A little over a week ago, my husband’s grandmother – the one who motivated me to learn the local dialect – passed away.
I remember the sense of melancholy that swept through my body when Jun gave me the news. The last time we had seen her was the month before, when we visited her in the hospital. In the usual Chinese custom, we had brought her some fruit – bananas and Chinese haw. And in typical grandma custom, she kept pushing the fruit meant for her into our hands. Despite having to fend her off, we all smiled and had a good time during the brief visit.
We never expected it would be our last.
I loved her for her feisty sense of humor, which I gradually came to understand by studying the local dialect. She made some of the best fried rice noodles I’ve ever had. And despite the fact that visiting her meant constantly warding off her aggressive hospitality (you wouldn’t believe how hard she could shove food into our hands), we liked spending time with her.
Of course, her passing meant one simple thing – a funeral.
After I had grappled with my feelings of loss for Jun’s dear grandmother, someone we deeply loved, I realized I had another feeling hidden underneath everything.
Yes, I was stressed about the forthcoming funeral. But especially, I was stressed out on behalf of Jun’s parents.
A couple of years ago when Jun’s grandfather passed away (he was Grandma’s husband), I experienced a true countryside funeral in all of its glory.
There were a lot of things I struggled with at the time, including:
- The decidedly non-vegan banquets, which meant I often dined in vain and on one occasion actually retreated back to Jun’s family home to stir-fry my own dinner.
- The detestable secondhand smoke at said banquets, which forced me to sit on the edge of the open banquet hall to ensure a little fresh air.
- The raucous firecrackers that served as a dinner bell for every banquet.
Honestly, though, all things equal, I could live with the above. Nobody comes to a funeral for the food, and the smoke I could handle with strategic seating. The firecrackers are super-loud, but they don’t last all day long.
But there’s one thing I really, truly struggle with when it comes to funerals in China. They can be exhausting for family, sometimes to dangerous extremes.
One of the customs I learned about during grandfather’s funeral was shouling (守灵). This involves ensuring the coffin is watched 24 hours a day, something family members do in shifts. But during Grandpa’s funeral, many of the late night shifts fell to my mother-in-law. Grandma also stayed up late into the night observing the custom.
This carried on for days, mind you. Grandpa wasn’t laid to rest until four days after passing.
Well, after the funeral ended, this exhausting marathon of late-night vigils watching the coffin sent my mother-in-law and Grandma into the hospital.
Yes, the hospital. (I’m just grateful we didn’t have two more funerals after the passing of Grandpa.)
So this is what I really struggle with – a funeral custom that is harmful to your health, and might even lead to hospitalization or worse.
Of course we want to pay our respects to the deceased. And of course I want to respect the customs of my husband’s hometown. But it’s hard when a custom seems to demand a little too much from the family.
Like Jun’s mother, I’ve been the daughter of the deceased at a funeral. When I was 17, my mother passed away after months of battling with late-stage cancer. It is indeed a stressful time when you’re immediate family of the deceased. You’re expected to make all of these important arrangements at a time when a heavy cloud of grief hangs over your life. It was also a critical time in my academic career, as I was applying to colleges and universities.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we were expected to accompany my mother’s coffin for four nights straight, or more. I think I would have been in even worse shape than I already was.
It’s reassuring that my husband agrees with me on this. After all, as he said, wasn’t the most important thing the time you spent with the person while they were alive, and not when they’re dead? He too worries about the health of his mother.
Fortunately, she didn’t end up in the hospital this time around.
As much as I preach cultural understanding on this blog, file this one under “things I still don’t understand about China.”
P.S.: To Grandma, may you rest in peace and know I’m saying a little prayer for you (in my incredibly limited local dialect) wishing you the best.