Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Hakka Funeral

This is the most elaborate traditional ritual I've ever been involved in, more dramatic than my Cantonese grandfather's wake several years ago. Amidst the chantings and kow-towing, I was fascinated at how rich our Chinese traditions are and how lost I was during the entire event.

Firstly, let me say that this post is mostly for educational purposes rather than entertainment or intentions of mockery.

The ritual took 3 days. 3 days of hustle bustle in a home full of relatives and friends... and a toddler who became my worst nightmare. Daniel ( and mummy indirectly ) suffered from anxiety attacks, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, mouth ulcers and on-off fevers. He became this totally different being I knew... insecure, unhappy and very disturbed. The only way I could get him to nap during the busy day, was cuddling and walking. And he'd wake up crying a few times during the nights as well. Poor boy.

So, apart from the typical sessions of 'sitting-in' while the priests chants and strikes his cymbals, there were several interesting rituals, some of which are rather hilarious. The entire ritual was conducted in the Hakka dialect which was foreign to me, so all I did was follow what Paul and my sis-in-law did. Though I couldn't understand what the priest said and did all the time, I kinda gather what the purpose was. I presume we were paying respect to the many Gods and celestial powers to bless and guide her spirit into the kingdom of heaven.

Two sand-dragon was made side by side, outside of the house, with a large bowl of oil in the middle and burning 'hell papers' beneath it. In front of the dragons' heads is a circular sand-platform scattered with coins. Two priests chant and walk around the formation chinese-opera style. And in between their melodic chants, the bowl of oil is lit up in a flame that reached the nightsky. We were then asked to pick up as many coins as we can on that sandy platform. That represents the wealth we gathered.

Here comes the comical relief. The priest had to 'bless' the paper house, paper car, paper maid and butler and paper driver to be burnt for her. Paul, being the eldest son, had to negotiate a 'salary' for the celestial maid, butler and driver. Here is what took place (in Hakka):

Priest: How many jossticks for maids... 2, 3 or 4?
Paul: 3
Priest: (tosses his holy blocks for indicative yes or no) .... Not enough
At this point, the crowd burst into laughter.
Paul: 4 sticks
Priest: (tosses his holy blocks again) OK
Crowd still laughing.
Priest: How much for bonus?
Paul: 13 month
Priest: (tosses his holy blocks again) OK

Talk about globalization and modernity.

I can't really remember the rest of the ceremony from then on, but it did came to a part where we stood around her coffin to see her for the last time and say goodbye. That was when it hit us hard. This is it. For real.

We proceeded to the gravesite which was a 15 minute drive or so. Along the way on public road, the priest flings 'hell papers' up in the air. It reminds me very much of Tsui Hark film scenes... hauntingly abstract. Standing on freshly dug soil, we paid our last respect. Rice and coins were thrown at us. And the rice is to be mixed with our existing rice supply at home. The coins are wealth blessed by her spirit. And that wraps it up.

I still think she's not gone.... just absent.

May her soul rest in peace.


Anonymous said...

Hi, sorry to hear about the demise of your MIL. My grandma passed away more than a yr ago while my family was here in Melb visiting & we had to fly back asap. Went thru all the Hakka Taoism rituals for 4 days, and nothing hits you the hardest til the point when they had to nail/seal the coffin. We actually took heaps of video clips of the priest chanting (at one point he had to pronounce my irish & dutch cuz's hubbies in hakka, that was a crack-up). Namm-mo-ooo-nii-tuoo-fuooo

Kean Hong said...

but can u pray with jossticks?