Monday 3 December 2012

Burnable Bling

Speaking of funerals in a recent blog post, I must admit that I find traditional Chinese funerals rather alien and outdated.

They are noisy and involve Taoist prayer stuff I don't fully comprehend. I have seen quite a few recently at HDB void decks (which instigated the opening of a coffin shop nearby) and they all looked the same to me. Strangely or coincidentally, they were all in Hokkien or Teochew. I am Cantonese, so, will my rites be the same?

Pretty much, I think.

I hate to die suddenly and be given such traditional rites just because I am Chinese and have not laid down a will nor put a religion on my Identity Card. It's like someone rapping at your funeral when all you desire is a good Gregorian chant. It is so disconcerting that I might just come back from the dead to right the wrong!

I wonder if my peers of the other races feel the same. Will they be caught in an unprepared bind when they die? Not that it matters given that we would all be already dead. But it does irk to know that we can't say a proper goodbye to the our friends and immediate neighbourhood in the fashion that we want. My nearby fave kopitiam kopi ladies would miss my humour and wonder where their regular 'teh-c gau ka-ler or-lange (i.e. teh-c gau siew dai c-sau (or "orange color)) and newspaper-reading' uncle has disappeared to.

Which makes me think I should plan early or be prepared to die in a din of "tong-tong chiang"! (i.e. the clanging of cymbals and gongs!)

At a Chinese funeral, not understanding the rites is one thing; being taken for a ride by unprofessional priests is another. They come dressed in less than clean robes and utter what could be rubbish.

Then there are the stainless steel frames and fix-ups. They look the same structures as used in lion dances and other celebrations. I mean, are they recyclable? Maybe I am mistaken.

And what's with the blankets (wool or patch work) hung at the sides. These days, they don't all carry condolence messages. Some spout Confucius sayings like "a virtuous life led is a life well-lived," or dire warnings like "life is short, make the most of it." They never say stuff like "rinse in cold water only."


This big blanket as a message board is a mystery. How did it come about? Was it a matter of convenience given that the blanket is easily the largest piece of cloth found at home. As a kid, my siblings and I used to play teepee tent with one.

Long long ago, someone must have suggested sewing letters on a blanket. And there don't seem to be any specifications about it unlike SMS or Internet protocol. At a Chinese funeral, you find all sorts of blankets being deployed. They are charming in a unique and mish-mashed sort of way (see collage pix above). But, I think the quality of production should at least matter. I've seen one blanket with words sewn with vanguard sheet instead of embroidery. I mean what gives? Does the sender not have respect for the dead? It's like sending a hurriedly written Post-It note instead of a proper condolence card.

As we age closer to the grave, we all tend to think of such funerary arrangements; or when our parents pass on. I consider myself still young and so am loathe to make any such preparations yet. We don't want to jinx it, do we?

But the traditional Chinese funeral is altogether something, isn't it?

As a tourist, I would find it all very fascinating. The music, the decorations, the flower standees, the blankets with condolence words and sayings, the many tables filled with kua chi/peanuts/sweets and at times, mahjong and kakis, etc.

A more elaborate one happened near my house recently and it was extremely noisy with the band and Taoist priests praying and chanting loudly for a few nights. Not a normal affair. The usual chanting and noise typically happens only on the last day of the wake when the coffin is moved on to a crematorium or burial site.

In Singapore, we are all 'trained' to ignore such noises all in the name of racial harmony. Do what you want, just clean up afterwards seems to be the maxim. Ditto for void deck marriages. (It says much for "pantang-ness" (superstition) when one funeral function exits a community hall to be replaced soon after by a Malay or Indian wedding. People don't seem to care. Or does the Town Council stipulate a period between events so the smell of the dead goes away first at least? If so, how many days should that be?)

East or West
Many of us Singaporeans have been brought up with a great dose of American TV on our broadcast channels. CSI, NYC, Miami Dade, LA, Las Vegas... you name it; the former (CSI) being the most popular as in the rest of the world. In the past, it was all those police and lawyer procedural serials like Hillstreet Blues, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life On The Streets, Cold Case, The Practice, LA Law, Boston Legal, etc. We do get a surfeit of these, come to think of it. My own favourite had been Hawaii 5-0 (Jack Lord version) and Barney Miller. I am glad Hawaii 5-0 has been re-imagined and made a successful comeback.

Through these shows, we have seen many American-style funerals and wakes. They are mostly quiet and reserved affairs - very different from our local Chinese ones.

And like most Chinese Singaporeans of my generation, me and my siblings have been brought up to observe some kind of Taoism-like ritual such as the burning of joss sticks in the mornings and evenings; praying to our ancestors; going to the temple on certain occasions (like a deity's birthday, for example); the burning of incense during the 7th Ghost Month; etc. We did all that because we were told that that was our culture. It mattered not a hoot whether we understood the rituals or not. As kids we also bathed in flower-scented water every 1st and 15th of the month.

My first real involvement in a Chinese funeral was when I was very young and a grand-aunt had died. She was crazy and unmarried. With no child of her own to send her off on her afterlife journey, I was elected to "tam fan mai shui" - carry the yoke (and water cans) to buy water, loosely translated to mean "ease her way to the afterlife." In modern times, I think the equivalent would be to carry a picnic table. Or be the deceased's luggage porter.

At the wake, I was dressed in dark blue and had to wear that gunny sack material and white-cloth hood. I had to hold a white paper lantern and lead the troop carrying her coffin out. But before that, I had to go through the ritual of putting a coin in my aunt's mouth. This was to make sure her journey through the spirit world will be smooth. The coin was currency in case bribes are needed or so she would not say the wrong thing. Or that she would be reincarnated into a more luxurious life.

As I was young and uncertain I remember someone guiding my hand as I placed the coin into my aunt's rather dead mouth as she laid in her coffin.

Was I afraid? A little. I think I was more curious about how cold the dead could get. But I never got to touch the body. I remember feeling rather disappointed. All that hoo-hah and little else.

Being more English educated than Chinese, you can understand my feeling of alienation to the traditional Chinese funeral. Furthermore, if it had nothing to do with my dialect and culture: the whole thing was just, well, foreign. You might as well give me a wake in Malay or Tamil. -Or Mandarin, for that matter.

Burnable bling
The Chinese funeral is not all lost on me though. There is one thing I like about it and it is the paperhouses. Over the years, as I road-cycled through HDB estates, I've seen quite a few different paperhouses at funerals in the void decks. They range in size and elaboration, kind of like in real life where more money would get you a decent piece of real estate with all the fancy fix-ups.

The most impressive paperhouse I've seen was about 15ft long and 9ft high. It was a massive mansion with a few storeys and a courtyard. Within the rooms and along the corridors were revolving picture scenes, paper servant figures, etc. The paperhouse was neon colorful all over (mostly in green and coral pink) and decorated with shiny and shimmering stuff and tassles. I guess paperhouses are our local Chinese version of burnable bling.

It is kind of sad to see all that workmanship go up in flames later as a funerary offering.

As a kid, I have always wondered why folks don't update the traditional Chinese funeral. I would later blame the Communists for stunting China's growth in this and other cultural areas. How do a people pick up the pieces after so many decades of living under a different ideology, one that banned religious or spiritual practices even?

In Singapore, the Chinese are mostly descended from ancestors who were born and bred in China and then travelled out. Afterwards, it was the local clan associations that pulled people together to help preserve their provincial and dialectal customs.

My own was passed down from my family's elders.

How should a wake be?
I feel a wake should be public where passerbys are welcomed to explore and pay their respects. It's already pretty open at the void decks/general function halls, so why waste the opportunity. The wake should have picture panels that highlight the dead person's life: his way of living, his hobbies, his career, his friends, his accomplishments, etc.

Strangers from the street should be encouraged to come in, walk through the wake exhibition and say prayers or write "bon voyage" messages. Maybe I am saying all this because I used to be a professional conference organiser.

Example: "Look, I don't know you but I sure like your fashion sense! RIP - John"

Or: "Hey, I didn't know you invented chopsticks for left-handed people. RIP - Mary"

Such a wake is a person's last hurrah before everything gets burned, turned into ash, and left forgotten in an urn!

And don't lay the dead person down in the coffin. Just as in life you wouldn't want to look up at the ceiling for too long, you would much prefer to be sitting up in a deck chair surveying the scene in front of you. Is there a law against putting up the deceased up like that during a wake? Would it be disturbing 'public peace' as in the other sort of exhibitionism? I'd be surprised if there is such a thing.

Sit that dead person 45 degrees up so everybody can have a last look. You'll be glad if that person was from your neighbourhood. There's instant recognition, not from some dodgy photograph from yesteryear that makes you wonder about the person inside. Change costumes at intervals if you must, like in some wedding function.

Look snappy, play appropriate music.

Music? Yes. Play all that person's favourites. If music is missing, play pieces from their favourite storyteller like Lee Dai Sor. I've yet to hear someone play LDS at a wake. Many old folks derived pleasure from listening to him in the 60s and 70s and they should relive those moments during their wake. Who knows, the familiar story arcs might bring back a smile, a chuckle or tear. Certainly, people with a sense of nostalgia will hang about the proceedings.

Death should not be mundane. Death is our last chance at doing something impressive. Leave the world with a bang, a resounding note.

How about leaving a last video message? We've seen quite a few of those on Youtube already from people whose lives had been predicted short by cancer or leukemia or some other life threatening malady. But does it feel eerie to hear it at a wake?

I think, as a kid, I would have loved to hear the dead speak. Because as a child, funerals for me were always for adults. The customs, the giving of 'bak kum' (condolence money), the gossips among relatives, etc.

For us kids, we were often left to entertain ourselves with the soft drinks, sweets, peanuts and kwa chi. -Even five stones.

So a dead person talking would make a child wonder about many things. For one, what that person was like when alive, and if he/she had anything interesting to say. For relatives that these kids don't encounter often it is a priceless last meeting.

What would I say at my own funeral?

"Blah, blah, blah and if you want to know more, check out my blogs!" That's the Social Media generation for you. "And on Facebook, don't forget to thumb a 'Like' if you like it!" would be another last repose.

A more happening wake is also a great occasion to get rid of personal effects.

For example, I could divide up my assets into a kind of treasure hunt game. Kids love treasure hunts. Besides, if you have only one child, what is she/he going to do with all your barang-barang? They would most likely be thrown out. Why not turn it into a game for kids living near or attending your wake? I would rope in the neighbourhood library for this by planting clues in their books. It will encourage kids to borrow or browse through certain books, know all the sections. Be acquainted with books on travel or books about food. Art and craft? Even dead, you can (through this treasure hunt) get the kids to know the books you once loved.

That would be something, no? Kids looking forward to the next wake to score something. So, if you are a kid and living near my neighbourhood, pray I die during the June or December school holidays! You will have much to inherit! And if I die outside of these holidays, maybe the undertakers can keep me in the fridge till the time is right for mourning and flea market opportunity! Hmm, I wonder how they charge for freeze storing a corpse somewhere. Now I am wondering who holds the world-record for that. A customer of cryogenics perhaps? Questions, and more questions!

Always more questions in death than living. And that's a lesson in life itself!

The next story: In The News 1

Man in Puerto Rico immortalised on his bike at his wake.
Biking was his passion when alive.

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