Sunday, November 23, 2008

Do go gently into the good night...

My 3rd uncle died a week ago. He was married to my 3rd aunty, or Koo Ma, in Cantonese. To many of us who know of his suffering – being bed -ridden for over 5 years – his dying was the best way to ease his pain.

My poor 3rd aunty has had to care for him all these years. There wasn’t much anyone could do. Intermittently, 3rd uncle was moved to-and-from a hospital, in-and-out of an old folks’ home. We all marvel at the tenacity of my 3rd aunty, who skinny as bones, still lifted her husband and cared for him – loyal to the end. I haven’t seen 3rd uncle for years and years. But his death saddens me.

Third uncle always calls me “Honey”, my nickname growing up in Malaysia. Honey, after the colour of my tanned complexion. Third uncle was an electrician by vocation. He was our handyman. When something needed fixing that has to do with volts and watts, it was always 3rd uncle’s domain. My memories of him were also those of a smiley, happy man. 3rd Uncle loves to make pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year.

My conversations with him were always superficial – like all conversations with our elders once upon a time. I remember him, always tinkering about, doing home stuff. I remember him, the handyman who tended over his garden which used to be filled with thriving greens that seemed to thrive in the most inhospitable places in his home. I remember him coming to the metal grilled door of his home, unlocking it, always with a kind welcome. And most of all, I remember him always, in his old motorbike, putt-putting away around the neighbourhood.

So, I here was I, thousands of kilometers away, unable to say goodbye. I could only dedicate prayers to him from here and think of his death as a timely release of the immense suffering he had to endure for so long.

Taboo no more

In my phone calls with mom the past 2 weeks, we talked about 3rd uncle’s death and the burial afterwards. Years ago, this would have been taboo – to talk about one’s death, was a no-no. It was like inviting death to your door. But mom has moved on, I suspect. So, we talked about death and dying.

Mom tells me, she told me she doesn’t want the spectacular funeral processions the Chinese have – those filled with mourners parading on the command of the Taoist monks banging cymbals and gongs, leading the dead across 18 levels of hell. I agree. Mom says her greatest fear is that all the other aunties in the clan would not agree as Taoist burials were what the family is used to. Mom wants Buddhist nuns/monks chanting peaceful Buddhist mantras. I told mom I like the idea. I said this thinking how wonderful it would be if we knew exactly how to prepare for our dying.

Coming out charred at the other end
Once, mom and I laughed about how one of my aunts fear cremation. This aunty had visions of herself coming out at the other end of the world, charred and burnt. I told her how some cultures chopped up their dead and leave them uncovered. We both agreed cremation was nice and easy.

Death and dying – how does one approach this in the most sensible way? Dylan Thomas’ lines from his poem rings loud and clear – “Do not go gently into the goodnight….rage, rage against the dying of the light.” For me, I think, when I go, I will go gently…into the good night…and accept the moment.

Lately mom has been told of an investment scheme to buy a funeral plot. The scheme is expensive, she says. But a relative of ours told her the said-funeral plot will have sculpted gardens and all the bells and whistles that make funeral plots amazing – attempts at bringing a piece of heaven to earth, I think. But this is still nothing compared to the Eqyptians, and how they bury their dead.

“Ah,” I said to mom, “better not to get involved in these dodgy schemes to invest in funeral plots.” I even suggested I could put her ashes in a vase, and bring the vase hoe to New Zealand with me. I think she wasn’t too keen.

Gentle exit
At least mom and I have come to some sort of an understanding about how she wants her “exit” from this earth done. I say to her, “remember, when you go, don’t look back at us, your life would be done, let go of everything in this earth…..go gently”

What do I know about dying? I haven’t been there. But I subscribe to this belief system – that “be here now” matters. Death is the culmination of years of living. It is better practicing living a peaceful life. In the end, we become our practice. If we practice hate, impatience, envy, jealousy, anger – we become those things. If we practice compassion, loving kindness, patience, generosity, wisdom and humility – we become those things.

Mom reminds me again, at one point of our conversation this week, the secret to being happy is to remind ourselves of how fortunate we are, so when we do die, we have no unhappiness...This is her daily mantra. I couldn’t agree more.


  1. I've never believe in funeral procession and all the rituals associated with it.

    Both my parents have since past away. Nevertheless, each year i performed the traditional rites for them during the chap goh meh.

    When i was younger, i resented the fact of these rituals that holds no logical explanation other than creating fear instead of feeling spiritual in thoughts.

    I can't say the same for others, or even my brothers and sisters, although we never really talk about the logical part of it. But i did it more out of respect for my parents and grandparents as it is their wishes.

    on the entreprising side, the high cost of dying for chinese have created an industry by itself, do you not agree?

  2. Hi asiseesit,

    Couldn't agree with you more! Everything has become commercialised, including the business of dying. Which was why I suggested to mom, perhaps just a cremation and the ashes, I keep in a decorative vase? Haha, not getting any buy-in, I think. I struggle with the concept of visiting graveyards in the scorching heat. I much prefer a peaceful visit to the temple...away from the madding crowd.

    And yes, those rituals we were subjected to were totally non-comprehensible! That is human, though, to stick to what is normally practice. Only the brave do depart from the norm. I plan to have my funeral instructions passed on to Princess of House and Hubby.

  3. Here's my take on the rituals that are superfluous to this day.

    China (207 BC)

    To capitalised on his coffin business, the businessman begin to spread ideas of an after life for the deceased and claimed that he dreamt of his parents asking him in his sleep to sent them clothes and monies. All these are to be burnt so that they will fly into heaven for them to receive. In return, the deceased parents will appeal to the gods to ensure safety, wealth and prosperity to the businessman family.

    As news of these goes around the villages, people begin to seek out the businessman to find out exactly what they can do and what they need.

    Brilliant and entreprising that he is, he manufactures a host of paraphernalia offerings in the guise of rice papers as representations of the actual items itself.

    His business begins to grow and for a period it look good. So his so called dream proved to be true.

    After a year, business starts to slide because the fade was wearing off. and with his creative mind, he coined the tradition of a once a year event that the gates of hell will open and all descedants will venture out to claim their offerings from their families.

    He picked the third month of the chinese calender in view of the two months lapse from the CNY as people will still have cash left to dispose off.

    This created another onslaught for the business and it thrive once more. Soon, over the years, it became a tradition and a ritual and almost mandatory for every family to do something during that period.

    When he retired and pass his business to his sons, he asked them to perform the same instead of revealing the truth. This is to ensure the continuance with the family business for his sons to flourish.

    The rest is history.

  4. Hi asiseesit...
    Haha, very true, very true. Spirits and shamans, quacks and snake oil peddlars...we all fall for them one time or another. We are not alone...death remains a fascinating subject. So we feed on it, to nourish our curiosity. The Parsis are practical, so are the Tibetans, no coffins needed!

  5. Last weekend, I took my family to the pasar malam for our usual “get out of the house” outings and bought my son a Ben-10 120 pieces jigsaw puzzle. A simple yet uninspiring act you may ask. But do think of the thoughts of a six year old child ready to take on the world that he had come to be exposed so far – all games and play.


Hi, I welcome your say on the matter!