A DEATH IN CHINA

by
LEE A. WOOD

(The body of Feng He Hua dressed in traditional garments.)
A SMALL BOWL WITH OIL AND A WICK, AS WELL AS A LARGE CANDLE, IS SET ON A SMALL TABLE AT EACH END OF THE BED
WHEN PEOPLE, OTHER THAN FAMILY, COME, TO PAY THEIR RESPECTS THE FACE OF THE DECEASED IS COVERED WITH A WHITE CLOTH.

During my first trip to China I was present during the preparations and execution of a funeral. See my story, A Chinese Funeral. During my fourth trip to China I was present during the death of a Chinese citizen. Whereas the funeral had been planned as part of our trip, the death hadn't.

Bin, my wife, the apple of her parents' eye, was doted on. Since birth, she was spoiled rotten. For many years, she had lived with her mother in China. When she left home, to marry me, Feng He Hua, Bin's mother, took ill. Several times over the next few years, Bin returned home. When she returned Feng He Hua would perk up, when she left, to go back to Canada, Feng He Hua would become ill again. Each time Feng He Hua's condition would worsen until eventually Feng He Hua was no longer able to talk or move.

On November 24 `03, Bin's birthday, the morning after our arrival in China, we went to visit Bin's mother. Feng He Hua acknowledged our presence by uttering a few indistinguishable moans. She was unable to lift her head or her withered hands.

After a short visit we proceeded to the market to do some shopping. When we returned to the house we made lunch and the three daughters took turns feeding their mother some congee.

There is a belief that some people will, stubbornly clinging to life, refuse to die until they have spoken to a certain person. In `99, when I went to visit my mother, aged 91, in the hospital, she didn't open her eyes or acknowledge my presence. In a couple of hours of my having spoken to her, she passed on.

Shortly after Bin fed her mother, Feng He Hua, at the age of 79, began to die.

Jin Xian, my eldest sister-in-law, phoned for an ambulance. The fist ambulance she phoned said they would need more than an hour to arrive so she phoned a second one who said they could be their shortly. It took them a half hour.

Note: I don't personally believe in photographing funerals but as: I was not allowed to participate, or help in any other manner; the family was desirous of pictures, and knew me to be a fairly competent photographer, I was handed several cameras, as well as a camcorder, and asked to record all events, and all persons who attended, particularly during their genuflecting.

The ambulance attendants hooked Feng He Hua to a machine that spit out paper with straight lines on it and were preparing to inject her with various concoctions. Jin Xian, who is a doctor, pronounced Feng He Hua dead and told the attendants that their administrations would not be required. They were disappointed that they wouldn't be able to charge for the injections and proceeded to break open more vials and fill more syringes.

When Jin Xian insisted they desist they said the vials were already open and would have to be paid for. Bin agreed that we would pay for the unadministered injections and they proceeded to pack up their paraphernalia and fill out a certificate of death.

Amei (Jian Hua Xian), was quick to step in with instructions and a helping hand. Amei and I carried some of the furniture from the front room and stacked it in the bedroom, clearing a space along one wall. When the area was cleared a bed was set up. While we had been dong this, Jin Xian had been phoning her husband, and two brothers.

(Jian Hua Xian prepares greens for a meal.)

AMEI, A GENTLEMAN WHO LIVES
IN THE APARTMENT ABOVE
FENG HE HUA'S GROUND FLOUR SUITE.

While the three daughters undressed their mother, Amei carried, with the help of two neighbours, I, being non Chinese was not allowed to help, or even touch, the bedding, and clothing, out to the street in front of the apartment.

After cleaning their mother, the three daughters, with the help of the two sons, who had by now arrived, carried their mother to the new bed. Feng He Hua was dressed in traditional Chinese raiment, covered with a lovely quilt, and laid out, with her head resting on a traditional sleeping block.

Amei, and his friend, then proceeded to bring out the bed and break it into pieces.

With a piece of chalk, Amei drew a circle on the pavement. The circle is to prevent the spirits of other dead people from stealing anything. A fire was started, by putting a match, a lighter can not be used, to a piece of clothing. As the fire grew the; clothing, bedding, and bed were eventually added to the flames. These items are burned so that they will accompany the decease into the after world

(Bedding being burned.)

BEDDING WILL BE ADDED TO THE WASH BASIN
WHICH IS MELTING OVER BROKEN TEA CUPS.

Inside the apartment the family set up a Ling Tai (Soul table), with candles, a holder for incense, and an ashtray. As Feng He Hua was an occasional smoker an occasional cigarette would be lit and placed in the ashtray. Over the next 49 days a bottle of tea will be kept replenished and set on the Ling Tai as will bowls of food.

(Bin, in front of the Ling Tai of offerings, says a prayer for her mother.)
NOTE THE LITTLE BLACK BOX IN FRONT OF THE FLOWERS.
IT IS A DIGITAL MUSIC BOX THAT PLAYS A BUDDHIST CHANT, OVER AND OVER.

For the next seven days, incense, always in sticks of three, will be replenished before the burning ones are consumed. During this time family members may not, bathe, have sex, eat meat, shave, shower, or wear makeup.

For the next three days, one member of the family must always be present, and awake, in the room. During this period the spirit, or soul, of the deceased hovers about the room, unaware that they have died. Unsure of what is happening they seek the companionship of their relatives.

As a persons' soul is protected by their body it has never experienced wetness. During the first rain, after death, the soul, no longer protected, becomes wet. The spirit now realizes it has left its earthly shell.

Outside, on the pavement, a second circle is drawn, here an unending supply of xi bo, made by family members sitting in attendance of their mother, are burned. The burning xi bo, or money, will keep the departed in wealth in the after life.

(Huang Bin and her son Huang Yi Ming making xi bo)
MAKING XI BO, REMINISCENT OF AN ANCIENT FORM OF MONEY. NOTE THE BLACK PATCH ON THE SLEEVE, WORN BY ALL FAMILY MEMBERS FOR 49 DAYS. THE RED PATCH IS WORN BY GRANDSONS.
(Toes of shoes with white cloth.)
AS WELL AS A PATCH OF BLACK CLOTH ON THE SLEEVE SOME LADIES WILL WEAR A PATCH OF WHITE CLOTH ON THE TIPS OF THEIR SHOES.
(Xiao Tzang with a small white flower in her hair.)
LADIES OF THE IMMEDIATE FAMILY WILL WEAR A WHITE FLOWER IN THEIR HAIR.

(Jin Mei puts a sash around her son Dong Dong.)
PEOPLE WHO WERE REALLY CLOSE,
PARTICULARLY THOSE WHO LIVED IN THE SAME HOUSE,
WILL WEAR A WHITE SASH.

On the street in front of the apartment, before the, always open, door, a table and chairs were set up, with tea, for; friends, neighbours, and relatives.

(People sitting outside at night.)
AS THE WEATHER WAS MILD, A LIGHT WAS STRUNG OUTSIDE.

Upon arrival, visitors enter the apartment, greet the family, say a prayer before the body, burn some incense before the Ling Tai, and give the family some money, usually with instructions to buy a floral arrangement, then retire to the outside where they commiserate with (a) family member(s) while partaking of some tea and a cigarette, offered by a family member.

(Huang Jin Di & Huang Bin put name cards on flora arrangements.)

BANNERS ARE, BASICALLY, LONG NAME CARDS.

Floral arrangements arrive, held by a passenger, by scooter. Inside, the floral arrangements were arranged so they could be viewed by Feng He Hua. Two banners are made out, by family members, and draped down the front of the arrangement. The banner on the left identifies the person who sent the arrangement and the one on the right tells of their condolences.

(Banners on a line.)
A third banner, telling who has stopped by, is hung from a line across one wall of the room.
In some cases a piece of cloth, sent by the well wisher, is draped under the name card.
The cloth is usually a piece of silk. This is the traditional gift, but has mainly been replaced by flowers or money.

(Tall floral arrangement.)

ONE FLORAL ARRANGEMENT IS SET OUTSIDE THE DOOR.
THE BANNER ON THIS ONE LISTS
THE NAMES OF THE DECEASED
AND HER DESCENDANTS.

On the third day, after the death, a vehicle is summoned. It moves passed the door of the apartment and parks out of direct view. It is a simple, nondescript van. The back doors are opened so that the family is assured there is only one stretcher inside. (To save fuel, the vehicles will often pick up more than one deceased person in the same trip.) The stretcher is a simple, bare, slab of metal with a tube frame, and small wheels on one end.

Inside, the body is moved from the bed to the stretcher.

Note: Any attendance of the body, by the family is done with much screaming, crying, and denial.

(Food and broken crockery on the pavement.)

DISHES OF FOOD, SMASHED ON THE PAVEMENT.
(Family at the back of the hearse.)

The stretcher is carried to the van by the strongest members of the family, rather than the vehicle attendants. The female family members gather the bowls of food off the Ling Tai and as the stretcher is placed into the van they dash the bowls onto the pavement at the rear of the van, scattering broken, crockery and food.

As the doors of the van are closed the family throw themselves against the doors. Spouses of the family have to pry the family members away so that the van can leave.

Some family members will follow the van until it is out of sight and then they will climb inside, armed with bags of xi bo. Xi bo will be scattered over the deceased, and the floor of the van, in a steady rain for the duration of the trip to the crematorium.

( Bin and Yi Ming burning xi bo.)

BURNING XI BO. AN OLD CABINET
IS USED TO BLOCK THE WIND.

Other family members will gather around the circle on the pavement and begin burning xi bo. The fire must be fed until the van has reached the crematorium, or for one hour.

Note: Though China is the third largest country in the world, land is at a premium so all deceased are cremated.

(A pile of furniture on fire.)

THE BED SOON BECAME A RAGING FIRE WHICH ENDANGERED THE TREES TO THE LEFT.
NOTE THE DWARF PALMS ON THE RIGHT.
SHANGHAI, CHINA HAS A VERY SIMILAR CLIMATE TO THAT OF VANCOUVER, CANADA.

Meanwhile, friends and neighbours have been bringing the bed, and bedding, out of the house and, inside another circle, another fire was started. (At one point I had to kick the fire apart to reduce the flames as they were about to set a neighbouring tree on fire.)

At midnight of the third day the twenty-four hour vigils cease, until the seventh day, and are repeated every seventh day after that, for seven times.

While the stretcher was being loaded into the van there had been some breaks in the clouds. This meant that the spirit of the deceased was able to leave the earth and would no longer require the presence of the family for comfort. However the soul will return every seven days on the weekly anniversary of her death. Each visit will be of a shorter duration until, on the final, or forty-ninth, day, the final return, if it happens, will be for only a few minutes.

(People and floral arrangements inside bus.)
THE BUS WAS EVEN MORE CROWDED ON THE RETURN TRIP AS WE HAD A MOTORCYCLE SQUEEZED INTO THE AISLE.

On the first seventh-day a bus is hired and the family, and friends, board the bus along with many of the floral arrangements.

(Entrance to the crematorium.)
(Crematorium grounds.)

At the crematorium, each member of the party, as they sign the book, is given a flower to pin on their black patch. As the crematorium may be holding more than one service at a time the different colours identify which party a person is with.

(Floral arrangements inside the viewing room.)
( Floral arrangements inside the viewing room.)

To protect the body, Feng He Hua is placed inside a glass cover.

(Family viewing the deceased.)

After a short service, accompanied by very loud music, the family, followed by other mourners, file past the deceased. As they pass, the family will reach out and try to touch their mother. Each spouse, after allowing a few minutes, must pull the family member away from the display and move them along so that others may view. This is done three times.

When the family have gathered, about the glass cabinet, a fourth time, they step inside the barrier and while they are draped over the glass top, they are blocked from leaving by spouses. Then attendants open the end of the cabinet and wheel the stretcher out of the cabinet and through some doors.

After a short period of time the family members are released and allowed to run through the doors after the stretcher.

Deep within the building the family members are restrained, by spouses, while the stretcher is placed on a moving pedestal which slowly disappears down a track into the heart of the furnace. After the, empty, pedestal returns and the doors close, the family is lead back to the viewing room. The family waits while other members of the party proceed back to the bus with the floral arrangements.

(A large concrete incinerator.)

After a short rest the family members take a couple of the floral arrangements, and large bags of large yellow xi bo, to a large, open, incinerator.

Inside the big stove, a fire is started, with two floral arrangements. As the flowers are consumed the eldest offspring of the deceased puts a bag of xi bo on the fire. As each bag is consumed by the flames the next descendant, in order of age, steps forward and adds their bag of xi bo to the conflagration.

When the last of the xi bo are consumed by the flames the family goes back to the bus and board, along with several frames of floral arrangements from which the flowers have been removed.

As the bus returns home family members will throw the flowers, and some xi bo, from the windows of the bus, each time the bus turns a corners, or goes over a bridge. This is to leave a trial for their mother to be able to follow them home.

(People drinking tea and fire consuming flora arrangements outside of apartment.)
HOT, SWEET, TEA IS SERVED BEFORE THE FAMILY ENTERS THE HOUSE

At home family members burn the denuded floral arrangements and each member of the funeral party steps over the fire while they toss the flower from their sleeve into the flames.

(Bin, Jin Di, & Yi Ming burning xi bo.)
INSIDE THE HOUSE THE FAMILY BURN XI BO, AS THEY SAY PRAYERS.
(Sashes on the fire.)
OUTSIDE, THEY ADD THEIR WHITE SASHES TO THE FIRE.

After all the friends have left, to go to a restaurant in the East Shanghai Hotel, the family members rearrange the Ling Tai and set out fresh food and drink for their mother.

(Jin Mei, Bin, & Yi Ming at the soul table.)
(Food and candles on the soul table.)

Forty-three people were seated at four tables in two rooms. Sixteen dishes, plus wine and beer, were served for a total cost of Y2,400, approximately $9.00 (Canadian) per person.

(People sitting at a table in a restaurant.)

NOTE THE COVERS OVER THE COATS ON THE BACK OF CHAIRS.
THIS IS COMMON IN GOOD RESTAURANTS IN CHINA.

After supper the family will clean, repair, and fold clothing of the deceased, this will then be added to the fire.

On each of the succeeding seventh days xi bo, clothing, and furniture will be burnt until the final day when the last of all the clothing, and large amounts of xi bo, will be burned.

During this time, calendars will be examined to see which will be a good day for the funeral. Then on each yearly anniversary of her death, Feng He Hua's grave will be visited and more xi bo will be burned.

END

The forgoing was typical of a death in a middle class family. Things would vary according to the financial position of a family or the housing area they live in.

What was not typical was the funeral held for Feng He Hua.

* * * * * * * *

When Bin's father died, Bin didn't want his ashes buried in a cemetery. Shortly after his death they moved to a new residence which Bin felt would be their finally place, for life. Filling out the forms to take her father's ashes to the cemetery, Bin took the ashes to her home and, in the still of the night, buried the box in the neighbours' back yard where the, unmarked, grave would be visible from the window of her apartment.

(People digging.)
BY THE LIGHT FROM A FLASHLIGHT, TREES, AND SOIL, ARE MOVED IN SEARCH OF THE GRAVE.
(Food, and xi bo burning, beside a hole.)
BURNING XI BO, AND, OFFERINGS OF FOOD, TO APPEASE THE SPIRIT THAT WILL BE DISTURBED.

A few years ago when Bin purchased a grave site for her cousin she also purchased a double grave for her mother and farther. Before her mother's funeral, she stole into the yard of her former residence, and, in the dark of night she scooped some of the soil from her father's grave.

(Diggers working in a hole.)
THE CHERRY WOOD BOX HAD COMPLETELY DECOMPOSED BUT THE ASHES OF THE DECEASED WERE FOUND.
(Taking ashes from hole and placing in bag.)
THE ASHES WERE PLACED IN A RED CLOTH BAG WHICH WAS PLACED IN A NEW BOX WHICH, IN TURN, WAS COVERED WITH A RED CLOTH.

Later that morning, when the family held the funeral for their mother they also buried the soil, and ashes, from their father's, first, grave and held a proper funeral for him.

(Jin Di and Jin Fu carry cherry wood boxes at the cemetery.)
THE ELDEST SON CARRIES THE ASHES OF HIS FATHER WHILE THE NEXT ELDEST CARRIES THAT OF THEIR MOTHER.
ON THE FRONT OF EACH BOX IS A SPACE TO HOLD A PHOTO OF THE DECEASED. (ONE CAN BE SEEN NEAR THE UPPER CENTER OF THE MOTHER'S BOX.)

Author's Note: I don't report on the funeral here as I have, previously, written a story, `A CHINESE FUNERAL', in my Travel Section.

END

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