Re-Experience China: Tao’s Instant Funeral

Note: This is a piece I wrote in 2015, not long after my dear friend Tao passed away.  These days, I feel particularly humbled by death. And humanity. The two sides of the coin of life.  And I remember the days I took care of my dad when he received Gama treatment for lung cancer. ( I am so grateful that my dad is still doing well.  And yet, I am not worry-free. Far from from it.  Worried and humbled, I am.

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News of Tao’s death came when I was heading to my office for the weekly newsroom meeting.

“She passed this morning. The funeral is this afternoon,”my former colleague and close friend Wang said on the phone. She was choking back her sorrow, and anger.

I could feel my heart sinking.   Tao was suffering from severe colon cancer. Chemotherapy was unbearably painful. I remember the feel of her bones when I held her in my arms two weeks before. I remember how she moaned, “Xiaomei, pain, pain, pain.” I remember how her teenage son slumped in a chair by her hospital bed. How helpless. How desperate. How useless I felt. I could do nothing for her, for anyone. I just wiped my tears discreetly at the balcony, but tears streamed down again when I turned back and saw her’s son slump.  We all knew she would leave us, soon.  But it was still difficult to accept her death. It was shocking that the funeral would be held the same day she passed.

“Why such a hurry?”I asked.

“Her in-laws said the funeral had to be before the Chinese New year and before  15th of the lunar month. Today is 14th.”


“And I am not allowed to go to the funeral.”


“Because I was born in the year of the horse. This year is the year of the horse.”

“I’ll be there.”


The funeral was in the suburb of Heyuan, a town two hours from Guangzhou where I live. When I got to the funeral home, “Only Mother Is Good,” a chintzy song from a sensational Taiwanese movie in the 1990s, gushed out of low-quality speakers, hammering the gloomy heavy air on an overcast winter afternoon. But Tao’s son was nowhere to be seen. Nor her husband. Nor her maiden family. There was a sense of surreality and absurdity.

Fewer than twenty people were lining up to enter a hall to pay their respect to Tao. They dressed casually, their faces numb.  In the hall, which was palely lit by two fluorescent lights,  a stranger was holding a portrait of hers, obviously made in a hurry.  Shouldn’t her son hold her portrait? I didn’t understand what I saw.

When it was my turn to pay respect, I wanted to spend a little time with her. Tao and I had gone to the same college and had taught at the same junior college in Heyuan.  She was a respectable and responsible teacher, a loving mother, a loyal wife and a trustworthy friend.  She was  like a big sister to me while I  often acted like a spoilt little sister. Our friendship, together with two other former colleagues who still taught at the school, had been precious at a time when vanity availed and in a country where money, power and fame seem valued over integrity and friendship. This was my last chance to take a good look at her –  in a coffin. She was scrawny.  The heavy makeup done hastily made her look  ghastly. I stared at her face and felt a chill down my spine. I was both scared and sad. Imagine all the pain she had endured.  “Xiaomei, pain, pain, pain.”  I wondered if she would feel relieved because she finally escaped all the pain that had tortured her for over a year.  Deep inside, I knew she wouldn’t.  She had wanted to live because she was so much in love with her husband and because her son was only 14 years old and needed her. She would like to see her son grow up. She would like to become a grandmother.

I wanted to say something to her, but my head was all blank. A choking emptiness. So I just stood there,  in front of her coffin, my eyes teary, my lips tight, when  someone shouted impatiently, “move on!” I looked up toward the voice and saw a man in his twenties standing at the corner of the hall, gesturing to me like a cop coordinating traffic. I glared at him.  But he was oblivious to my anger and kept waving his arm, “next one.” He was  a robot doing its job.  I took another look at my friend’s dead face with heavy makeup and walked out of the hall.

Outside, by the hallway, the funeral attenders were washing their hands – to rinse off the bad luck from nearing the dead.  A middle-aged man handed me a lucky money envelope. It was also meant to help the funeral attenders to dodge the bad luck from seeing the dead.  Death had been a taboo in Chinese Hakka culture. I was not even supposed to drop in to see my parents in town because of the funeral.

Standing outside the funeral hall, holding that red lucky money  envelop, I felt absurd, and lost. Was this it? I came all the way from Guangzhou just to spend less than one minute with my friend – which was interrupted by a rude and numb stranger? I glanced around. It was getting darker and colder. The wind sounded like a baby sobbing in the trees.  People started leaving.

So that was it. Tao would be left alone here in this ghostly funeral home, then burned to ashes. I wondered where her husband, her son, her maiden family were. Why were her closest people absent from her funeral? A good person like Tao deserved more, much more!

But then what could I do? In fact, I had to leave, too,  get back to town and take a bus back to Guangzhou. She would be left here alone and lonely, after all.

I didn’t know how I could get back to town. I had had a hard time getting a cab to drive me to the funeral home from downtown Heyuan because nobody wanted to be near a place associated with death. I paid an extra fee and begged for sympathy to get someone to drive me there, reluctantly. The driver groused loudly the whole way from the bus station to the funeral home that the extra fee I paid was not enough to cover the bad luck he might get from nearing the dead.

Luckily, Lin, a former colleague, also a good friend, spotted me and asked her colleague to give me a lift back to town. I started complaining right after I got in the car, “This is a ridiculously indecent funeral. And where is Liu (Tao’s husband)? Where is her son? And her maiden family? Where are they!”

Lin hushed me, “Let’s talk another time.”  She blinked and shook her head. There was something she knew but I was yet to find out.

I was later told that Tao’s husband  didn’t attend the funeral because he was born in the year of the  sheep and the coming Chinese New Year was the year of the sheep. Her son was “protected” from the funeral because he was 14 years old in the year of 2014!   Tao’s maiden family boycotted the funeral because they believed Tao’s in-laws pulled her feeding tube on the morning of the 14th of December (Chinese lunar calendar, 15 days before Chinese New Year) so that the funeral happened before the 15th. Tao’s in-laws had told them that according to a fortune teller, Tao would pass before the 15th. They were forbidden to visit Tao in the last two days before her death. “A married woman belong to her in-laws,” They were asked to respect the tradition. Tao’s in-laws firmly believed that Tao’s funeral had to be finished before  Dec. 15th, otherwise bad luck would follow the family. Tao’s sister Yan refused to accept their traditions and practices. “Isn’t this coincidence too obvious? The funeral must be before the 15th and my sister died on the 14th!  And we were not allowed to visit her. Why? So they could pull the tube!”

But they couldn’t provide evidence of Tao’s in-laws pulling her feeding tube.  Now the two families are enemies. Tao’s in-laws wouldn’t allow her son to visit her maiden family. Her husband is grieving from losing his wife, burdened with  guilt (of not attending her funeral) and fear (to live the rest of his life without a wife) and the responsibility to raise all by himself a sorrowful son.

Wang was  furious when she heard about the indecency of Tao’s funeral. Wang and Tao had worked together for almost 15 years and had been close friends. They had taken care of each other like family. Wang had done more for Tao when she was sick in hospital than most of Tao’s in-laws. But in the end, she was forbidden to attend her funeral simply because she was born in the year of the horse. What really broke her heart was the absence of Tao’s husband and her son from the funeral. She confronted Liu, “Why?”

Liu begged for pity, “I have lost Tao. I can’t afford to lose more.”

Wang didn’t forgive him till almost nine months later, “It’s never easy (to forgive him). But now I try to understand him. I never doubt his love for Tao even though he didn’t attend her funeral. I guess he and his family indeed believe in all those superstitions. He is a victim, too. ”

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