Notes on a local passing

Right now there’s a funeral/memorial/what they do when someone dies in Taiwan going on a couple doors down from our apartment complex on the route to work. These things go for 49 days; this one’s been going for about 10.

The front of a business has been turned into a memorial site with chairs and tables spread from the door to the street. Inside has a table with offerings (food, wine, incense) on it. On the walls are photos of the deceased and pictures of (I’m assuming) the ancestors, with lots of flowers and lotus decorations made from folded spirit money. Outside on the sidewalk around the tables and chairs are big flower arrangements, large specially decorated packages of gifts (like beer and pop) and a big metal holding bin for burning large amounts of spirit money. When we walk through it at 12pm on the way to work, relatives are there eating and talking. When we walk back through it at 9pm, people are also there, eating and talking.

We asked our practicum advisor for information during our last practicum debriefing meeting. Turned up some interesting (and unexpected) details, some of which I’ve bolded. ***These are just tidbits from our notes – the terminology isn’t accurate and it’s not a general representation of Taiwanese funeral rites. We often only learn about things bits and pieces at a time, through experiences like this. Somewhere in our pile of reading I know there is a whole big explanation of funeral customs – but this isn’t it. Still, some interesting stuff.

[Discussion Notes]
Jessica asks about the ongoing funeral/memorial near our apartment, about last night when they were wearing KKK-looking white hoods. White hoods: worn by relatives of the dead. Special ceremony is performed every 7 days for 49 days. Doesn’t know why 49 days (7 7’s?). By the end of 49 days they will perform a ceremony that transports the dead to the place “sort of like heaven.” Fundamental differences: Taiwanese believe people have three souls: one stays with the shrine, one goes for reincarnation, one goes to “heaven.” The body stays there for 49 days: behind the wall of the memorial there is a big freezer with the body in it (if they can afford it they don’t go for cremation).

They want to consider the fung shui of the tomb, and after 5/10 years (unsure how many) or so they check the tomb to check the bones (if there is flesh attached it means there is something unfinished… more ritual/ceremony/sacrifices are required).

Probably offensive not to burn the incense to the dead, although Christian pastors would tell you not to burn the incense. He says this is not the right place to claim your own religious distinction; it’s rude not to burn the incense.

Purposes of the funeral: show respect, and also it’s the final act of your life, everyone has to be there to go through the final stage of the person’s life to lead them to “the West.” It’s a necessary act – step to take – or else the person would be uninitiated (unable to reincarnate, go to the West, or rest in peace, they would be a wandering ghost).

About 90% of the population does this kind of ritual we’re talking about. South and North may have details that are different. When these times come, the service providers have the whole systems worked out.

Is it Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian? They probably wouldn’t even know.

There’s a way to communicate with the god or the spirits – casting new moon shaped lots (jiao1 bei1) on the ground in the temple – the results of their throw tell them what they need to know.

Christian funerals seem disrespectful. Less days waiting, you don’t hear people bawling at the Christian funerals. Who decided what Christian funerals are supposed to be like? Missionaries? Local pastors? He doesn’t know. There is some wiggle room. Death and funerals is a generally avoided topic.

Departed (recent Hollywood movie) based on a Hong Kong movie (English title: Infernal Affairs) that has this very Buddhist message re: suffering and death (Chinese title actually refers to the worst part of hell, but as a metaphor for the life we experience and its suffering): death is a relief from suffering if you’ve cultivated yourself.