Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Paper Ingots and Hell Bank Notes

Paper folded into sycee to be burned as an offering
 Death has always been an important aspect of my life though  I do not think that I have an unhealthy preoccupation with death and the afterlife.  It is simply that I grew up thinking a lot about death.  In Chinese culture, we have Ching Ming which is a holiday when we go clean the graves and burn incense and offer food to our ancestors.  Colloquially we call it "bai san" which means "pray (or worship) the mountain." In this case, even though "san" is literally "the mountain," in this meaning it is also of the burial site.  When I was little, my extended family and I would visit the grave of my great grandfather and great grandmother at the Chinese cemetery.  I cannot even remember where it was because I never drove there myself, otherwise I would put a link to the place if anyone were so inclined to check the place out... it was the creepiest place.  It is not like the beautifully landscaped Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston nor like the meditative Valley of the Temples in Kaneohe.  It was a smallish cemetery with bubblegum pink walls.  There were small, crooked tombstones in the oldest section.  The graves there were so old that the names were completely worn away.   Some of the tombs were sunken.  In the center of the cemetery stood the crematorium.  Even at the age of five or six, I knew what a crematorium was.  There were few trees so the sun was always blazing down on us as we children stood in front of the graves with sticks of incense in our hands.  With my eyes always closed, I said a prayer, mostly along the lines of, "please take care of me and help me to be good... I promise to be good, just don't do anything bad to ruin my fate."  As I looked at their photographs on their tombstones and admired the sparkly granite, I poured out the offering of wine on the grass in front of me.  All the while, the boiled whole chicken with its head still attached and the various pastries and dim sum were spread in front of their tombstones.  When everyone had their turn praying, we took the food to the trunk of the car and stood there eating it.  All of this was done to appease the dead and to make sure they were well-taken care of in the afterlife.  We ate the food at the cemetery so that they would know not to follow us home.  There was always the fear that if you pissed them off, they would come get you somehow.  It was never very specific.... I guess it was kind of like what parents tell their children about Santa Claus.  If you don't behave, you won't get any Christmas presents.  Except in this case it was more like, if you don't behave, your dead great grandparents will haunt you.  Eh, whatever works...  I mean, let me tell you, I tried really hard to behave. 

It wasn't just Ching Ming, though.  There were the burials themselves.  We used to visit L.A.'s Chinatown on Saturdays quite frequently.  I remember watching numerous funeral processions roll down the street.  The coffin of the deceased would ride in a fancy black hearse with a large photograph of himself mounted at the front.  Then, on loudspeaker, they would announce the name of the person who died.  There would follow a line of cars escorted by police.  When my great grandmother died, limousines were hired for our family.  I remember going shopping for my black outfit which I was told should not be too nice since it was to be burned afterward.  The thought of burning my clothes really bothered me.  They said it was bad luck to ever wear that outfit again.  In fact, anything worn to a burial must be burned.

Then there were the superstitions.  Color was a big one.  For instance, we were never allowed to wear only black or only white as both signified a death in the family and was bad luck.  My mother used to do the Chinese equivalent of crossing herself.  She would say, "Dai gut lay see" which translates into "Big tangerine lucky money."  It was impossible.  Almost everything we asked or said would prompt my mother to mutter about big tangerines.  When my uncle listened to the song "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, my maternal grandmother pounded on his door to get him to stop playing the death song.  The word for death in Chinese is "say."  Which also happens to be the word for the number four in Chinese.  And that is why Chinese people avoid fours.  Fours are bad.  Four is death.  Everything is death.

Hell Bank Note
So you see, while most American children are told lovely stories about angels and heaven, we were told about angry vengeful spirits that could make life really tough for you.  It is the reason to give proper burials and to regard the dead with respect.  And even with all of my efforts to rid myself of superstitious behaviors, I cannot easily let these pass.  When I buried Mamaa, my paternal grandmother, in 2006, I followed the Buddhist priest as he told us what to do.  I bowed and I put my hands together with incense.  I folded the little gold papers to resemble gold ingots that were then placed in her casket.  Some were burned after the open casket viewing.  As the ashes of the paper gold floated into the air, I spoke her name so that they would be sure to be deposited into her bank account  at the Bank of Hell (I guess this means everyone goes to hell).  At the cemetery, I never looked back at her grave.  I had been told long ago by Mamaa that if I were to look back, I would see the spirit of the deceased.  It was then that it finally occurred to me that all of these customs and rites were done out of respect for the person who raised you and taught you how to do a million things and who helped you become the person you are today.  Sure, there were some confusing scary nightmares, but ultimately, these traditions help me to remember the ones I loved best and to remember to live and not fear the inevitability of death.


  1. funny, i think a lot about death too. My sis passed away in 1982 and my mum passed away in 2005. Just wondering if you have had any depressive episodes from the grieving etc?

  2. I was very very sad at the thought that I would never be able to really hold her hand ever again in this life. She was the closest person in the world to me but she had such a long life and was unhappy at the end. I also felt an enormous amount of guilt for moving away and having a life of my own far away from her. But we are so stupid when we are young, never appreciating what is right in front of us.