A foreigner explains the traditions, beliefs and practices involved in coordinating funeral arrangements for his Taiwanese wife’s family
Story and photo by Trista di Genova, The Wild East
Shawn DeVries has been sporting beardly growth these days; not because it’s winter, or because it’s fashionable – in Taiwan it definitely isn’t, anyway. “I can shave if I want to,” he says, “but it’s my way to pay tribute” to the life of his wife’s aunt, who died on Jan. 10th at the age of 52 from a blood disorder, in Changhua County, central Taiwan. “But I really loved her company, so if I can show some respect in one way or another I will, in my way. I do it for the older family members,” he added.
Shawn, a Canadian from Ontario, somehow finds time out of his 72-hour work week running his English school in Miaoli to lead efforts by his Taiwanese wife’s family to organize the funeral proceedings, a custom that normally lasts 2-3 weeks; in this case until Jan. 29.
It’s not his first funeral; in fact it’s his fourth. “The first time was very strange to me, but each time I understand more and more about it,” he says. Sitting down with The Wild East, he discussed the ins and outs of the modern Taiwanese burial process.
“As soon as it is known that person is passing away, they are taken off the ICU unit and brought home from the hospital for their last few breaths. A family member takes off the clothes and the body is washed clean with leaves and herbs, to cleanse the body. Men in the family do it for the men, women for the women. They wash the body clean and put on the last set of clothes they’ll ever know. The clothes are chosen by the family, usually in the 1800’s Ching Dynasty style.”
“My first time, the funeral itself was very different for me. I was first called down to go to a procession in Yuanling, Changhua County, not knowing what I was getting into. When I walked up there were a lot of people in hoods; in fact they reminded me of the Ku Klux Klan. People wore yellow, gray, or red strips on their hat, which define what they mean the family, and how they are related to this person. The white cloth is wrapped around their head, but it was different as it only came down to the bridge of the nose — and there were no slits for the eyes. All members of the direct family are there, praying to this person, from Buddhist scripture in Taiwanese; the book that you read from may be either Buddhist or Taoist, and it’s read many times over during the process.”
“It takes place in front of the house where that person lived, and the body is put into freezer-style coffin in the home until it’s time to be cremated. Outside, there is a temple-like setup, with a Chinese praying table, a picture of that person on it, incense, flowers… no candles, but there are lights. Also, some of that person’s personal belongings — a cup, their shoes etc — are left next to the praying table. It’s expensive — 250,000-300,000NT (US$10,000) — for a basic funeral.
It starts at 8pm, and goes for a couple hours, then starts up again for another hour or so. This may go on 2 or 3 times. Community religious leaders sit at the front and lead in the prayers; usually ladies say something, men say things, and the family sits behind the leaders trying to read the same scripture. Then the last time, everything that is sitting on the prayer table must be handed around to the family, and they must bow to it in turn; food, books, important objects are passed, as they receive and hand each one to the next person; it might be 15-20 items.
After, the procession leads out to an open area to where ghost money is neatly wrapped into paper-macher objects that are made by the family members over the course of a few days; they work on them day in, day out. Until 29th of January there must be a family member sitting there 24-7, taking shifts if necessary, until they reach the final resting place. For example, this week we’re not there in Changhua, so the mother-in-law and sister-in-law are taking care of it. And the people involved must eat vegetarian for the entire time.
On the night of that big moment, after the procession, a person will take a staff of bamboo leaves and lead the procession to where the fire is going to be, and they will then throw all the ghost money and paper-macher flowers on it, and put in the person’s personal possessions – pants, shirt, or even a ‘fake’ car or house to take into the next life, to go away with. Then the family will encircle the fire and as the fire gets going, gets really hot, they are told to express their feelings for the deceased. They are told to let go, and to let her move on to the next place. This may happen 1-2 times during the time after the person has passed away and when that person is expected to be buried. A day and time for the burial are chosen, according to when it is most appropriate to the lunar calendar. Once that day comes there’s a big procession, with family, friends, extended family and monks. This goes on for a few hours. They talk about the person’s life — similar to North America — then they go into prayer.
Once they’re finished with that, the casket is put into a hearst or other vehicle and the whole procession will follow in a convoy of vehicles to a crematorium. Now, the priest will lead the whole entourage right to the furnace and they will push the casket into it. There aren’t too many of these crematorium places in Taiwan, so these are usually quite busy. Now once it’s pushed in, the family will go and relax for the time that it takes to burn the body, in an area in that complex. They might smoke cigarettes, eat beenlung (betelnut) or whatever they want to do. They’re told when to come back.
Now when the ashes are pulled out, the people working there will exhume most of the pieces; the start with the feet and put them in the very bottom of the urn, as if the person is being buried sitting, from the bottom up. The family members who are closest are asked to put those pieces into the urn. The final pieces — like the skull — are put on the very top before the lid is put on.
Then the procession will take the urn to the final resting place, which is similar to a cemetery but presided over by many monks who live there, in a complex that costs from 120k to several million NT to bury there, depending on how well you want your relative taken care of (prayed for by the monks), and how much you can afford. Once you’re met there by the monks, they’ll bring you inside, place the urn on the altar and you’ll recite those words from scripture once again. Then there will be a specific time when the person is put in a special box as resting place. Then the family comes back again and prays, and they will bring everyone in to the resting place, and everyone prays one more time.
THE WILD EAST: That’s a lot of praying.
SHAWN: That’s not even the end of it. After that, there are specific days throughout the year when the family must come back and bring gifts they can pray with for the people who have passed, and they chant similar chants, and burn incense. This is done 1-3 times a year for several years after that person has passed away. How many times they must come back depends what is chosen for that year according to the lunar calendar, as well as on the time that person died, when they were born, and their zodiac symbol. If the person died at an early age, family members come even more often.
If someone has passed away and you are older than that person and you are directly related, you can’t go or have anything to do with the funeral. If you just married or you’re expecting a child you should not go to that funeral, because it will bring bad luck to go. In one case, her mother and brother could not go to the funeral. For this funeral, my wife’s sister cannot go because she recently married.
THE WILD EAST: That seems like it’d be upsetting for those who wish to be a part of it so they can pay their respects.
SHAWN: For sure. Younger people always challenge the idea, and often disagree, because they feel sorrow for the person and would like to show it, but in the end they usually follow tradition to make the older relatives happy, and not upset them.