Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Traditional Funeral--Hakka Style: Part One, the Pre-Cortege Proceedings

In July we received a phone call from Pa that Grandma Chu had passed away. It was very important to him that we all go back for the funeral. First, because the family had been saying that since Yuni was in the US, he would throw away his family traditions and no longer care for the ancestors. The Chinese idea of filial piety grew up out of funerary rites and ancestor worship that began as early as the late Neolithic Era in China (see Keightley, David. “Early Civilization in China: Reflections on how it became Chinese.” In Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization. Ed. Parul S. Ropp. Berkeley: California University Press, 1990. 15-54). Today in contemporary Taiwan, even if children have moved far away from their parents for job opportunities, they MUST return to attend the funerals or face condemnation for being unfilial.

Strictly speaking, as grandchildren from a daughter, we did not need to return as a family to attend Grandma Chu’s funeral because Chinese funeral rites focus mainly on the patrilineal descendants. The Chu grandchildren are more important in the funeral rituals than the “outside” grandchildren of a married daughter. But, we had taken Grandma Chu to the US and to Japan, and she frequently spent the weekend with Ma in our home. She was the one who had paid for my wedding rings because the Liu family was too poor. Pa spoke quite persuasively that we really needed to attend, both out of respect for the memory of Grandma Chu and to silence any talk among the maternal uncles that Yuni was becoming Americanized to the extent that he had forgotten his roots. And, of course, it would give both sides of the family great face to have an American wearing mourning robes and walking among the relatives.

Yuni and I both felt we needed to go, but he had not been getting many big jobs, and we had just finished our big trip up the East Coast. I had just bought a ton of homeschooling books. July is the most expensive month for travel to and from Asia, and we needed to get the tickets within the week to make it in time for at least some of the rituals prior to the day of the funeral cortege. Fei lent us the money for the trip. It cost $3000 for round-trip tickets for a family of five. We decided to stay for three weeks because that made the tickets a little cheaper, but not much.

Ma called me the day after Yuni called to tell Pa our flight details. She said that the girls and I could not wear colors, only black, blue, grey, and white. She kept saying “plain” clothes. So I went out and bought the girls some cute clothes in navy and white. One outfit had polka dots. When we got there, I learned that plain also meant no patterns. The girls could wear black shorts and a white blouse or a navy skirt and a grey top, but they could not have any bright colors or any patterns. Fortunately, the aunts loved shopping. Each aunt contributed a “mourning” outfit, and the kids were quite well set up for all the activities.

We drove from Chungli down to Toufen as soon as we were all appropriately dressed. Pa was already down there helping with things because Eldest Maternal Aunt’s husband was in the hospital himself, and the eldest son-in-law plays an important role in Hakka funerals. Grandma Chu’s coffin was lying in state in the front room of Third Maternal Uncle’s home. There was a brightly colored blanket covering it. There were stacks and stacks of canned goods in pyramids around the coffin and out onto the sidewalk. These cans were gifts from relatives and business associates and friends of the maternal uncles. There were plastic flower (white and yellow) wreaths all along the street. In the center of each wreath there was a calligraphy condolence message. Streamers hung down from the wreaths with the names of the givers. The wreaths were set up on bamboo easels. Third Maternal Uncle had rented a large tent and put it over one lane of the road in front of his house. The tent was stuffed with more canned goods, flower wreaths, and banners hung down on white cloth with condolence messages.

A picture from of a funeral tent with the stacks of cans. This funeral is also a "happy occasion" as can be noted from the pink streamers.

The maternal uncles and aunts were sitting with the coffin in the front room. As guests came to pay their respects, they would cry and wail. The guests would tell them to not be so sad because Grandma Chu had lived to a ripe old age. She had a great-great-grandnephew of the fifth generation on the Chu side of the family, so her funeral was considered a “happy” occasion. The uncles and aunts did not cry uncontrollably, but they did cry. Pa and the other sons-in-law were charged with seeing to the guests and writing down which gift came from which person. Yuni, as a maternal grandson, was drafted to help with this. All the wives of grandsons were at work in the kitchen producing copious amounts of food with which to feed the people coming to pay respects. There were a number of tables under the tent where people who came would sit and eat snacks. It was pretty chaotic. A funeral band (think Peking opera band on steroids) was grinding out very harsh music in one corner of the tent. At about 5 pm, a Taoist priest came to read Taoist rites of the dead. Third Maternal Uncle had hired both Buddhist monks and Taoist priests to come and read their death rites every evening that the coffin lay in state. When the Taoist priest began his rituals, the non-family members left. The rest of us just stood respectfully behind the priest as he did his thing. It was all done in Hakka, so I really didn’t understand much of it. Plus, I had to keep the three girls quiet and respectful at the back of the room. Fortunately, we were grandchildren from a daughter, and our place was in the back anyway.

When the rites were over, the grandsons’ wives brought out dinner for the family, and we all began to eat. Grandma Chu had a total of twelve children. There were several tables full of people eating. As we were eating, I learned that the cortege and burial would take place the following day. We did not return to Chungli. Instead, we stayed with Eldest Sister in Toufen. Before we left Third Maternal Uncle’s home, we tried on the funeral robes for the kids. They were to play the part of fifth generation boys since the nephew was too young to attend the funeral. Ma said that since it was just a nephew and since Grandma Chu was 80 when she passed away, the family was doing a “fake five generations funeral.” Ma said that she would explain the differences to me. Since we did not need to drive back to Chungli, we sat around with Third Maternal Uncle, while the entire family related the story of Grandma Chu’s passing. It was a story that legends are made of…. And the legend has been retold many, many times over the past eighteen years.

Ma started talking about how Grandma Chu had been so ill and had been in the hospital for weeks. Her stomach was distended and she was not able to eat. She knew her end was near, and she asked that Ma be one of the primary caregivers for her in the hospital because Ma was her favorite daughter. Pa had driven Ma down to Toufen and stayed for a day, but then he had to go back to work. In the hospital, Grandma Chu had been concerned because some of her gold jewelry had gone missing. She thought that one of her grandsons’ wives had taken it on a caretaking shift. She felt that Ma and her daughters would be more reliable. She also wanted to find out if she could get baptized as a Christian.

Grandma Chu had been seriously interested in being Christian since our trip to the US because we had undertaken the trip during the Taiwanese “ghost month,” and yet, nothing had happened to us. She was healthier when she got back than when she had started. Ma had taught her that she could pray to Jesus in a very informal way. She liked it that she didn’t need to worry about learning to read. One morning after our return from the US, Grandma Chu had gone walking alone in a park near her house. She fell and could not get up. First, she tried praying to Buddha, but that didn’t work. Then she tried some of the other deities in the traditional Chinese pantheon that are usually considered Taoist. She still couldn’t get up. Finally, she prayed to Jesus, and strength was restored to her legs. She had asked her sons to arrange a baptism for her, but they did not do this as her conversion at the matriarchal stage would entail a mass family conversion, and her sons felt that they needed to participate in rituals to the gods of money and luck in their business endeavors. Every major project that they took on with their businesses started with offerings to the gods; if they suddenly stopped doing those rituals, they felt that their workers and business associates would be uncomfortable working with them. So Grandma Chu stopped eating foods that had been offered to idols in such rituals and began praying to Jesus every day. Now that she was on her deathbed, she wanted to be baptized. Ma had Eldest Sister bring in a preacher to the hospital, but the doctors would not allow Grandma Chu to be baptized by immersion. The preacher had suggested a sprinkling ritual, but since Ma and all her children had been baptized by immersion, they felt that sprinkling might not work. In the end, the preacher prayed with Grandma Chu and confirmed that she was a genuine Christian.

A few days after this, Grandma Chu began to fail. The doctors notified her sons that they should bring her home for her final hours. Third Maternal Uncle brought her home and sent out the call for all the children and grandchildren to gather around her deathbed. Everyone had come, except for Pa. He had been working in a place without mobile phone signal, and one of his daughters had had to ride a motor scooter to notify him. He dropped everything and rushed down to Toufen. Grandma Chu kept holding on, her children were worried and didn’t know what she was waiting for. Finally, Pa crossed the threshold of the home and began running up to the bedroom calling (in Japanese): “Mother, Mother.” People around the bed told Grandma Chu that her favorite son-in-law had arrived. Upon hearing the news, she closed her eyes, and died. Pa was heartbroken that he had not been able to say good–bye, but he was also honored that he was the one she was holding on for. Grandma Chu’s youngest grandson, who was five at the time and about six months older than the twins, came running in shortly after she expired shouting that two men in white had taken his grandmother up to the skies. He had been playing with a ball in front of the house when Pa had arrived. He was tossing the ball up in the air and catching it. On one toss, he said he had seen two men in shining white robes taking his grandmother up to the skies. He dropped his ball and came running into the house to see why his grandmother was leaving him. He threw himself on her corpse crying. Grandma Chu was his principal babysitter in the family, and they had a very special bond. Everyone decided that 1) a five year old could not make up things like this because he did not have sufficient knowledge, 2) this proved that Grandma Chu had successfully converted to Christianity because angels had come to take her to heaven, and 3) the death was something of a miracle. The five-year old cousin was trotted out to testify again to what he had seen at the moment of Grandma Chu’s death. Yuni and I confirmed that according to the Bible, Grandma Chu’s conversion had been genuine despite her lack of baptism and that her death did seem to hold miraculous aspects.

Ma and her siblings were quite relieved to have their conclusions validated by the expert Christians in the family. They then moved on to discussing the funeral arrangements. Since Grandma Chu seemed to have died a Christian, her sons wanted some Christian element to the funeral. They themselves were not Christian, and they wanted all the other trappings of an elaborate traditional funeral to express their filial piety and to gain face for the family. But filial piety demanded that they also acknowledge their mother’s apparent belief in Christianity. Ma and her children were all baptized Christians, so when it was our time to pay our respects before the coffin at the ceremony before the cortege began, we would not burn incense like the rest. We would lay wreaths before the coffin and stand praying silently. Then Yuni, as Ma’s eldest son and first Christian of the family, would pray Christian prayers out loud in Hakka asking for Jesus to care for Grandma Chu’s soul and to bless the entire Chu family. The maternal uncles were so happy that we cared enough about the family to come back to Taiwan to help with the funeral. There had been arguments among Ma and her siblings as to whether or not a stripper should be hired to perform at the funeral. Ma and Third Maternal Uncle were against it, but a few of the younger Maternal Uncles thought it would help attract a good crowd and prove their filial piety. Our contribution of Christian prayers combined with the return of an entire family of an "outside" grandson with a Caucasian wife to participate meant that the funeral would be unique and did not need a stripper to up the ante. Ma was thoroughly relieved. In the end, the uncles decided that because so many family members were present, they would NOT hire any singers or professional mourners, either. The family was large and had true filial piety that could not be bought. This would gain them more face than just an expensive funeral with many hired mourners and performers.

Since all the plans were in place, we went back to Eldest Sister’s house to sleep a short while before the next day’s funeral rites, funeral procession, and burial. The next day was going to be a tiring day.


gzim said...

Do Hakka funerals differ from those of other groups on Taiwan? For example, would a Taiwanese-speaking family or a Mandarin speaking family hold a different kind of funeral for a traditional family?

Your narrative is very interesting.


Teresa said...

Many of the elements are the same, but some of the symbolic items are slightly different. I think a lot depends on clan tradition. The Liu funerals were slightly different from the Chu funeral due to different instructions left by the clan patriarchs. The eldest sons of each generation are responsible for learning the details for when it comes time to properly bury their own father. Grandma Chu's funeral had added trappings because the maternal uncles were at the peak of their business careers, and they wanted to have much face in the community to further their business reputations. Since it was a "happy occasion" due to age and five generations, they felt they should have more trappings. The Taoist and Buddhist rituals also very depending on which master the priests had studied under. I think that in general the rituals were similar, but the "crucial" details were sometimes quite different. The articles on the evolution of filial piety and funerary rites say that each clan had its own rituals. But rich people frequently wanted to add extra trappings to demonstrate their wealth.

Cloudia said...

this was just fascinating!

I wanted to experience a Taoist funeral and so went to a local one. people were nice when I said that i wanted to honor the deceased and her generation, but I feel bad that I

Spring Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral



Teresa said...

Actually, Cloudia, they might have felt honored by your presence. Generally, large numbers of guests give face. The people who were not of the family left because the lying-in-state rituals are considered bad luck, if you are not of the family. The rituals on the day of the burial are supposed to be a very public expression of filial piety, and the more witnesses, the better.