Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Viewing

The funeral room at the end of the ceremonies after most people left.

My grandfather was ninety-six when he died leaving only one other chinese immigrant alive in all of canada to come into the country before 1923. 1923 was the year in which there was a ban put forth by our government against the immigration of chinese immigrants. Depending on what province you lived in you could be declared a chinese nationalist even if you were born here. This is what happened to my maternal grandmother. My grandfather managed to escape this craziness by living in Ontario.

I learnt that he lived in Toronto for a while and attended Danforth Tech. I heard he hated the experience. Then for some reason unknown to me, he eventually moved up to a suburb of Timmins, owned a restaurant, had a bunch of kids (my uncles and aunts) and lived there until a few years ago when he and my grandmother moved back to Toronto.

On Thursday night I attended the funeral which followed chinese Buddhist traditions. Although maybe because we're in north america it may have been watered down a little. My dad joked that we got the discount version. There was only one monk that stood at the side of the room chanting for two and a half hours. My father and aunt recall going to other funerals where seven "happy" monks chant for two days straight.

Although the monk's voice was soothing it reminded me of all those years of trying to avoid chinese opera. I can't stand chinese opera. It probably has more to do with the high shrill voice of the stereotypical female performers, than anything else. Well maybe the "tok tok tok" of the wooden block and the banging of some gong like instrument turned me off to this fine cultural performance. Back in the day, it was considered lower class to be a performer. You were classified to be in the same category as a street whore or someone with a tattoo. People were tattooed to mark them as criminals. That or get put to death, lose a body part, or some other form of punishment (maybe like getting hit with a big stick). See the things you find out from the older folk? It's good to see your relatives.

The body was placed in a casket. It was open so you could see the waist up. One woman paying respect actually looked right into the coffin, the closed half, I'm not really sure why. She stuck her head almost right in to have a look. To make sure my grandfather was intact I would assume. Maybe she thought the embalmer only did the top half. Weird. I thought it was more amusing than something to be angry about (like the desecration of the body or something like that). As part of the eulogy my aunt Dot mentioned that my grandfather was a curious person who would compare prices of items (like cigarettes) even though he had no intention of buying them. Maybe this women knew about a half off embalming service somewhere else (no pun intended). Did our family get good value? I thought the funeral was a nice send off at the very least.

In front of the casket was a table with a large metal pot. It had a large incense stick burning in it. Smaller sticks next to the pot were available for use. You would take an incense stick, light it using one of the two candles next to the pot, then bow three times facing the body. You would then place the incense stick into the pot so it could finish burning. Because I still had some stuffiness from my cold the weekend before I didn't really notice the incense. Not until I got home and noticed I stank that is. I wonder what people on the transit thought?

Around the pot o incense there were food items and a cup of McDonalds coffee. At first I thought someone left it there by mistake. Later on I would learn that my grandfather LOVED this coffee. I found that odd as I've heard a lot fo people think McDonalds coffee is not that great, bad even. But being the non-coffee drinker how would I know. To each their own I suppose.

Also on the table was a wrapped raisin bread slice with butter covering the entire surface area of the bread. It seemed my grandfather also liked his butter on his bread. My cousin Margaret was told how to butter the bread "properly" by my grandfather and not to use the butter so sparingly. Sponge cake, tofu dessert soup, little oranges were also among the small offerings that made up for a good cross section of what he liked to eat. I also noticed a slab of pork and a whole chicken. I found out that these "extra" items were for other spirits or ancestors that past on. They were offerings so the ancestors wouldn't get jealous of just my grandfather getting food.

Next to the table there were bunches of flowers on stands and in pots. Each group would have been given buy the different sons and daughters, their families and friends. It was easy to pick out my family's flowers as me and my Dad had our names in english. Everyone else had a chinese name. Yes it would be interesting to know my chinese name. I think the only one who knows it would be my paternal grandmother. It was given to me by my great uncle who is now deceased. It probably is a character that represents "fat kid" or "monkey boy". I really have no clue.

Because I was considered immediate family my stay was for the whole duration, between 4pm and just a little after 8pm. Between the chanting monk, the bowing, and sitting on one of the many benches facing the body, one could go into the other room where there was food and drink. Nothing major. Mainly cookies and buns. It was there that I got to catch up on all my cousins and notice they were not as small as I remembered them. Also they're a lot smarter than when I last left them. It takes more brain power to make fun of them and they insult back. A lot of "gee you're old" jokes. It's funny as I'm one of the youger ones on my dad's side of the family and what do I do? "Gee you guys are old" jokes. hee hee. What comes around goes around.

As a point of interest. As a family member you wear a specific garment to determine how you're related to the deceased. A black arm band if you're a son. A black ribbon on the left side of the chest if you're a grandson (me). A white knitted flower on your head if you're a daughter. A green knitted flower on your head if you are the daughter of a daughter of the grandfather. A blue flower if you're the daughter of one of the sons. Supposedly in the more traditional funerals there's a head piece you wear that determines exactly how you are related to the person that died and your relationship within the family (order of birth and that sort of thing).

I also found the wearing red to a funeral is very, very bad. I'm not sure why and who it's bad for. You the wearer or the whole funeral and all those that attend. I'm also not sure why it's bad. I imagined the idea that a long time ago some warring faction all dressed in red showed up to a guy's funeral and declared war on the family after chopping up the body into a million pieces and killing the entire clan, but one of course. That one person that survived passed on the story that wearing red was bad. He and he alone when he grew up would avenge his families death using kung fu taught to him by his grand uncle, despite his father's wishes. I think I've watched too many kung fu movies.

Colors that are acceptable are white, black, and any gray or color with low saturation. I of course not getting any of the notices before the funeral showed up in a burgundy. It was more brown than red but it worried me some despite one of my aunts saying it was passable. Again that image of the guy avenging his dead family popped into my mind. I thought about looking over my shoulder every once in a while for someone with a knife.

Once the viewing was over we saw my grandmother home. I found out that someone is traditionally supposed to watch over the body until the burial. I guess to fend off spirits or having the body get up and walk away. That would be a job if these things really happened. I could just see myself armed with a bunch of incense sticks and some post-it notes with chinese writing on them (the modern scrolls of our time). How would you physically keep a body from walking away? Bar the doors? Get on the cell phone call up some other relative to help sit on the body till the next morning?

Luckily with north american tradition there's nothing that much to do. We just leave the lights on in the room and leave until the next day. Well at least it'll make those cockroaches think twice before trying to climb the table to get at the food. I can just imagine a spirit saying "...and I would have been able to steal the body but dammit the light was on. Curse fluoresent tubing."

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