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Archive for April 13th, 2013

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The other day, Dr. Anthony Pun wrote about the Chinese diaspora, the effects when these people spread themselves across the globe and also their lives in their adopted countries.

Today, it’s my turn to touch on an important issue which I think many Chinese took seriously again in recent years – planning and preparing for one’s own death. Notice how I use the word “again” so emphatically because this practice has been missing from the scene for quite sometime only to emerge as a trend today. Yes, it’s a sort of cultural or spiritual revival.

In my first book, “The Stories of the Scissors Sharpener’s Daughter,” there was a chapter where I wrote of how my paternal Grandpa, a humble bean curd maker, got a coffin and a plot of burial land on a hilltop in Batu Gajah (enough to accommodate three persons as he had two wives) on his 70th birthday. Besides a large coffin and a spacious plot of land, a complete set of “Longevity Suit” called “Sau Yi” was also bought for that auspicious occasion. The silk suit came with a cap and a pair of shoes made from the same material. It was gold in color and generously covered with the motif “Sau” all over it. “Sau” means longevity while “Yi” means “suit.”

This practice, strange it may sound to westerners like Tom Parsons, made perfect sense to the Chinese. Besides getting him to eat plenty of pink-colored peach or tortoise shape “Longevity Buns,” on that day, giving such items to the birthday boy (in this case, my Grandpa) is akin to bestowing longevity to the recipient, hence the term “Tim Sau” where “tim” means “to add.” Put together, it simply means “to add longevity,” something every Chinese greatly and openly desires for. Everyone wish for long life, right? This suit, together with the cap and shoes, will be worn by Grandpa on the day he died and before being placed into his coffin. So the whole thing is about adding longevity to that person besides easing him of his worries of whether he would be properly buried once he dies.

But Grandpa is not the only person to make plans for his  final journey. Since time immemorial, the Emperors of ancient China too, had magnificent mausoleums constructed for them and elaborated “Longevity Costumes” weaved years in advance. You can’t build a large tomb and weave a glorious garment all in a single day, can you? These tasks are very laborious and time-consuming, thus they have to start preparing much earlier before the sovereign die. Ever heard of jade burial suits used by the Emperors of the Han Dynasty? If weaving a silk robe is tedious, just imagine the time and effort it takes to sew a suit made from pieces and pieces of jade bind together by golden threads! Look further and you can even see how the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt shared the same view to that of the Emperors of China. They have millions and millions of slaves laboring away to build their final resting place called the pyramids on the fertile valleys of the Nile. See, people in ancient times are already planning and preparing for their deaths.

But somehow, the Chinese people began to change their mentality. As recently as thirty years ago, when an insurance salesman were to appear at your doorstep with, “Excuse me sir or madam, in the eventuality of your……..” and the poor salesman will be shown the door. “Choy, choy, choy, you want to curse me to die early?” is a very common and immediate respond. I can’t think of the English equivalent of “Choy, choy, choy.” The nearest I can think of, and for the benefit of Tom, is “Taboo, taboo, taboo! Don’t mention this subject!” The Malays called it “Pantang.” You are not allowed to mention about death when that person is still alive. A lot of people don’t like it. It frightens them to be told of something as scary as death. You are reminding them that they are fragile.

The Chinese had forgotten a universal truth or simply refuse to accept that everybody will die someday. From the dirty beggar lying on the dusty roadside to the mighty monarch or “Son of Heaven” sitting on the golden dragon throne and lording over everyone, everybody will have to die when the time comes. No one can escape death no matter how wealthy and powerful one is. “Nothing is certain but death and taxes is,” as how Benjamin Franklin bluntly puts it. You just cannot run away from death just like you cannot run away from taxes. Grim Reaper and the taxmen would let no one off.

Even if you don’t mention the word “death” or allow others to mention it in front of you, you will still die someday, right? So, why are the Chinese, who once upon a time, do not hesitate to plan and made preparations for their final day in advance are so fearful now? The answer is simply this – they have a very profound fear for death. But why would you fear for something that is as natural as the air you breathe? “Even death is not to be feared for one who lived wisely” the Buddha said. For every birth, there is death, just like morning followed by night.

Life is a series of planning and preparations. When a woman became pregnant, she will plan which hospital to go to for her delivery, which doctor or midwife to help her during the labor, which brand of milk formula to give to the newborn, what auspicious and nice sounding name to give to the baby and even which education fund to invest in for the child. When we are preparing for a wedding, we will have to plan which reputable studio to have our photos taken, which gown and suits to wear for that big day, which restaurant to hold the reception, who to invite to the dinner and which country to go for the honeymoon. So you see, it’s all about planning this and that so that everything goes smoothly and accordingly.

But how many of us ever sit down to think where we want to be buried and what ceremony we want to have when we die? Not many and in the end, we just said something like, “Aiya, I don’t care because by that time, I’m already dead and do not know what will happened to my body” or maybe, “Just sprinkle my ashes into the sea and let the sharks eat them” and also, “I’ll leave the matter to my children to handle, they’re smart kids!” But how sure are we that our children will give us a dignified exit or even a simple one?

If you are wealthy and have a fortune to pass on to your children, most probably they are more concern with how much they will get than to care for how you, a piece of dead meat, will be buried. And if you are penniless, then your children would most probably said to one another, “You’re more loved by Dad when he was alive or you’re more capable now, so you handle!” Worst still, if your children have different religion from one another, then one will say,”I’m the eldest, I’ll do it my way,” or the other would say,”I pay more, so I’ll  do it my way!” In the end, with all the differences between them, you will end up neither here nor there, not in Heaven nor in Hell but with your soul caught somewhere in between! 🙂 If this is not a nightmare, then I don’t know what is.

I am glad to learn that many people had wiser up these days. Maybe they heard enough about the horror stories from their friends or relatives of being abandoned or mishandled after death by those they thought they could depend upon. So instead of depending on others to handle your final journey, why don’t you plan it yourself while you can still think logically, before Alzheimer sets in?

That is exactly what I saw many people were doing several nights ago when my husband and I attended a talk cum dinner organized by Nirvana Memorial Park to explain why we need to plan ahead for the eventuality. I think we deserve and own ourselves the privilege and right to know where our final resting place is and how gracefully we could go once we breathe our last. That’s better than going away without knowing anything or what will happened to our bodies and of course, our souls too.

I could still remember how on the morning after Mom died, very stunned and bereft, we went in a daze to the Paradise Memorial Park in Tanjung Rambutan to choose a columbarium for her. Her death came so suddenly, it caught us completely off guard. Confused, heart-broken and inconsolable, we wished, at that moment, we had planned and prepared earlier for this eventuality. It is difficult to do things when you feel sorrowful and there are many things for the mourning family to do – choosing the right coffin, arranging the nuns to chant prayers, preparing her wake and informing friends and relatives of our loss. There is one word to describe that experience – painfully chaotic. With Dad, seven years later, things were more organized as we are prepared this time around. Therefore, his departure is more dignified and orderly although we felt equally devastated by our lost.

My parting advice is this –  one does not have to wait until one is old and sick and with Death staring into one’s face to plan for that day, just do it while one is still alive and kicking. At least you know you have a hand in the planning and preparation.

Of course I do not mean to ask people to keep coffins and longevity suits in their houses in this age or like how my Grandpa stored them away in his store-room. At reputable memorial parks and Nirvana is one of them, all you can do is just to pick a burial plot, or a columbarium and a service package and they will keep these things for you until you need them one day! Easy, right? That is why this practice is getting accepted and popular again. One feng-shui master who talked on that night even said that’s the best gift for your own birthday or that of your family members, be it your parents, your spouse or even your children.

I just have to say it here, Grandpa Yip Soo, you’ve done the right thing! 🙂

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