I didn’t know what to expect when we came to the funeral today. I knew it was a strange coincidence that my grandmother’s funeral falls on Halloween this year, but I only just realized this in the car on the way there. Like most everyone in Taiwan, people have dabbled in more than one religion in their lives, for a while, my grandmother was a devout Christian. My mother has chosen a semi-traditional Buddhist ceremony for her mother’s passing, which seems to be the more common thing to do here in Taiwan. I am thankful that there was a team of funeral helpers to guide us through the process, it keeps things going, as if it was left up to the family alone, the deceased would never quite properly cross over to the other side.
I found chanting with the monk to be strangely comforting; unfamiliar, but comforting. The rhythmic monotony and strange melismas calm my unsettling thoughts and body, part of me observes the ceremony as a cultural experience, until my eyes settle on my grandmother’s picture, and then the image disappears into a blur. In the photo, my grandmother smiles coyly with sparkles in her eyes, wearing a bright red scarf. I can’t seem to connect the memories of her to the present moment, not even with the open casket. I could barely recognize her. I am grateful to see my grandmother for the last time, but I refuse to replace her in my mind with this body I see before me.
I found great comfort in words like ‘a celebrated life’ and the thought that she’s possibly reunited with my maternal grandfather, but the present moment still grasps me by the throat and my breaths become shallow. I watch as my mother identifies the body and signs a sheet of paper in the mortuary. I wait outside as we were told it takes one and a half hour for the cremation to be completed. What does one do during this time? There was a whirlwind of movements and sounds and colors everywhere I turned, all moving at an unsettling speed. It seems like life accelerates once the heart stops beating, or rather, maybe death just surprises us no matter how prepared we think we are but we are never really ready for it. I listen to the incessant bells rung by the monk as each family follows hurriedly behind a casket going every which way. I see big black limos, trucks load and unload golden statues of Buddha and flowers. I watch the coroner as he picks out bits of burnt beads from the tray of grandmother’s ashes and asks if she wore a necklace. I watch my uncle carry an impossibly heavy marble urn as he tries to place it in a ‘final resting place’ that is not much different from a bank vault, except it was adorned in gold, well, maybe even that is not much different from a bank vault in Asia, I imagine. I try to imagine my grandmother living in these ‘eternal apartments’ (at least for the next 50 years or so), looking out to a dense subtropical mountain in a light rain, wondering if this was what she would have wanted, and if she is really finally at peace. I watch, I feel, I imagine, but I can’t seem to breathe, it feels as if the weight of the urn is on my chest.
Hours later, here I sit, having a first moment to be with myself and my thoughts. It feels strangely empty, as if one should walk away from a day like today with a prize or a souvenir, why? I’m not sure. I carried a large framed picture of my grandmother in an elevator to our hotel room with a heavy bag of fruit, another bag of fruit. It seems like nobody knows quite what to do with so much fruit associated with a traditional funeral, it got passed around among everyone present at the funeral. The day is finally over, as I sit here, waiting for that unbearable lightness to arrive, but all I feel so far is still the weight on my chest, and these heavy bags of fruit.
I salute you, NaiNai, may you rest in peace and be joyous in your next journey.