Saturday, August 9, 2014

Death in the family

My grandmother passed on last Saturday at night. I heard it in between sobs from my dad on the phone; immediately I hugged N, went over to my mom and cried a bit in her arms, and then we went off to pick my sister up who was at the theaters halfway through Guardians of the Galaxy, and over to the hospital.

Everyone was crying. My aunt was wailing and shouting into my grandma's ears whether she could still hear us. My grandma had her mouth open when she passed away; no matter how much we tried we couldn't get it to close. We took turns to hug her motionless body, still somewhat warm and soft to the touch.

The next few days were very emotional. It was my second time witnessing a Buddhist funeral, but since my grandpa died 13 years ago, I remembered very little from before. The funeral was set outside my home, and everyone cried when the funeral parlor guys carried my grandma's body up the platform wrapped up in a white cloth. She was incredibly tiny, having lost most of her weight through diabetes and organ failure. My grandma was quite the rebel really; she chose white for her tentage instead of the usual Buddhist yellow. Her coffin was a pristine white too, and the mortician did a good job with the makeup.

The Buddhist take on afterlife is pretty interesting. Basically, Buddhists believe in the cycle of life and in reincarnation, although ideally one should break free of the cycle and attain nirvana and hence, buddhahood. Frankly, that sounds really cool and zen in theory but in reality, human beings are corrupt and I was disgusted to realize the monks we hired drove a Jaguar and wore Rolex watches.

The funeral ceremony lasts 49 days with the first 7 being the most important. During the first four days (which was the length of my grandma's funeral), the person is said to enter a trance-like state of not knowing that he/she is dead. So most of my time was spent either kneeling or sitting down, listening to monks chant some sort of scriptures, presumably to guide my grandma's spirit to realizing that she is dead now, and to guide her along in the cycle of rebirth.

I was quite surprised to find out that other than my grandma, nobody else among my relatives are Buddhist. Essentially, we were going through the motion of the rites just for my grandma. I lost respect for my uncles because none knew what the hell were we even doing.

Quite a few people came to the funeral, along with many flowers offering condolences from people who weren't able to attend. These were mostly colleagues/friends of my dad's, since he's the most successful among his brothers, so out of the 150 wreaths we received probably less than 10 were addressed to his brothers.

There aren't any eulogies for a Buddhist funeral, so I thought of all the happy times I had with my grandma when I was sitting and listening to the monks chanting. I thought of how she so easily accepted N as my boyfriend, and how she told me to bring him along more often (I visited her almost every day for two weeks), because she missed him too. I thought of how she was very selfless and even when she was so breathless from the fluid in her lungs she still asked me if I've eaten (it's a common Chinese greeting), and would tell me to not spend so much time in the hospital and go out and do "young people" things. I thought of how when she was younger and fitter she was the matriarch of my dad's side of the family - she cooked incredible meals when everyone came over to her place for dinner, and how her word was the final word for all of us.

On the last day we walked barefoot behind her hearse while a Buddhist chant (南无阿弥陀佛) was played along with sounds of birds chirping and melodic waterfalls. Everyone broke down when we cremated her, and my family hugged each other so tightly that day. The next day I returned to collect her ashes - turns out I was wrong about ashes being dust; the remains of my grandma were mostly her bones, and I had to alternate with the other relatives to place each piece of her bone into an urn. I felt very uneasy.

My grandmother was a very humorous and open-minded woman who was very modern for someone of her generation. As N is staying with my family, he joined in for some of the funeral processions, and even sent a thoughtful wreath on behalf of his family. Basically, my entire extended family has now met N, but only my grandmother and a cousin (who found out because his colleague, a friend of mine, outed me to him unknowingly) know he's actually my boyfriend.

I'm really happy that my grandma's the first in my extended family to know. It's good that I've gotten her blessings. I hope she'll rest in peace. Yesterday, in front of my grandma's urn, my uncles argued over the inheritance of my grandma, with one accusing the other of not being transparent (there was no will). I really do hope that when my parents pass on, my siblings and I will not be fighting. It's really sad how everyone fights over money.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear about the passing of your grandma. You learn all kinds of cultural things from these life events as well as you get some insight into your family.