Plain China

Last Rites

by Faye Yan Zhang · Harvard College
Strands, Hannah Fiske · Grinnell College

After Grandfather died, he waited in line for one year. His ashes, piled inside a lacquered box, sat among the ashes of others in a cold concrete bunker nestled in the Chinese countryside. Each box bore a tiny black-and-white engraving of the deceased. The owner of the bunker kept track of burials by scrawling the deceased’s name and date of death on the lids.

A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, rigged to save electricity by shutting off when it sensed no movement. Whenever someone came in on funeral business, the bulb flickered on. Otherwise, the dead waited their turn in darkness.

 

Property Rights

There are seven million people living in Hong Kong, making it the fourth most densely populated city in the world. Its citizens are dying faster than ever, at numbers that have doubled since 1970. Forty thousand people now die each year from the usual reasons: drowning, old age, suicide, electrocution, severe allergies, traffic accidents, heartache, stress.

A century ago, these 40,000 souls would have found eternal peace at the foot of some pine-forested mountain chosen for its optimal feng shui. Such postmortem peace is now impossible, as most of this once-sacred land has been developed into high-rise apartments or factories.

The line between the yang world of the living and the yin world of spirits is vaguely drawn in Chinese theology, an amalgam of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs. This line blurs more each year as millions of Chinese flock to live over the old bones of their ancestors, creating a literal juxtaposition of life and death.

Property rights work for the dead in much the same way as for the living. In the modern People’s Republic of China, property exists in a state of perpetual leasehold. Whether a high-rise or a hovel, residential property may be owned only for a period of 70 years. At the end of this period, the property is either re-leased or the hapless owners evicted.

The dead, too, face the threat of eviction. China’s most esteemed burying ground, 八宝山, Babaoshan (Eight Treasure Mountain) Cemetery outside of Beijing, is not so much a holy mountain as a quiet gap in urban sprawl. Regardless, the upper echelon of Chinese society engages in bidding wars over its plots, which start at 70,000 yuan, or about 11,500 U.S. dollars for a 20-year lease. If a family’s fortune has turned by the end of those years, the formerly exalted government official or wealthy businessman is expelled from his resting place like a loaf of expired bread.

 

II

Once Grandfather’s year in exile ended, our entire extended family packed into four Toyota cars and prepared to inter him in his (semi) permanent resting place.

It was raining that day. For a long while we drove through pine-covered hills, until an empty city emerged from between the trees. Tall black columns rose from stone steps that went up and up until they brushed the misty horizon. Blurry, washed-out portraits stared at our small party from every direction.

Cousin Jiang held up an umbrella to keep Grandfather dry. We climbed stone steps until we reached a small slab nestled between two columns. On it was Grandfather’s face, etched in ink. Elder Uncle Hu raised the slab with a tire jack, revealing an opening underneath.

“Well—here it is,” Uncle said, his voice pattering off onto the stones.

 

Safety Nets

Since Neolithic times, the Chinese have been obsessed with remembrance after death. To be forgotten by descendants is equivalent to hell. One’s ghost would enter the next world as a low-ranking personage, despised by other spirits. To guard against this fate, the ancient Chinese buried their dead with plentiful provisions, including a large supply of the deceased’s favorite food and alcohol. In certain eras in ancient China, wealthy individuals would be buried with mementos, servants, or even wives.

Today, wine is still poured into the grave-earth. Oranges, meat buns, and other delicacies are left on graves to fill the air with pungent smells of decomposition. Wax fruit, plastic jade bracelets, and paper Rolex watches are common offerings. A cigarette might be lit and left burning on the grave, despite the irony of lung cancer as one of China’s leading causes of death.

In spite of strict rules governing food and alcohol provisions, religious requirements have historically been lax. A well-to-do family might have employed both a Taoist and a Buddhist priest to officiate the funeral, or invited an expert in the Confucian classics to preach filial piety as the dead were ushered away.

Unlike their modern counterparts, the ancients enjoyed a short waiting period between death and spiritual peace. According to tradition, spirits remain on earth for seven days, after which they enter heaven, or hell, or are reincarnated. These seven days are fraught with danger for the family of the deceased. Traditions, some common, others unique to individual families, must be meticulously obeyed. Any small misstep—the presence of a mirror, the color red, the mispronunciation of a name—might cause the spirit to transform into a vindictive ghost.

 

III

“Turn around,” commanded Aunt Pearl.

“What?”

“Turn around. You can’t watch,” she repeated, as she gripped my shoulders and steered me to another gravestone (marked 张欣, Zhang Xin) a few feet away.

“Why can’t I watch?” I protested, plucking at her lean fingers. “He’s my grandfather.”

“Of course. And he was born in the year of the pig,” she said. For Aunt Pearl, no more explanation was needed. According to Chinese superstition, dogs and pigs have 矛盾,mao dun, instinctual conflict, and if I were to witness the interment, he would come back as a ghost and bring me bad luck. I glanced at my father, who stood near Grandfather’s grave. He shook his head: Let it be.

Sighing, I obeyed Aunt Pearl’s demand and spun around. She clicked her tongue in satisfaction and returned to tearing apart sheets of fake dollar bills. Each bill bore in clumsy English letters the logo “Hell Bank Notes” and the confident claim “guaranteed legal tender for spirits.” Later we would burn them on Grandfather’s grave to send him pocket money for trinkets and snacks in the other world.

Uncle Hu grunted as he cleared debris from the grave. I scanned the other gravestones, which bore black-and-white portraits of mostly expressionless faces. I could tell the age of each person when he or she died. Most faces were old and lined, but every so often a young face peered out from the frame, with eyes black and cold.

Aunt Pearl finished tearing the Hell Bank Notes. The pine trees rustled impatiently. Sounds slowed and faded, while the grey faces around me grew accusing and hostile. I felt a great compulsion to turn from them, to turn around, to look, to make sure my family was still behind me, to make sure they had not vanished into the other world and left me alone.

A loud crack broke the quiet. I spun around in time to see the edge of a red lacquered box vanish under the stone slab, into darkness.

We kowtowed in succession, three knocks each. When my turn came I could think only about the wet dark hole in which we had buried Grandfather. I kneeled dumbly on the cold pine-strewn ground until Aunt Pearl tugged at my arm.We set off firecrackers to frighten away any lingering evil spirits. They fizzled into the air and burst dully against the rain. Bangs echoed intrusively from column to column and suffocated among the pines.

We squeezed into our four Toyotas before the echoes died. Uncle Hu drove the first car, his fingers pale against the steering wheel. We sped away and away from that empty stone city, none of us turning to look back.

 

Histories

Cremation was not always the norm in China. Although Buddhists regularly burned the bodies of their dead, other religious and ethnic groups considered cremation taboo. Tibetans, for example, believed only criminals should be burned. An auspicious Tibetan burial, known as Sky Burial, involved placing the body on a high mountain peak to be picked apart by vultures and the natural elements.

In modern China, however, cremation has been law since 1956 when 151 Communist party officials, including Chairman Mao Zedong, signed a Funeral Reformation proposal. Given the nearly half-billion Chinese deaths that occurred from the 1940s to 1960s, there was a simple logic to incineration.

According to the China Funeral Association, modern China has a death count of over eight million people each year. Four million of these bodies are cremated, making the cremation rate 52.7 percent. The Association would prefer 100 percent.

At the Yishan Crematory, the workers are mostly middle-aged and balding. Ashes work their way under their fingernails, leaving their hands permanently black. The pollution that hangs as perpetual smog over China’s cities does not hold a candle to Yishan, a factory for processing the dead.

Yishan is in Shanghai, a city of 14 million with a death rate of 100,000 people per year. Most of those 100,000 pass through the crematorium. Four hundred bodies a day are ferried by motorized lift to 24 incinerators. The incinerators belch toxic smoke into the air and into nearby neighborhoods, perpetuating some cosmic joke about the cycle of death.

It is a most innovative facility. In previous unmentionable years, blood drained from bodies was disposed of through the sewer system. But the sheer volume of displaced blood eventually became a health hazard. Yishan developed an embalming method that uses freezing instead of bloodletting to preserve bodies until they are ready for cremation.

Many Yishan workers are kept busy digging graves or carving gravestones, but they never seem to keep up with demand. Some would-be customers resort to handmade mounds on the sides of railway tracks or on the hillsides of scenic preserves. Wealthy families have the option of circumventing the Yishan process altogether. Some send bodies abroad to be buried in the United States or Canada, taking advantage of various body shipping services that promise to deliver goods intact and in acceptable condition.

With so many bodies going through the crematorium, mistakes do happen. Instead of servants or wives, some families burn a fire-resistant memento with the body. The object serves the dual purpose of comforting the soul of the dead and verifying their identity.

According to the workers at Yishan, the funeral business is a business of life. They do whatever they can to smooth the post-death process for their customers.

 

IV

In China, four (四, si) is considered an unlucky number because it is phonetically similar to the word for die. The combination of four and eight (四八, si ba) is even unluckier because it sounds like a curse: 死吧, die now. Buildings often skip over the fourth floor and jump directly from three to five.

Even in cemeteries, where the dead already reign, one rarely sees a fourth burial terrace or a tombstone numbered four.

 

Final Decisions

The combination of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian teachings in Chinese theology complicates end-of-life decisions. Taoism urges harmony with the Tao (道, The Way). Death is a part of life, the flow of the universe. In dying, one returns to the primordial void.

Buddhism urges freedom from suffering. To accept death is to accept the futility of suffering and to ease the suffering of caretakers. Life is transient and impermanent, and a single death has no effect on the scheme of the cosmos—there is always the chance one may be reborn as a being higher than human.

Confucianism urges communal harmony, especially within a family. Followers of Confucian thought think constantly of their ancestors, their children, and their relations, however distantly related. If one person’s sickness creates discord and suffering for the family, it might be better to end the problem at the source. And if one’s relations make proper preparations, death and the journey that follows will pass like a dream.

Despite the diversity of these beliefs, the overarching ultimatum they impress on the psyche seems to be: Let go.

 

V

“Ican’t go,” declared Grandmother.

“Mother,” said Aunt Pearl with impatience, “not this again.”

“I won’t go,” Grandmother repeated.

“You must go,” said Aunt Pearl. “We buried the old man last May, and now we must go pay our respects. It’s the one-year burial anniversary, and you’re his wife.”

“I don’t care. I’m not going to that place.”

“Mother, for heaven’s sake, why not?”

“You saw how he died,” hissed Grandmother, “Feeble, in his bed, with his bedpans. Smoking a cigarette until his last moments. Selfish. The type of man who kept his best thoughts for himself. When Hu was sent off to labor in the countryside, did he raise a finger? No! I was the one who walked miles to visit. But when Little Sister went to Beijing for college, who took a vacation in the big city to visit every year? Him, of course. I was the one who kept this family together. I will not go visit him. He should be the one to come visit me. He should be the one—he should be the one—”

“Don’t say that,” exclaimed Aunt Pearl. “How would you feel if he really came back to haunt you? You’d have a heart attack, and we’d be burying you next!”

“Oh, I would have some choice words for him when I got there,” said Grandmother.

“Oh—dear!” Aunt Pearl quickly made a bow to Grandfather’s home shrine in the corner of the kitchen. The grey face in his portrait remained impassive. Uncle Hu, standing silent by the door, looked at his watch.

With finality, Grandmother sat down on a kitchen chair and repeated, “I’m not budging. I waited so many years in bad weather for him, and now I am too old. He can stand to wait a few more years for me.”

Aunt Pearl wavered between Grandmother and Uncle Hu like an indecisive bee. Finally she exclaimed, “Ai-ya! Have it your way, then. Don’t blame me if he comes back and haunts you for being a faithless wife,” and then, with genuine anxiety, “Mother, if you still insist on such blasphemy, make sure you hang a frond of palm and a clove of garlic over the door. You can buy palm fronds for cheap at the Fourth Street market. Oh, and the garlic must be extra pungent. That is the only way to ward away ghosts.”

Aunt Pearl shepherded the entire family out the door. On the street waited four gleaming Toyotas, the same ones we had used the year before. As I climbed into a back seat, I looked back over my shoulder into Grandmother’s kitchen window.

Grandmother stood in the middle of the room for a moment, arms folded, watching us go. Then, as the door of the last Toyota clicked shut, her entire body relaxed. Perhaps it was a trick of the tinted windows, but the lines of grief she had accumulated in the past few months seemed to melt from her face. Her lips formed a slow, secret smile.

She sat down cross-legged, in the fashion of a young girl, in front of Grandfather’s shrine. With tenderness, she lifted his black-and-white portrait to her lips and placed upon it a single kiss.

About the Author

Faye Yan Zhang · Harvard College

Faye Yan Zhang was born in Maanshan, China, and grew up in Omaha. She is currently a sophomore at Harvard, where she enjoys writing and making art. “Last Rites” first appeared in The Harvard Advocate.

About the Artist

Hannah Fiske · Grinnell College

Hannah Fiske is a recent graduate with a major in studio art. Originally from Massachusetts, she currently lives and works in the cornfields of Iowa as a fellow at Grinnell. Her print first appeared inThe Grinnell Review. View more of Hannah’s work here​.