Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Heavy metal mourning

By Kevin

As we walked to dinner last night, we were surprised to see a small tent set up outside the adjacent apartment buildings, with a pair of white-clad people mulling around outside. For a moment I thought they were nurses. Perhaps they were having a blood drive? I wondered.

"It's a funeral," a student explained.

"I've never seen a Chinese funeral before," I said, as we continued to dinner, hiding my curiosity. Somehow during my first two years in Tonghua, I managed to never see a funeral, just the numerous graves on the side of the hill outside campus. I imagine that maybe it was simply too cold. So they were held indoors. On the way back, we made sure to make a detour closer to the tent, so we could get a glimpse inside.

Inside there appeared to be an altar at one end, where a photograph of the dead man was displayed. Next to the photo, there were joss sticks of burning incense and what looked like a pile of fruit. Offerings for the departed. Alongside the tent, which looks a bit like a 15-by-15-foot, 3-sided enclosure they might use for a booth at a fair in America, were a trio of multi-colored Pinwheel-like Chinese wreaths. Inside, a pair of mourners sat on the ground, wearing baggy white clothes and turban-like hats, crying. I couldn't tell if they were relatives or professional mourners. In China there is a tradition of hiring professional mourners for funerals.

I asked about the white clothing and discovered that mourners typically wear white because the body turns pale after death.

"What will happen?" I asked.

"There will be a singer. They will sing Shaanxi Opera all night," a student explained. "Starting at midnight."

"What's it like? Is it like Beijing Opera?" Wes asked.

"It's loud like heavy metal music."

I waited expectedly last night with my earplugs ready to muffle the sound, but was surprised that they didn't start singing.

Today, however, when I came back from office hour, loud grating music was blaring and a woman alternated between singing and wailing into a microphone (yes, this is all amplified for all to hear). I saw her playing a keyboard, and other musicians played a Chinese horn and the violin-like 2-stringed Er-hu. I gathered that perhaps this is the actual funeral. Maybe yesterday was just the first day of mourning. By this time, than a dozen mourners were gathered in the outside tent, even though the temperature had dropped into the 40s. About half of them wore white clothing. Some were inside, sitting. Several men were outside, burning paper money over a fire in a bucket, lighting loud popping fireworks. Other things seemed to burn in the flame-filled bucket, which was filled nearly to the top. Probably things like paper houses, paper cars, paper TVs and other things they think the departed might need to have a comfortable afterlife. These things show their respect for their elders and keep the relative happy so he won't have to pester them on earth.

Other customs I've heard about include keeping a light shining for the dead person "to light the way" and bowl of half-cooked rice near the body. The word for "half-cooked rice" apparently is pronounced the same as "live," echoing the family's wish for life. But I couldn't tell if they were doing these things or not. In any case, it seemed, from an outsider's perspective, to have little in common with American funerals. I'm gonna have to find out more.

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