Last Rites: A Chinese Burial
Faye Yan Zhang
After my Grandfather died, he waited in line for one year. His ashes, inside a lacquered box, sat among the ashes of others in a cold concrete bunker nestled in the Chinese countryside. Each box bore a tiny black-and-white engraving of the deceased. The owner of the bunker kept track of burials by scrawling a name and date on the lids.
A single light bulb hung from the ceiling. It was rigged to save electricity by shutting off when it sensed no movement. Whenever someone came in on funeral business, the bulb flickered on. Otherwise, the dead waited their turn in darkness.
There are seven million people living in Hong Kong, making it the fourth most densely populated city in the world. Its citizens are dying faster than ever, at numbers that have doubled since 1970. Forty thousand people now die each year from the standard gamut of reasons: drowning, old age, suicide, electrocution, severe allergies, traffic accidents, heartache, stress.
A century ago, these 40,000 souls would have found eternal peace at the foot of some sacred, pine-forested mountain chosen for optimal feng shui. Such postmortem peace is now impossible, as most of this once-sacred land has been developed into condominiums or factories.
The line between the yang world of the living and the yin world of spirits is vaguely drawn in Chinese theology (an amalgam of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs). This line blurs more each year as millions of Chinese flock to live over the old bones of their ancestors, creating a literal juxtaposition of life and death.
Property rights, for example, work for the dead in much the same way as for the living. In China, property exists in a state of perpetual leasehold. Whether a high rise or a hovel, residential property may be owned only for a period of 70 years. At the end of this period, the property is either re-leased or the hapless owners evicted.
The dead, too, face the possibility of eviction. China’s most esteemed burying ground, Babaoshan (“??? Eight Treasure Mountain”) cemetery in Beijing, is not so much a holy mountain as a quiet gap in urban sprawl. Regardless, the upper echelon of Chinese society engages in bidding wars over its plots, which start at 70,000 yuan, or about 11,500 dollars for a 20-year lease. If a family’s fortune has turned by the end of those years, the formerly exalted government official or wealthy businessman is expelled from his resting place like a loaf of expired bread.
Once Grandfather’s year in exile ended, our entire extended family packed into four Toyota cars and prepared to inter him in his (semi-)permanent resting place.
It was raining that day. For a long while we drove into pine-covered hills, until an empty city emerged from between the trees. Tall black columns rose from stone steps which went up and up until they brushed the grey horizon. Blurry, colorless portraits stared at our small party from every direction.
Cousin Jiang held up an umbrella to keep Grandfather dry. We climbed stone steps until we reached a small slab nestled between two columns. On it was Grandfather’s face, etched in ink. Elder Uncle Hu raised the slab with a tire jack, revealing an opening underneath.
“Well—here it is,” Uncle said, hesitation in his voice.
Since Neolithic times, the Chinese have been obsessed with remembrance after death. To be forgotten by descendants is equivalent to hell. One’s ghost would enter the next world as a low-ranking personage, looked down upon by other spirits. To guard against this fate, the ancient Chinese buried their dead with plentiful provisions, including a large supply of the deceased’s favorite food and alcohol. In certain eras in ancient China, wealthy individuals would be buried with mementos, servants, or even wives.
Today, wine is still poured into the grave-earth. Oranges, meat buns, and other delicacies are left on graves to fill the air with pungent smells of decomposition. Wax fruit, plastic jade bracelets, and paper Rolex watches are common offerings. A cigarette might be lit and left burning on the grave. Lung cancer is one of China’s leading causes of death.
Despite strict rules governing food and alcohol provisions, religious requirements have long been lax. A wealthy family might have employed both a Taoist and a Buddhist priest to officiate the funeral, or invited an expert in the Confucian classics to preach filial piety as the dead were ushered away.
Unlike their modern counterparts, the ancients enjoyed a short waiting period between death and spiritual peace. According to tradition, spirits remain on earth for seven days, after which they enter heaven, or hell, or are reincarnated. These seven days are fraught with danger for the family of the deceased. Traditions, some common, others unique to individual families, must be meticulously obeyed. Any small misstep—the presence of a mirror, the color red, the misuse of a title—might cause the spirit to transform into a vindictive ghost.
“Turn around,” commanded Aunt Pearl.
“Turn around. You can’t watch,” she repeated as she gripped my shoulders and steered me to another gravestone (marked “?? Zhang Xin”) a few feet away.
“Why can’t I watch?” I protested, plucking at her lean fingers. “He’s my grandfather.”
“Of course. And he was born in the year of the pig,” she said. For Aunt Pearl, no more explanation was needed. According to Chinese superstition, dogs and pigs have “?? mao dun,” instinctual conflict, and if I were to witness the interment, he would come back as a ghost and bring me bad luck.
I glanced at my father, who stood near grandfather’s grave. He shook his head as if to say, Let it be.
Sighing, I obeyed Aunt Pearl’s demand and spun around. She clicked her tongue with satisfaction and returned to tearing apart sheets of fake dollar bills. Each bill bore in clumsy English letters the logo “Hell Bank Notes” and the confident claim “guaranteed legal tender for spirits.” Later we would burn them on Grandfather’s grave to send him pocket money for trinkets and snacks in the other world.
Uncle Hu grunted as he cleared debris from the grave. I scanned the other gravestones, which bore black-and-white portraits of mostly expressionless faces. I could tell the age of each person when he or she died. Most faces were old and lined. Every so often a young face peered out from the frame, with eyes black and cold.
Aunt Pearl finished tearing the Hell Bank Notes. The pine trees rustled impatiently. Sounds slowed and faded, while the grey faces around me grew accusing and hostile. I felt a great desire to turn from them, to turn around, to look, to make sure my family was still behind me, to make sure they had not vanished into the other world and left me alone.
A loud crack broke the quiet. I spun around in time to see the edge of a red lacquered box vanish under the stone slab, into darkness.
We kowtowed in succession, three knocks each. When my turn came I could think only about the wet dark hole in which we had buried Grandfather. I kneeled dumbly on the cold pine-strewn ground until Aunt Pearl tugged at my arm.
We set off firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits. They fizzled into the air and burst dully against the rain. Bangs echoed intrusively from column to column and suffocated among the pines.
We squeezed into our four Toyotas before the echoes died. Uncle Hu drove the first car, his fingers pale against the steering wheel. We sped away and away from that empty stone city, none of us turning to look back.
Cremation was not always the norm in China. Although Buddhists regularly burned the bodies of their dead, other religious and ethnic groups considered cremation taboo. Tibetans, for example, believed only criminals should be burned. An auspicious Tibetan burial, known as Sky Burial, involved placing the body on a high mountain peak to be picked apart by vultures and the natural elements.
In modern China, however, cremation has been law since 1956 when 151 communist party officials, including Chairman Mao Zedong, signed a Funeral Reformation proposal. Given the nearly half-billion Chinese deaths that occurred from the 1940s to 1960s, there was a simple logic to incineration.
According to the China Funeral Association, modern China has a death count of over eight million people each year. Four million of these bodies are cremated, which brings the cremation rate to 52.7 percent. The Association would prefer 100 percent.
At the Yishan Crematory, the workers are mostly middle-aged and balding. Ashes work their way under their fingernails, leaving the hands of handlers permanently black. The pollution that hangs as perpetual smog over China’s cities does not hold a candle to Yishan, a factory for processing the dead.
Yishan is in Shanghai, a city of 14 million with a death rate of 100,000 people per year. Most of those 100,000 pass through the crematorium. Four hundred bodies a day are ferried by motorized lift to 24 incinerators. The incinerators belch toxic smoke into the air and into nearby neighborhoods, perpetuating some cosmic joke about the cycle of death.
It is a most innovative facility. In previous years, blood drained from bodies was disposed through the sewer system. But the sheer volume of displaced blood eventually grew to become a health hazard. Yishan developed an embalming method that uses freezing instead of bloodletting to preserve bodies until they are ready for cremation.
Many Yishan workers are kept busy digging graves or carving gravestones, but they never seem to keep up with demand. Some would-be customers resort to do-it-yourself mounds on the sides of railway tracks or on the hillsides of scenic preserves.
Wealthy families have the option of circumventing the Yishan process altogether. Some send bodies abroad to be buried in the United States or Canada, taking advantage of various body shipping services that promise to deliver goods intact and in acceptable condition.
With so many bodies going through the crematorium, mistakes do happen. Instead of servants or wives, some families burn a fire-resistant memento with the body. The object serves the dual purpose of comforting the soul of the dead and verifying the ashes’ former identity.
According to the workers at Yishan, the funeral business is a business of life. They do whatever they can to smooth the post-death process for their customers.
In China, four (“? si”) is considered an unlucky number because it is phonetically similar to the word for “die.” The combination of four and eight (“?? si ba”) is even unluckier because it sounds like a curse - “?? die now.” Buildings often skip over the fourth floor and jump directly from three to five.
Even in cemeteries, where the dead already reign, one rarely sees a fourth burial terrace or a tombstone numbered four.
The combination of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian thought in China complicates end-of-life decisions.
Taoism urges harmony with the Tao (“? the Way”). Death is a part of life, the flow of the universe. In dying, one returns to the primordial void.
Buddhism urges freedom from suffering. To accept death is to accept the futility of suffering and to ease the suffering of caretakers. Life is transient and impermanent, and a single death has no effect on the scheme of the cosmos. Besides, there is always the chance one may be reborn as a being higher than human.
Confucianism urges communal harmony, especially within a family. Followers of Confucian thought think constantly of their ancestors, their children, and their relations, however distantly related. If one person’s sickness creates discord and suffering for the family, it might be better to end the problem at the source. And if one’s relations make proper preparations, death and the journey that follows will pass like a dream.
Despite the diversity of Chinese beliefs, the overarching message they impress on the Chinese psyche seems to be: Let go.
“I can’t go,” declared Grandmother.
“Mother,” said Aunt Pearl with impatience, “Not this again.”
“I won’t go,” Grandmother repeated.
“You must go,” said Aunt Pearl, “We buried the old father last May, and now we must go pay our respects. It’s the one-year burial anniversary. You’re his wife.”
“I don’t care. I’m not going to that damned place.”
“Dear mother, for heaven’s sakes, why not?”
“Because you saw how he died,” hissed Grandmother, “Feeble, in his bed, with his bedpans. Such indignity. Smoking a cigarette until his last moments. Selfish. He was the type of man who kept his best thoughts for himself. When Hu was sent off to labor in the boonies, did he raise a finger? No! I was the one who walked miles for my son—your husband. But when Little Sister went to Beijing for college, who took a vacation in the big city to visit every year? Him, of course. The old fogey was selfish and self-absorbed. I was the one who kept this family together. How dare he leave me so suddenly, in that way, with such—such indignity. I will not go visit him. He should be the one to come visit me. He should be the one—he should be the one—”
“Don’t say that,” exclaimed Aunt Pearl, aghast, “How would you feel if he really came back to haunt you? You’d have a heart attack, and we’d be burying you next!”
“Oh, I would have some choice words for him,” said Grandmother.
“Oh—dear!” Aunt Pearl quickly made a bow to Grandfather’s home shrine in the corner of the kitchen. The grey face in his portrait remained impassive. Uncle Hu, standing silent by the door, looked at his watch.
With an air of finality, Grandmother sat down on a kitchen chair and repeated, “I’m not budging. I’m too old. I waited so many years, in bad weather, for him. He can stand to wait a few more years for me.”
Aunt Pearl wavered between Grandmother and Uncle Hu like an indecisive bee. Finally she exclaimed, “Ai-ya! Have it your way, then. Don’t blame me if he comes back and haunts you for being a faithless wife,” and then, with genuine anxiety, “Mother, if you still insist on your blasphemy, make sure you hang a frond of palm and a clove of garlic over the door. You can buy palm fronds for cheap at the fourth street market. Oh, and the garlic must be extra pungent. That is the only way to ward away ghosts.”
Aunt Pearl shepherded the entire family out the door. On the street waited four gleaming Toyotas, the same ones we used last year. As I climbed into a back seat, I looked back over my shoulder into Grandmother’s kitchen window.
Grandmother stood in the middle of the room for a moment, arms folded, watching us go. Then, as the door of the last Toyota clicked shut, her entire body relaxed. Perhaps it was a trick of the tinted windows, but the lines of grief she had accumulated in the past few months seemed to melt from her face. Her lips formed a slow, secret smile.
She sat down cross-legged, in the fashion of a small girl, in front of Grandfather’s shrine. With tenderness, she picked up his black-and-white portrait and placed upon it a single kiss.