Friday, April 8, 2011

A Traditional Funeral--Hakka Style: Part Two, the Funeral Cortege

Early the next morning, we put on dark colored shorts, plain white shirts, and pure white tennis shoes. We grabbed a bite for breakfast and headed over to Third Maternal Uncle’s house. The tables in the tent had been taken down and stacked against the side of the house. A large altar had been erected at one end of the tent with Grandma Chu’s death portrait hanging at the top. Wooden benches were set up in rows towards the back of the tent, and in front of the altar was a large open space where the rites would be carried out.

Third Maternal Uncle’s Wife bustled us into the back of the house where we put on our funeral clothes. My girls were dressed in bright red robes with boxy hats. Eldest sister’s daughters were in bright red robes with pointy cloth hoods. Her son was dressed in white linen with a boxy hat, though, because as a boy, he had to follow the lineage lines. Ma and all her progeny were dressed in white linen. Men and boys had boxy hats, and women had long hoods. One side of the hood was longer and tied on under the linen belt that tied the robe closed around our waists. The short side of the hood could be drawn over the face when we were wailing or crying. As a daughter, Ma’s belt was made of hemp rope; all her children and grandchildren had white linen belts. Ma had a patch of burlap attached to her hood to show that she was a daughter-in-law or a daughter.

Everyone’s funeral clothes allowed experienced viewers know exactly what relationship the person wearing “filial piety” had with the deceased. The Maternal Uncles wore white linen under-robes with a burlap over-robe, and their belts were made of hemp twine. Their wives wore the white linen outfits like Ma’s. The Maternal Uncles’ hats were boxy except the hat of Eldest Maternal Uncle. His hat was something like a burlap mob cap with a rope crown tying it onto his head. In addition to his funeral outfit, he carried a wooden staff to show that he was the eldest son of the deceased. The eldest grandson, as heir of the family altars to the ancestors, wore the same outfit as Eldest Maternal Uncle without the wooden staff.

The Maternal Uncles’ sons wore white linen with burlap patches on their hats and hemp twine belts. Their daughters and daughters-in-law were dressed like we were. The maternal uncles’ sons’ children wore sky blue robes with red linen patches on their hats. Again the boys had boxy hats, and the girls had the pointy hoods. Children of daughters wore white linen in all generations.

Daughters-in-law and Daughters at a funeral

Sons-in-law and grandsons-in-law wore towels knotted around one shoulder like a sash. They acted as ushers. Because Eldest Maternal Aunt’s husband was in the hospital and unable to attend the funeral, Pa wore the same clothes as a son, except that his hat was boxy instead of mob-cap-style, and he played the role of eldest son-in-law. Chinese tradition says that sons-in-law are “half sons.” One son-in-law plays a representative role in the funeral; Pa also followed the coffin to the gravesite, but the other sons-in-law stayed at the house entertaining the guests.

When we were all dressed, the children and grandchildren of each of Grandma Chu’s children arrayed themselves in ranks with the elder who linked them to Grandma Chu. We lined up inside the house, to the side of the tent. As we were dressing, the musicians had been playing, and the invited guests had been coming in to fill up the benches. There were both a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest to conduct the rituals. The coffin was carried by the sons and grandsons in a sling out to the center area and placed in front of the altar on trestles. There was still quite a bit of open space in the center of the tent between the coffin and the audience where each rank of progeny would perform their ritual good-byes. As the token Christians, we were all handed wreaths to place before the coffin when our turn came.

A grandson in a mob-cap-style hat with a Taoist icon before the funeral altar and funeral musician from Note the Taoist priests in the background. Note the white tennis shoes.

At the auspicious hour, the music softened a hair, and the Buddhist monk and Taoist priest began their rituals. Then Eldest Maternal Uncle and Eldest Maternal Male Cousin came out and performed the first ritual family sacrifice to Grandma Chu. It was all in Hakka, but Ma and my sisters-in-law told me that they were asking Grandma Chu’s spirit to pass on to the next realm where she could protect the family. They also told her where her grave would be and what arrangements had been made for her. Next Pa performed the rites on behalf of the sons-in-law. They were much shorter; he was introduced by the master of ceremonies, and came forward to burn incense and bow before the coffin. The Eldest Son and Grandson had actually kow-towed three times at the end of their ritual. Pa did not need to do that.

Eldest Maternal Uncle, Eldest Maternal Male Cousin, and Pa all stood to the street side of the coffin to oversee the rest of the rites. The master of ceremonies called Eldest Maternal Uncle’s Wife and children to come say their ritual good-byes. The first of our ranks-in-waiting filed into the middle area where they burned incenses, wept, and bowed to the coffin and Grandma Chu’s picture. Second Maternal Uncle had passed away in his forties, but his wife, children, and grandchildren came out next to say their good-byes. And so it went through the families of all six of Grandma Chu’s sons who had survived to adulthood. When they had finished their good-byes, they moved to the street side and back of the tent to stand respectfully.

Next, came the families of the daughters. Eldest Maternal Aunt led her children and grandchildren to say their good-byes. Then it was our turn. Yuni and I flanked Ma as her eldest son and daughter-in-law. My sisters-in-law led my girls so that I could support Ma as she walked. We laid our wreaths before the coffin and stood with bowed heads in silent prayer for a few minutes before Yuni prayed aloud to Jesus in Hakka. Then we moved back, and Third Maternal Aunt led her family forward. All five of the Grandma Chu’s daughters came forward with their children and grandchildren to say good-bye.

We stood around at the back of the tent while one of Third Maternal Uncle’s friends from the Lions Club gave a eulogy. Then a county official spoke because it was a “happy occasion” funeral. Finally, the guests filed forward to burn incense and pay their respects to the deceased by burning incense (joss sticks) before the coffin. The musicians kept up their cacophony and at the end the Buddhist monk and Taoist priest each said a concluding prayer. Then, we moved to the next stage of the funeral.

At the appointed hour, Grandma Chu’s sons, grandsons, and Pa with the help of the coffin maker’s factotums placed the coffin on a hand-cart bier, and we began the funeral cortege procession. The men of the family pushed the coffin up the street for about a quarter of a mile, while the women and children walked behind weeping loudly and holding their hoods over their faces.

Children and grandchildren at a funeral walking in the cortege

A quarter of a mile up the street from Third Maternal Uncle’s house there is a large highway that goes out to the remote areas where the graveyards are. There were two buses for family members and numerous flower cars. The coffin was put onto the largest flower car with Grandma Chu’s portrait on the top. Flower cars are trucks with flowered panel superstructures and flower wreaths on the grille. They are used for funerals. The musicians were in the first flower car leading the way. Then, came the flower car with the coffin. Next was the flower car with the sons, eldest grandson, and eldest son-in-law. Then there was an open truck with two chairs in it. The eldest great-grandson sat on one chair dressed in his blue outfit, and the eldest great-granddaughter sat on the other chair dressed in bright red. The eldest great-granddaughter was about five, but the great-grandson was only two or three. The great-granddaughter was charged with making sure that he did not fall off the chair onto the road. Then there was a flower car with grandsons, and finally there were the two buses with all the women and children, and the grandsons who did not fit into the flower car. Each of the flower cars had pink flowers in the grille wreath among the white and yellow chrysanthemums, and there were red and white striped lanterns hanging from the four corners of the truck with the coffin. Ma told me that the striped lanterns and the two youngest generations sitting side-by-side proclaimed to viewers in the know that this was a “fake five generations” with a nephew of the fifth generation. If it had been a niece, the lanterns would have been white and pink. If there had been a great-great-grandchild in the family, the lanterns would have been solid red.

The cortege processed slowly along the edge of the highway out to the gravesite. We were in the second bus, and by the time we got up to the grave, the coffin was already in the ground, and the sons and grandsons were filling in the dirt. Later, Pa told us that the coffin had almost fallen off the sling towards him, and he had guided it into the ground. He took this as a sign that Grandma Chu was acknowledging his attempt to say good-bye and his participation in the funeral rites. He was quite happy. Once the coffin was covered with earth, the family members came forward in twos and threes and burned incense. Daughters and their descendants did not participate in the incense burning, as they were not of the Chu clan. After all the incense had been burned, we took off our “filial piety” robes on the dirt road next to the grave. The robes were only basted together, and we had to pull out all the threads and be sure the clothes were merely pieces of cloth before we left the grave area. If we went back in “filial piety” robes to the bus, we were told it would attract Grandma Chu’s spirit, and she would not rest in peace. This would bring us all kinds of bad luck. The Maternal Uncles’ wives collected all the cloth and said they planned to make underwear for the family for many years to come. Pa said that underwear made from funeral robe linen was one of the most comfortable things to wear in the summer.

The flower cars went back to the funeral parlor, so we had to pile everyone into the already crowded buses. The buses whipped us quickly back to Third Maternal Uncle’s house where the last guests were just leaving after eating a huge feast. Before the members of the family could eat, the Maternal Uncles each took one of the funeral photos of Grandma Chu and placed it on the family altars. Several of the Maternal Uncles live in Toufen within blocks of each other, and they all ran home to install the photos before coming back for lunch. Once the photo was installed, three cups of wine and some food were placed before it. Then the uncle and his family burned incense and bowed before the picture in his own home.

Since we were progeny of a daughter, we just sat at the tables and ate hungrily. Third Maternal Uncle had a friend from the Lions Club who was a videographer. He made a tape of the funeral, and Yuni and I were given a betamax video tape. Betamax video players soon went the way of the dodo bird, and we were only able to watch the tape once. Many years later, when we tried to get it converted, we were told that the tape had molded, and the images were lost. We did not get any photos, either. The girls were so cute in their bright red “filial piety” robes. They looked like little stars in period TV dramas set in the Tang Dynasty.


Cloudia said...

this post will help students for years to come!

Warm Aloha from Honolulu

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