Monday, October 1, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Day 2 - The Service

As I positioned the chopsticks between my fingers, I looked down at the steel tray holding my grandmothers cremated remains. I always imagined that cremated remains were a fine grey powder but instead they were white and in pieces.  Some of these fragments were the size of a coin while others were the size of a rosebud.

The chopsticks were larger than normal, almost a foot in length. I carefully gripped a piece with the chopsticks and used my other hand to brace the middle of the chopsticks. I methodically moved my hands towards the urn and gently placed the remains inside, put the chopsticks down carefully and took a step back to join the rest of my family.

All of my grandmother's children, grandchildren and spouses who were present took part in moving the remains. Then the person working at the crematorium placed the rest of the remains into the urn, sealed it carefully, place the container in a embroidered bag and carefully gave the package to my uncle.  It was now the late afternoon and it was time to leave the place of worship where my grandmothers service was held and her remains were cremated for one more important trip to go on with my grandmother.

My mother waiting for the service to begin.
We arrived earlier that morning in a funeral service facility in Taipei. There were many different rooms in the grounds where numerous services were held. As we got there, workers were bustling around moving flowers, chairs and carpets setting up services in a hurry. Once we got organized, the person presenting our service showed us our part in the ceremony.

We were split up by gender and put in a specific order according to our station in he family and birth order. The family stood in the front facing the audience for the whole ceremony acting as hosts.

After a speaker talked about my grandmothers life, different groups of people lined up in the aisle facing a portrait of my grandmother and bowed to her spirit in prayer. First they bowed with incense in their hands three times. After the incenses were collected and they vowed three more times, then at the the end people bowed all the way to the ground touching their foreheads to the ground three times.

The groups went in order of closeness to my grandmother starting with her children and their spouses, then grandchildren, cousins, family friends and so on.

Waves of people in different groups came up to honor my grandmother. There was not enough room for all of these people to sit in the room so many people lined up outside to pay their respects. After each of these groups bowed to my grandmother, they bowed to us.

My grandfather was active in the Taipei Rotary club and served as the president. My grandmother and him made many lifelong friends through this organization. They had a sister chapter in Japan and one member wrote letters back and forth to my grandmother. My uncles were concerned about him finding out about my grandmothers death because he was very old and they weren't sure he could travel and they knew he would try. He found out and flew in barely making it to the ceremony on time.

Even though I didn't know who he was at the time, I knew there was something special about this man when he paid his respect to my grandmother. He was the oldest man there and had a profound look of reverence on his face. As he left the room, my uncle chased after him and handed him an envelope.

Inside the envelope, there was a letter my grandmother had been writing to him that she had not yet finished. In that letter were the final words between life-long friends.

After the ceremony my family was led to the back of the room where we viewed my grandmothers body. The guest followed our family around the room and once the guest were done, my family lined up. Then we followed the coffin as it was wheeled to the crematorium.

We held another small ceremony in the lobby of that building and then the coffin was wheeled into another larger room with ten cremation chambers, five on each side of the wall. We stood in the entryway and watched as the coffin was carefully pushed into the chamber.

For the next couple hours, we sat in a waiting room as my grandmother was cremated. We ate some lunch, talked a little bit and tried to pass the time. We weren't as loud and energized as we were the night before at dinner but we managed to enjoy each others company after such an intense experience.

I wasn't really prepared to be so close to the process of the cremation. I had seen bodies at funerals but I never saw a coffin enter an cremation chamber or had handle remains. While this was difficult, there was a high level of respect involved. The fact that we witnessed these parts of the process meant that the people working there had to take great care in handling my grandmother. It felt like we were truly taking care of her in death to remember how she took care of us in her life.

Our whole family took an hour bus ride to our families' Buddhist temple. The nuns received the urn and after a ceremony of chanting and prayer my grandmother's urn was placed below my grandfather's. They shared a cabinet in the wall of the building. As we walked by my mother told me that her parents were finally together and to say goodbye.

Looking to the urns, I said goodbye and felt for the first time that day, a feeling of happiness. Part of it was the calm serenity of the nuns and the beauty of the temple but more than that it was knowing that my grandparents were finally back together.

Standing outside the temple, the grey overcast skies didn't seem so sad and as I heard my family talking, I felt ready to live the rest of my life.

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