Saying Goodbye

An unknown relative of the southern ilk of his family had been hovering around noisily snapping photos with a Sigma digital camera larger than her head borrowed from his uncle, the eldest son, whose duty it had been to organize the funeral of his grandfather. He hadn’t recognized her, and has since forgotten all other details about her, but her presence seemed especially inappropriate as it was time to witness the gathering of the ashes of the deceased and the larger group of core mourners had been trimmed down to just the direct male descendants and his American fiance.

They had been lead to a small back room, he being reminded yet again to hold his grandfather’s portrait in his arms straight and with 2 hands, by 2 Chinese men in their mid-twenties, to a room dominated by the large furnace that had engulfed everything with fire from the casket to the Communist flag to the deceased and the glasses and the false teeth within while he, his fiance, and his father had been drinking iced tea from bottles outside. As the furnace lifted and released the metal cart on which everything had been wheeled in, he thought for a moment he saw the outlines of ashen flowers, their color burned away into a uniform grey, their petals frozen open by fire. Upon closer inspection though it turned out to be all that remained of his grandfather, the larger pieces of bone from the human body, and a smear of melted glass amongst a field of rusted nails that had once held the casket together.

The 2 Chinese attendants had between them 4 metal trays with metal tongs and began deftly if unceremoniously to chip away at and collect the largest pieces of bone they could find: part of a skull, a femur, a crooked spine, a broken pelvis, others. He was surprised at how disconcerted he felt at the rather morbid display, the quick way the attendant’s hands moved, the grind of metal against bone, and for not the first time he questioned the necessity of his presence in the entire affair. The bone collection was interrupted by the cell phone of one of the attendants whose ring was that Smash Mouth song “All Star,” the words “I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed” oddly appropriate as the bone collection was interrupted a second time by the same attendant, the same phone, the same obnoxious ring, mere moments later.

When all 4 trays were filled and the last tiny pieces of bone had been particularly knocked out of and collected from the melted glass, they were lead away, he at the front carrying the portrait, an unsure expression on his face as more photos were taken by the unknown relative. (Later, while he and his fiance looked over the 436 photos taken at the funeral during an interruption in discussing the business they were undertaking with his father by the journalist who brought the DVD of photos only his computer would read, he was relieved to discover that his expression had never been inappropriate; a small smile here, a big smile there, solemn elsewhere.) He reflected that this is not at all how he thought a cremation would be like. He hadn’t expected anything to be left over but ash, definitely not large pieces of bone. The 2 attendants were going to turn the pieces that they had collected into powder to fill the urn with, and the thought of a bone grinding machine seemed yet again morbidly disconcerting. In his mind a cremation was supposed to be a clean affair: a large fire, a body in a casket, and dust all that remained to be swept, the last time one saw the body when it was clean, and at peace, and said goodbye.

There were also at least 4 other funerals going on at the same time at the sprawling funeral home complex on the far West side of Beijing, and theirs had seemed if not the least then at least close to least important of them all, occupying the relatively smaller, more off to the side funeral parlor than the grand, monolith of a parlor that stood at the center of the funeral home complex square, though his grandfather’s funeral still had to finish exactly at 11AM to make room for another right after.

This was his 2nd Chinese funeral, his 2nd funeral ever. Less than a year ago he had attended the funeral for his grandmother’s elder brother, in coincidentally the same complex and in the same parlor even, though they had been less hurried then, and he did not witness more than just the many hundreds of mourners paying their respects. (Later, as he flipped through the photos with his fiance he would get his first look at the massive line that waited to enter the funeral hall where his grandfather’s body laid, that walked in and waited at the direction of the staff, were told to bow 3 times out of respect, walked around the body, cried at the large portrait that hung overhead, shook each and everyone of their hands and nearly a thousand hand shakes later, dispersed into the dusty air outside; Beijing was just dusty in and of itself, but many things were burned there.) He had been 96 six when he passed, his grandfather 98. The woman who married his uncle had also passed away just a few weeks ago, at a much younger age, perhaps mid 60s, due to a self inflicted gunshot wound, a funeral to which he wasn’t invited, whom no one attended, not even her own daughter.

It seemed the tradition in his family; of all the deaths he’s known, his great grandmother dying at 96, setting the milestone by which all further longevity in her offspring were measured so that a dying man may say he is now at peace, having lived as long as his mother, and a cousin, the half British son of his father’s sister who found life of mixed descent too difficult to face in 1960s China and burned a house down around him, that they either greyed and wilted and faded with time from this life at the ripe old age of 96, or were abruptly cut off.

His presence was quite important at this funeral though, being the direct male descendant. Of the seemingly interminable number of names for obscure relatives the Chinese have, ranging from “grandfather’s 10th brother” to “foreigner who married my grandmother’s brother’s daughter,” the one for “direct male grandson,” and his wife, whose auspicious title his fiance now occupied since it was far too complicated and needed far too many words to explain to all the well wishers that they were in fact only engaged to be married, held a special place, especially in the heart of his grandmother, who when speaking of her deceased husband always had a tear in her eye whenever she mentioned her “only grandson.”

All the flowers had been freshly cut that morning. Large wreaths bore the names and well wishes of strangers and distant relatives who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the event. His cousin’s name apparently appeared on at least 6 different wreaths, one for himself and his wife, one for his family, some for his multiple companies and business endeavors, and more. He and his fiance’s name adorned the wreath directly in front and to the left of the casket, with the relatively simple declaration that his grandfather was much loved, and will be missed, a rather lengthy concept to be translated and transcribed into but a few short Chinese characters, handwritten by an old man with a grey beard who sat amidst a room full of flowers writing with a felt tipped pen, where they and others had gone to make their flower arrangements and pay in large stacks of cash for the entire affair, the cost of which easily exceeded that of multiple average annual salaries.

A 3-wheeled trash cart had been used to cart all the flowers and wreaths from the parlor to the outdoor furnace across the courtyard. Again, it lacked a certain quality of ceremony as the large piles of flowers were dumped onto the ground in a heap and those willing and able pulled the flowers from their wood and woven infrastructure and tossed it all into the fire. There were 4 such furnaces, each capable of holding a small home, and other funerals burned more than just flowers: books, bundles of clothes and bedding, all the things that reminded them of their deceased loved ones and all the things that those loved ones would presumably want in the afterlife. His father was particularly excited to be able to use a giant shovel and push the overflowing mass of plant matter into the gaping mouth of the furnace. It must be a male trait to want to play with fire. He and his fiance speculated that there must have been some kind of chemical combustible as the water content in the plant matter seemed too high to sustain any kind of meaningful fire.

His grandfather looked very small in his coffin. The casket was made of a light colored wood with an attempt at embellishment in the carvings along the side and general varnishing, though the poor craftsmanship was more than obvious. He wasn’t sure when the body had been moved, but it couldn’t have been too long ago, so maybe it wasn’t important he thought, that the coffin have any ability to last or be presentable. A large Communist flag, a field of red and the hammer and sickle in gold, covered the majority of the casket. A large bed of flowers wrapped all the way up to the upper edge of the box, itself raised maybe 3 feet off the ground; his grandmother had complained that she, being so short, couldn’t really see her late husband’s face and so insisted, as the family of the deceased paid their respects and made their way around the casket, on standing, without help, so she could look upon her late husband’s face. (Later, while looking over the photos, he and his fiance would discover that unfortunately, the photo of them bowing in respect to his grandfather actually cut out his grandfather, leaving only the Communist flag visible in the frame, giving the impression that they were in fact, bowing to the Communist flag.)

These kinds of funerals were actually public events. There were, of course, all the relevant family members in attendance, those that could or wanted to make it that is, and more than that since his uncle had insisted on tracking down all the distant relatives from down south. His grandfather had distanced himself from that family a long time ago, citing 2 reasons for the rift: 1, that his father had impregnated one of the household staff, and 2, that his father had forced his sister to marry someone against her will. Nevertheless, and despite his grandmother’s wishes otherwise, his uncle had summoned them all to attend; his grandmother would later remark that such was the way with the first born son: when the father dies, there is a grab for power between him and the mother. A press release had also been given to many of the national newspapers, and his father had even started an online blog about the event, so the funeral was rather widely and publicly known. (He remembered that when his grandmother’s elder brother had died and he was visiting some relatives in Hong Kong while he renewed his multiple entry Chinese tourist visa, because you need to do things like that when living in China like leaving the country every 60 days, that the obscure likes of the daughter of a relative whom he couldn’t even name the relation to had been well aware of the funeral and all the details of the life of the deceased.) So hundreds, if not thousands, of people had poured in. (His father later joked that it was probably convenient for people to attend; there were at least 4 funerals, and if one were efficient about it, they could pay their respects to all of them.) Large fabric bound guest books had been laid out for everyone to sign, and a giant cardboard bucket of small white flowers with clip on pins sat on either side of the entryway to the parlor. As they all passed and shook their hands, his father would some of the time take the time to introduce people personally as he, and especially his fiance, had no idea who these people were. Some were even very important members of State Bureaus or the Communist Party. Others, no one knew. (It would later be remarked that in the end, they’d shaken the hands of some very powerful people, but would probably never know it, and, upon perusing through the guest books, more than once were there people apparently in attendance whom no one had noticed at all.)

One act of ceremony that he was thankfully spared to was the walking of the ash filled urn around the funeral complex courtyard. He had seen many other funeral parties participating in this what he thought was exceptionally ludicrous display of faux grandiosity while he, his fiance, and his father had waited for his grandfather’s body to finish burning. The urns themselves, or at least the ones they had bought for his grandfather, were very expensive, though there were others whose relative inexpense was astonishing (starting at less than $100.00). There were very specific measurements to which their urn had to qualify, as his uncle had insisted that, when his grandmother dies, the ashes of both be put into the same concrete drawer; there was, apparently, a designated drawer already set aside for my grandfather, some place of import amongst the other Party members, but it was only so wide so his urn couldn’t be too big otherwise a second wouldn’t fit. When they asked the staff whether it was appropriate to purchase 2 urns at the same time, since they knew that 2 of urns they had picked out would fit in the drawer, if snugly, the staff rather superstitiously suggested we not. It’s apparently a bad omen to purchase an urn for someone still alive. They weren’t going to be able to collect his grandfather’s ashes for a while still, but for those other funeral attendants who already had, the urn was placed on top of a crudely red painted palanquin with garish artificial gold embellishments flanked in front by 2 metal statues of storks whose brittle legs were reinforced with what looked like PVC piping. 2 funeral staff members wearing drab costume military uniforms would make a show of goose stepping and saluting in front of the palanquin, held by 2 other staff members wearing equally drab and costume traditional Chinese servants clothes, while a party of mourners brought up the rear. They’d all walk an L shape along the outer edge of the funeral complex courtyard, bow 3 times, then walk back.

The realization from all of this, of course, is that as cliched as it obviously is, life is dreadfully short, and the prospect of working the majority of it in a job he does not enjoy, helping to make other people greater successes than he, just isn’t worth it.


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