad that it takes an occasion like this to reunite the family members, you know,' says my yi cheong (Mum's brother-in-law), as he lists out my cousins and uncles and aunties travelling from all around the region to pay their last respects to my grandmother.

My grandmother had lived to the grand old age of 91, her last years marked by her deteriorating mental state and her weakening control over all her bodily functions.

"It's curious you know, we all come full circle," said my yi cheong philosophically - "We start off as babies, wetting and soiling ourselves, needing someone to look after us, we grow up, and then towards the end of our lives, we end up like babies again."

There was not much time to rest, my brother and I landed in Kuala Lumpur on a Friday morning and took the two and a half hour drive up to Ipoh that evening with my sister to meet my Mum who was already up there.

It was three days of mourning - we had already missed Thursday night's set of rituals, and arrived in time to freshen up and don the mourning clothes for tonight's set of rituals - just a simple pure white T-shirt and a dark pair of jeans, with a thin strip of white and red crepe paper wrapped around our waist to bring us luck and ward away the evil spirits.

We made it to our kow foo's (Mum's brother) house where grandma's casket was kept, and we walked over to the head of the casket, which was opened for the viewing. Po po looked peacefully asleep, her wrinkled features attired in what looked like a princesses' headgear, all dressed for the afterlife. We whispered our thank yous and good-byes and joined our relatives for the ceremonies that night.


The funeral was a Taoist one, I believe, and it was the first of its kind I have ever attended. The other funerals I have been to, including my father's one a decade ago now, have been Christian affairs -
the wake, the eulogies, the hymn singing, the burial.

Where the Christian funerals were a remembrance of the person's life and the anticipation of seeing the person in the life-after-death, the Taoist one was a fascinating ritual performed to ensure a smooth transition of the deceased person's soul from this earthly realm to the nether realms.

The whole ceremony is led by a couple of monks, dressed to the nines in their yellow robes and black headgear. They are the leaders of the ceremony, and indeed, the old guards of the tradition, who led us every step of the way during the funeral proceedings.

The street was blocked off with a fluorescent-lit canopy the span of two houses, which covered tables and chairs that had distant relatives sitting around watching the ceremony. Only the immediate family members, the direct descendants of po po's line were involved in the proceedings.

As always, there is eating at every Chinese event - be it a birthday, a wedding, or a funeral, and the noisy chatter of the distant relatives talking over food was in stark contrast to the mournful library silence observed by all of us in the white shirts.

Living in multicultural Malaysia meant that the neighbours had to be understanding through the three days of noisy ceremonies. The immediate neighbours had strips of red cloth tied to their gates to ward off the bad luck and spirits associated with the dead.

To Joss Or Not To Joss?

One of the very real issues we had to deal with as Chinese Christians is this - do we hold the joss sticks or not? Here we were caught between our culture and our religious beliefs - the joss sticks are sweet-smelling incense sticks lit during these religious ceremonies to pay homage to the ancestors or idols. We have always been taught in our traditional Christian circles that holding the joss stick was not acceptable, perhaps because it equated to worshipping our ancestors, and only God was to be worshipped.

I had my own opinion about it already, and I am glad that my brother took the lead and agreed with what I believed - we would all hold the joss sticks.

We had travelled thousands of miles home to pay our last respects to po po, and if holding the joss sticks was a symbolic sign of respect to her, we were going to do it.

One of our great habits as traditional Christians is to label things - this is right, this is wrong. This is clean, this is unclean. We do things or do not do things because we have been told that something is acceptable or unacceptable, and I believe that our actions should only be attributed to the meaning we give to it. That day we held the joss sticks not because we worship our ancestors, but to pay respects to our grandmother. And as for spirits, well, we believe that the One who is in us is greater than the one that is in the world, do we not?

The Rituals

And so we held a lit solitary stick each, as one of the two monks (they would take turns) chanted their way rhythmically through pages and pages of well wishes for po po's soul in her traditional dialect. He would occasionally pause to clang two different sets of hand cymbals or open up a hand fan (strangely enough, it was a green fan and it carried the Carlsberg logo on it) while never breaking his sing-song cadence.

He would lead us in the occasional bows of respect to po po interspersed throughout the forty five minute uninterrupted chanting, and every once in awhile lead the procession around her coffin. We would take a ten to fifteen minute break after each session, and we had to do it four times, well approaching midnight.

In all honesty, I am all for tradition, but nearing midnight, I was starting to get a little tired and impatient. Not only were we physically tired (my brother had sneaked off to sleep in the car after the first two sessions) but not being able to understand the proceedings was what was starting to get to me in the end. It was like watching a five hour long foreign movie without subtitles. For po po's sake, we persevered.

The Fascinating Finish
There was an exciting end to the night, though. There is a great Taoist tradition of making sure that the departed is well provided for in the underworld - they do this by burning yum si zhi (money used as currency in the afterlife) and other things - houses, man and maidservants, cars (almost always a Mercedes Benz) and even modern day things like Plasma TVs, iPhones and Playstations (considering that you do have an eternity's worth of spare time to kill).

There is such an industry surrounding the dead, as much as the living.

And so we brought all these paper effigies to a nearby grassy plot, and proceeded to light them on fire, wishing po po all the comforts in the afterlife. What was symbolic for me was the ashes of the burnt paper money and material goods rising into the pitch black night from the healthy bonfire we had built. There is a finality about that act, as if her soul rose with the ashes to another world.

We ended up going home at a little past midnight, and showered and rested up as we had an early start the next morning.

Burying Po Po

We got up at about 7 a.m. the next morning, bleary-eyed and got into our mourning costumes again. We grabbed some breakfast at a nearby local hawker centre before returning to my kow foo's house for the rest of the proceedings.

The monks were back, and led us in another session of chanting and bowing to pay our respects. Mercifully, we only had to do it once, this time, before another set of events took place. We took turns to pay our ultimate final respects to po po - first her direct descendants (her sons and their families), and then her indirect descendants (her daughters and their families), and then everyone else (her cousins, family friends) took turns to take our last three bows before po po.

Everyone had to turn our backs while the funeral house were loading the hearse. I am not sure about the actual reasoning behind this, but I would like to believe that it is symbolic of our final release of po po, that we left the past in the past, and looked in a different direction.

We then began the funeral march - a slow, mournful ten minute walk behind the hearse, before we got onto a rented bus which would bring us to po po's final resting place - the cemetery where my kung kung (maternal grandfather) was buried.

Come Home To Roost

And so in the serenity of the rolling green hills of Ipoh surrounding us, we laid our po po in the ground. The monks stood over the head of her grave and performed a few more rituals, the most memorable one of which he took a live rooster (bound by its feet), held it over the coffin, and proceeded to chant and pluck a few feathers from its neck and spread it over the coffin. Apparently they used to make a small nick in the neck and drop a few drops of blood of the rooster on the coffin. Thankfully, we have moved away from that tradition.

The monk then tossed the bewildered rooster over the distance of the coffin for my kow foo to catch, which he did successfully. I was told later that they used to do it without binding the rooster's feet together, which not only made the catch more complex, but relatives would run around trying to catch the scampering fowl if the catch was unsuccessful.
We all said our goodbyes to po po as the workers begun to toss the soil over her coffin. There was a bucket filled with water and flower petals for us to wash away the bad luck associated with all these proceedings. We were given lucky pink packets to keep in our pockets as well, and food in clear plastic bags to take away.

We then went back to Chemor, the small town in Ipoh where my Mum and her siblings were raised, and had a nice lunch to bring an end to the whole proceedings. It was good to be able to share the meal with the family, and transition from a sombre occasion remembering the departed, to one celebrating her legacy - her children, grandchildren, relatives and friends gathering afresh over a nice meal.


It was a brief trip home, but an important one. Po po was our last remaining grandparent, and she had watched us grow up through the years, and graced my wedding in Malaysia last year. We all carry a bit of po po in all our selves - her quietness, her gentle nature, her love for food, her kindness, her generosity.

We were glad we made the journey home, to be able to spend time with relatives, and thank the our kow foo and his family, and my yi cheong and his family for having looked after grandma all these years, especially affording her dignity in the difficult final few years of her life.

There is so much tradition in honouring the dead, and sometimes it is drawn out over several days for the express purpose of forcing us - the living - to take pause from our constant busyness, to remember those who have gone before us, to take stock of our own lives and to remember that our time here is ultimately finite, and to choose the legacy we want to leave behind.

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