I recently attended a Taiwanese funeral. If you haven’t, here’s what you might expect. It’ll vary by family, this is a general guide. My family’s Buddhist. [I’m hardcore Red Hat Taoist, but we try to make it work for the kittens]. The funerals I describe are Buddhist, but there are similarities across traditions.
When someone’s passing—if possible—the family gathers around the deathbed, not for comfort and support, more to chant. The process is intricate, usually a religious 師父 (master) is required to get everyone chanting, bowing, gonging, and kowtowing in syncopation. A sutra is chanted seeking forgiveness of karmic debts accrued during this—and previous—lives, so the departing soul can find peace. It’s intended to get them off the Wheel of Suffering, or to a better incarnation. The rest of the time the name of Amida Buddha is chanted, guiding the soul and Amida Buddha towards each other. [Something like that. It’s all Buddhist to me]. In my family it goes on for at least eight hours.
Next comes the encoffining. Family and spiritual guide(s) come together again for a spirited bout of chanting as the body is placed in the coffin, usually at the undertaker’s.
On the seventh day after death the family gathers, led by a monk and possibly lay-chanters, for a full day of intoning and general scraping. Bow here, bow there, get down on your knees and pray, stand up, chant, get down and hit your head on the floor. It seems all Zen and soul-rejuvenating, but mostly it’s just painful. Kneeling destroys the knees. Kowtowing hurts the back. The constant kneeling and rising—Buddhist leg squats—leaves the lower body quivering. You see decrepit monks doing it and it seems fluid and charming. It’s brutal. It’s like going bowling—assuming it’s easy since it’s the terroir of middle age fat alcoholics—and then suffering a week-long case of bowler’s butt. I can barely walk after prayers.
That is the first of seven weekly prayer sessions. It’s common to pay a temple to do the subsequent ones. They’re praying anyway, you can arrange a shout-out for your dearly departed.
When the funeral arrives the deceased is taken to a 殯儀館, funeral parlor and mortuary services complex. Most municipalities have one, Taipei has two. The one on Hsin-Hai Rd. is the Disneyland of death. It’s a huge complex, with a very large multi-room building, and smaller out-buildings, ready to accommodate the deceased and mourners. The main building holds at least a hundred concurrent funerals and thousands of mourners. Rooms range in size from small Las Vegas showroom to spruced up closet. Each room’s anterior has a mountain of flowers with the deceased’s picture top center. The coffin is placed centrally among the profusion of flowers. Tacky. If I were the corpse I’d be mortified. At the service’s end the coffin is quickly replaced by another—kinda like a hot-sheet motel. It’s a model of McDonald’s style efficiency.
Everything in the ceremony itself is hierarchical. Each mourner dons a long dark cloak—for the Buddhist ceremony—with a small color-coded badge. The color denotes familial status. The family stands before the coffin in rows and columns according to rank. During my grandma-in-law’s funeral—despite barely knowing her—I ranked higher than my wife, and was placed more to the front, as befits my station and sperm count. I think it’s the worst part of the ceremony. I had no chance to comfort my wife. Instead I was busy—up front—being the foreign jackass. As with all aspects of my life, I provided comic relief and a focal point for staring. Is he going to screw this up? Aiya, he got it right. Double-or-nothing he fucks up the next kowtow. Foreigners: every funeral needs one.
Once arranged in order of descending importance, the process of chanting, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, kowtowing, and standing back up begins. Are you detecting a theme? During funerals my high school fight song keeps bouncing around my brain: “Bow to the left, bow to the right, stand up, sit down, fight! Fight! FIGHT! YeahhH TEAM!!!” But I digress. Once the family finishes, other assorted mourners, who’ve been watching from the side, get their chance to bow to the deceased.
At the end of the service, the family walks around the coffin three times while chanting. Then a nail is driven into the coffin lid, ceremonially sealing it. That duty falls to the eldest son, or nearest available facsimile.
With that over, the family and some of the crowd makes its way to the crematorium, conveniently located elsewhere on Death World’s grounds. The mourners line up a reasonable distance from the oven and chant as the cremation begins. At the first funeral I attended, the attendants hurriedly stuffed granny into a hot oven as the flames danced and licked out the door. You could feel the heat on your face. It was visceral. I’ve never seen that since. Maybe the day of granny’s funeral was particularly busy at Taipei Municipal No. 2 Mortuary, Funeral Services & Death Fulfillment Center, Inc. Usually the dead are calmly placed in the oven, the door closed, and the flames turned on. Frankly, they phone it in.
With the cremation underway, the family retires to the crematoracafeteria, an onsite coffee shop with video displays, detailing the temperature of each roaster, and reamaining cooking time. It brings to mind a fast-food restaurant. This is a time of relief. The family has spent three to four full days chanting and it’s over. Phew. Give me a simple Protestant ceremony. You’re in, someone talks, you sing a song, and you’re out—fifty minutes tops.
When your loved one’s timer pops, the family goes to collect the remains. This is the oddest part of the funeral. Cremation doesn’t leave dust, as you might think, but rather a skeleton. The bones are so burned they lose structural integrity and can be easily crushed to dust. Taiwan has some ceremonies requiring the bones, so the remains are not pulverized. [See this article on Taiwanese folk religion]. The family isn’t presented an inoffensive urn, instead a skeleton is wheeled out. At my first funeral I was caught off-guard and freaked. Nobody else paid much mind. Each family member in turn takes a pair of long cooking chopsticks, picks up some bone, and puts it into the urn. Judging by the faces of everyone, there was general apprehension when it came my turn—I’m a sloppy eater, but I’m proud to say I didn’t drop a morsel of grandma. Afterwards, the attendants complete the transfer.
That’s the end of the funeral, but you shouldn’t go straight home. Stop along the way. I think that’s to throw ghosts off your trail. When you get home, you should disrobe immediately, wash your clothes and shower, to wash the death off.
So now if you die in Taiwan you have an idea what type of party to expect. [YMMV].