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How to Die Old in Chongqing

The day my mother died, March 8, was International Women’s Day. In China, all women were entitled half a day off from work, but in 2015 it was a Sunday. That same day, the time difference between Boston and Chongqing changed from 13 to 12 hours: daylight saving began precisely at 2:00 a.m., which was 2:00 p.m. in China. According to my sisters who were in the hospital with our mother, that was when she stopped breathing.

I had visited Mother just two months earlier. She could no longer recognize me, and her mind alternated between clarity and delirium. At one moment, she said—not to any one in particular— “How nice it will be if I can live another decade…” She was 85 going on 86.  The news of her death was not a surprise, but no less shocking.

I barely slept during the 26 hours of flying, leaving Monday morning from Boston to arrive Tuesday evening in Chongqing, across 12 time zones. On landing, I took a taxi from the airport directly to Stone Bridge Crematorium, where my two sisters had decorated a memorial hall and were waiting for me. In one of her messages on Sunday, my older sister Ping had said that the crematorium allowed us only three days use of the memorial hall. Upon my arrival, Ping updated me with the funeral procedure:  we were to hold vigil through the night, followed by a brief service at 6 am next morning, and then the cremation.

Despite sleep deprivation, I was surprised by the timing. My mother had lots of friends, and she always loved a bustling activity with many of them present. Stone Bridge Crematorium was in an inconvenient location; it would be difficult for the old people to come that early in the morning. I asked Ping why 6 am, and the question seemed to upset her. The crematorium’s morning schedule was completely full except the earliest time slot, she said.

“None of Mom’s friends plan to come anyway,” Ping added, a bit bitterly. Another surprise.

I approached the center of the spacious room where, on a wheeled cart, massive pots of white lilies layered with pink, yellow, orange, and white chrysanthemums neatly surrounded an “ice coffin.” The coffin, made of plexiglass with a refrigeration unit underneath to keep the body cold, was covered by a piece of shiny golden silk. Hesitantly, I lifted one end of the silk and saw my mother’s face, waxed, artificial, lifeless. The pain of verification hit my chest like a fist.

The room was full of wreaths along its walls, the majority from Mother’s life-long friends, some living as far away as Beijing. All of the friends, even those who were local, sent money to Ping and asked her to order the wreaths for them. Some dictated, over the phone, the content for a traditional elegiac couplet to hang on the wreaths; others asked my sisters to come up with the words for them. None showed up in person at Stone Bridge Crematorium.

“Because this is the wrong place for them,” my younger sister, Feng, said to me. I did not immediately understand what she meant.

 

Despite having grown up locally, this was my first time at Stone Bridge Crematorium, the oldest and largest one in the metropolis, nowadays attending to more than 10,000 cremations annually.  It had been a household name since my childhood; in my early memory the name was often connected to ghost stories.  During the Cultural Revolution, the fame—or infamy—of the crematorium reached a peak: its low grounds became a necessary commanding elevation for the two Red Guard factions fighting each other.  When one side needed evidence to accuse the other side of killing, they would carry corpses of their dead “comrades” to march the streets, and, we heard, the corpses were often random dead people they robbed from Stone Bridge Crematorium.

Stone Bridge Crematorium first opened in 1958, two years after China’s “funeral reform” began. Chongqing had no crematoriums before then. In the old days, a full-body burial, referred to as “earth burial,” was regarded as the only appropriate and respectful way to treat the deceased. In 1956, Mao Zedong and over a hundred other Communist leaders proposed that cremations replace earth burials, and pledged not to have tombs for themselves. Their reasoning was that earth burials occupy and waste farmland as well as causing the spread of disease. Thus began the “funeral reform.”  (Ironically, when Mao died in 1976, his successors built the most grandiose tomb for his full body in Tiananmen Square.)  By 1985, cremation had become the only legal interment option in China’s cities, though in rural areas the earth-burial custom continued.  My grandmother, who moved from the countryside to the city in 1952 and died in Chongqing in the summer of 1988, had to be cremated against her wishes for an earth burial. There was no other choice. My mother followed a simple custom then:  after cleaning Grandma and dressing her in new clothes, she called Stone Bridge Crematorium. A hearse came and brought Grandma’s body there. The cremation process at the time was rudimentary and quick.

That has changed completely in the 27 intervening years. My sisters and I wanted a traditional funeral service for our mother, but what is the tradition?  Tradition is an ever-changing concept, especially in clamorous China.

 

The memorial space the crematorium provided included two crudely furnished rooms, the larger one for the coffin and wreaths, and the smaller a “sitting room” for visitors to take a break. The only furniture in the sitting room were a small plastic table and several folding chairs. Despite the cold weather, there was no heat. When I arrived, the cement floor was wet, a stream of water from unknown origin flowing across it.  Four men I didn’t know sat around the plastic table playing cards. Feng’s husband, Hua, told me that they were his buddies, whom he had asked to come to fill the emptiness. “Otherwise the place is too deserted,” Hua said in apparent discontent.

As he spoke, I could hear bustling noise from neighboring rooms crowded with family, relatives and friends of the deceased, as they should be.  In contrast, ours was cold and quiet. If not counting the four men playing cards, there were only seven of us: my two sisters and their husbands, a friend of Feng’s, a friend of mine, and me. Once again, my mother’s friends were noticeably absent.

The Chinese have a saying, “The judgment on one is final only when the lid on the coffin is closed.”  Across cultures, the number of people coming for a funeral becomes the final and decisive measure of the commendation and love the deceased deserves.  In my mother’s case, however, that measurement did not apply. It was all circumstantial. My father was in the hospital.  My parents’ local relatives in their generation were either dead or too old. Because of the inconvenient cremation time, my sisters did not want to bother those old relatives and didn’t notify them. Ping did, however, call some of my mother’s close friends, figuring they’d blame her if she didn’t. Given the advanced ages of those old people—all in their 80s—we hadn’t expected them to come, yet when we learned that they really wouldn’t, we were surprised and felt bitter.

In the past few years, as my parents’ generation came to the end of their life trajectory, there had been an increasing number of friends dying each year. My mother, as weak and ill as she was, had attended each and every friend’s funeral in town and even in Chengdu, a city 350 kilometers to the west, ignoring Ping’s concern and objection. Mother would have never expected to leave the world in such quietness herself.

The early morning schedule was surely a big obstacle to attending the service, but why didn’t any of my mother’s friends come to say good-bye during the two days before my arrival? I was baffled.

 

In Stone Bridge Crematorium, each memorial room had a front door and a back door.  In the back of the building was a long row of clay incense burners, each one corresponding to a room. Beside the burner for our room, my sisters had piled up red incense sticks and bags of paper money, all bought from the crematorium. Shortly after I arrived, my sisters guided me there to light incense and burn paper money. I was told that we must keep those things burning through the night; it would be a bad omen if the incense wasn’t burning continuously. This was all new to me. After living in the United States for 27 years, I had become a foreigner. But that was not the only thing. I had grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution when everything traditional was denounced. There was a cultural fracture in the tradition known to my generation.

What is the actual “tradition” for this occasion?  Neither Ping, who lives in Chongqing, nor Feng, who lives in Hainan, really knew. Funeral custom varies by location and ethnic group, and it seems to be redefined by fashion leaders every year. Much like me, my sisters knew the principle concept of a ceremonious funeral but not the detailed steps, yet the devil is in the details. They had asked around, and received greatly varying advice. One compelling reason Ping chose Stone Bridge Crematorium was its provision of a pre-programmed service for the entire process.

Stone Bridge Crematorium’s website says it “has formed a nearly perfect one-stop service system for corpse transport, vigil and memorial, funeral and encoffining, cremation and ash storage, cemetery burials and funeral supplies.” This kind of highly commercialized “one-stop” funeral service system was notorious for exploiting the dead to make explosive profits.  Chinese media reported in 2013 that the market value of China’s funeral service industry had an unusually high annual growth rate of 13%, and that rate would reach 17% from 2013 to 2017.  Around the time of my mother’s funeral, a corruption case was exposed:  in Wuhan, 20 people, including government officials, funeral house directors, and businessmen, were arrested for bribery related to cinerary casket, coffin, and furnace business operations as well as crematorium constructions.  The most profitable businesses are the most fertile fields for bribery.

The media often used words such as “malformed explosive profits” to describe the funeral service industry. Complaints are often seen on the Chinese internet that death has become financially unaffordable for ordinary people. Yet the industry continues to make “malformed explosive profits”; people’s complaints simply fall into an indifferent sea like a stone.  Every Chinese knows that they must maintain tradition, real or claimed.

The March evening in Chongqing, winter had not finished and spring was yet to come.  It was a cold night; wind threatened to knock over the incense sticks.  Throughout the night, every 20 minutes or so, my sisters and I went out the back door to check on the incense, and burn more paper money. I’m an atheist, but we human beings need a mechanism to mourn and pay respects to our loved ones when they leave the world. The particulars of the process were of less concern to me.  I did everything my sisters told me to, things they recently learned from acquaintances.

 

Before dawn on Wednesday, five relatives arrived to our surprise: an old couple in their 70s accompanied by their two adult children and a granddaughter. Their arrival gave us some relief; it increased the size of our group to 16 people when the programmed funeral service began. Promptly at 6 a.m., a moderator and three trumpeters entered our memorial hall through the back door. I had seen in movies funeral trumpeters playing piercing, sad folk music with suona horns, a traditional Chinese instrument that has a high-pitched sound. The three musicians sent by the crematorium, however, carried brass French horns like a military band. They stood by the wall while my sisters and I each read a eulogy in turn. At one point, I broke into sobs in the middle of my speech but quickly swallowed them back. We put our eulogies in Mother’s coffin. The musicians began to play an official Funeral March for important people that I had last heard when Mao Zedong died in 1976. The music, too grandiose, too public, did not feel right for a private service. I knew my mother would disapprove. She’d prefer folk music, or perhaps the theme from Song at Midnight that she used to hum. But this was not up to her, or us, now. Accompanied by that stately solemn music, we escorted Mother’s coffin out the back door as directed. It was still dark outside. They say the darkest time is before dawn.

In the cremation room, a solid wall blocked us from the furnace. This was new too, I heard, as it used to be that the furnace was in plain view. Perhaps the sheer horror of watching a loved one turning into ashes had led to the change.  On the wall, a small, low window opened to the idle conveyor belt, on which my mother’s coffin waited.  Three cremation workers stood by the coffin.  One of them, a woman, said that it was a “custom” to set off a number of firecrackers to send the deceased “along the road.” This again was new, lighting firecrackers inside a room. Tradition surely is an ever-changing concept.

The number could be our choice from 6, 9, 11, or 13.  There was a meaning associated with each number: “6” meant “smooth sailing with the wind”; “9” meant “long, long time”; “11” meant “a safe and pleasant journey,” “13” meant “soon to heaven.” Each of the numbers, except “13,” has a Chinese pronunciation that makes it a pun with the assigned meaning.  The prices increased steeply with the numbers, hundreds times the firecrackers’ market value, to be paid in cash. It seems that the number “13,” hard to make a pun with, was borrowed from Western culture for the sole purpose of adding another price level.

My sisters had already paid the crematorium a hefty fee for the “one-stop” services, including room, flowers, ice-coffin, incense and paper money, plus another 3,000 yuan for cremation. The request for extra cash at the last step was unexpected, impossible to decline.

“We will make sure the ashes hold nicely to the shape of the body,” the female staff member assured us after taking the money. I winced at her words.

My sisters let me choose a number.  I chose 11.  Eleven firecrackers sputtered and banged, the explosive sounds deafening in the small room. The conveyor belt began to move slowly, white smoke curling around it. My mother’s coffin disappeared into the opening. The window closed.

My siblings and I were ushered away along a dimly lit path to a waiting room. The day was about to break for us but not our mother. It is better to have the first cremation of the day, Feng said, because the furnace is clean.  It is better that the view of the furnace is blocked, she again said.  She had been with our mother at a crematorium in Chengdu for a relative’s funeral the year before; through a glass wall, she could see the fire swallowing the body.  It left her in a void.

Exhausted both emotionally and physically, we sat quietly in the waiting room, talking little. A couple of hours later, in the bright sunlight of the new morning, someone came to notify us that Mother’s ashes were ready for collection.

I hesitated before stepping into the cremation room again. A metal board the size of a door lay on the conveyor belt. As promised, on the board rested the ashes in the shape of a complete body, with the skull carefully positioned. For a second, I was in a trance. Is that my mother?

Ping had bought from the crematorium a traditional cinerary case made of rosewood.  The female worker, putting on white gloves, asked if we were “satisfied” with the shape.  She paused at our silence, and then swept the ashes into a bag, leaving the skull. She carried the bag to a table against the wall, and used a small, rubber hammer to gently pound the rough remains, so they would fit in the rosewood cinerary case we’d brought. When she finished, she cupped her hands to funnel the ashes into the case, and then picked up the skull and placed it on top, right in the center. I watched her close the lid of the case in slow motion, worried that she might accidentally fracture my mother’s skull.

The woman wrapped the case with red silk and told us that, when carrying it, we should never let it touch the ground before reaching its destination, which must be a wooden shelf or tomb itself.  Feng picked up the case with both hands, and we headed toward a cemetery called “Dragon Park” on the South Mountains across the Yangtze. All the way in the car, Feng never let the case leave her lap. We entrusted the cinerary case to the temporary care of the cemetery staff, and made a plan to give Mother a proper burial in the summer, when I would return to China again. It would give us time to carefully design, and have crafted, a suitable headstone.

I stayed in Chongqing for the rest of the week, visiting my father in the hospital and also some relatives and friends.  A close friend of my mother’s verified what Feng had suspected: a crematorium is an inauspicious place for old people whose minds are constantly in the shadow of their own approaching ends.  It was the location that stopped them from coming to say good-bye to Mother.

I was guilt stricken. In the weeks before Mother’s death, my sisters had had an email discussion about a memorial service. Feng suggested renting a “Hall of Heavenly Peace”—a completely novel concept to me—outside Stone Bridge Crematorium. She had learned from someone that this is a new type of business that has become prosperous lately.  It’s not part of any funeral house, but provides nicely furnished rooms with good amenities for vigils and wakes, in a way similar to booking a hotel room, but the prices are several times higher. For people who have the money, it solves the inauspicious issue of a crematorium. The prosperity of this business owe thanks to people’s superstition.

Ping was an old-fashioned retiree and did not know much about the new custom of “Hall of Heavenly Peace.” She felt a crematorium was more “traditional.”  I told Feng to let Ping decide, because Ping was the oldest among us and had been the primary caretaker for our parents. None of us had foreseen the adverse consequence of the wrong location choice.

I returned to Boston with a heavy heart.

 

Three months later, in June 2015, I flew to Chongqing again. My sisters had gone back and forth on several different calendars trying to choose an auspicious day for the burial. Nowadays, most, if not all, commercial Chinese calendars include an “Old Yellow Calendar” on the side.  It is said that “Old Yellow Calendar” was created by the Yellow Emperor—the first emperor in Chinese history—four thousand years ago. It contains divination information on what is suitable and not suitable to do on each day. Before the Communist regime, the “Old Yellow Calendar” had been a popular date selection system for important events such as weddings, moving house, funeral services, etc., but was regarded as “feudal superstition” in the Mao era and disappeared.  Then, in the recent decades, it made a big comeback.

When I arrived in Chongqing, however, my sisters still couldn’t agree on the burial date because there were many different versions of the “Old Yellow Calendar,” online and in print. An auspicious date for burial on one calendar is inauspicious on another, a proof of how arbitrary the date-selection system is. But people need something to let them believe they are making the right choice for everything. Eventually, I suggested using the printed calendar hanging in my parents’ house as the base. If a day during my stay from mid-June to early July was suitable for burial on both the base calendar and an online calendar, then that would be a good enough date regardless of what other calendars say. My sisters agreed. As it turned out, the only day we found that matched this condition was July 3rd.

Three years earlier, my sisters and I had purchased a dual-burial tomb for our parents, without their knowledge.  It is said that a tomb purchased for old people by their children would extend the parents’ longevity, thus it is called a “longevity tomb”—again a new concept to us. I had made a trip to Chongqing in 2012 specifically for this purpose. Our first task was to select a “good” cemetery, and that turned out not to be as easy as we’d thought.

In Chongqing, the cemetery industry emerged around the new millennium, as the times required: the first generation of Chinese who constructed the People’s Republic started getting to the end of their time. The 2004 census data show that, of the 30.5 million total population in Chongqing then, 3.5 million, or 11.46%, were 65 and over, this compared to 5.12% in the same category in the US population. The Communists among the old generation are supposed to be non-superstitious Materialists, but that has become increasingly less true.  The “Feng Shui” of their burials is deemed important for both the old people’s wellbeing in the other world and the descendants’ wellbeing in the present world.

When I emigrated from China in 1988, Chongqing had no commercial cemetery. In 2012, there were 63, of which 26 were in the central area of the metropolis. It was impossible to check out all of them.  For several days in a row, my sisters and I visited a handful that had “good reputation”— nice “Feng Shui,” “reasonable” pricing, reliable services… It was an exhausting effort, and the three of us disagreed on each of the cemeteries.

Eventually we settled on Dragon Park, partly because it was managed by the city government, but more because many of my parents’ friends had chosen it.  “They wouldn’t be too lonely there,” Ping said. Media reported that the average tomb price was 20,000 yuan, more than three times the average housing price in Central Chongqing. We paid 90,000 yuan—that was several years of income for an average Chongqing person then.  My sisters and I belong to the middle class and we shared the cost; that price would be unaffordable for lower income families. The cemetery’s salesperson had numerous reasons to tell us why the tomb we chose worth every penny of it, and why we got the greatest deal in the world. My sisters tried to cut down the price, but gave up after a few tries. We were too exhausted to continue the selection process.

Three years after we purchased the tomb and four month after the cremation, we buried Mother’s ashes on the auspicious July 3rd.  The spot is against a garden wall, a position said to have good “Fengshui.” It was a rainy day, and our hands and shoes got all muddy. The cemetery staff who helped with the burial told us to place the cinerary case and a spirit tablet in the hole that had been dug. “Turn around,” he said kindly, “don’t watch.” We followed his advice and turned our back on the grave, silently listening to the whumps of dirt being thrown, one spade after another. Afterward, we lit red incense sticks in front of Mother’s brand new headstone, and held umbrellas over them.  We stood there until the last smoke of the incense disappeared into the rain and wind.

Each tomb, we were told, can be used for 20 years only. It is a government policy applying to all cemeteries. No one knows exactly what will happen after 20 years, because the written rules are opaque.  It’s possible that my sisters and I, if any of us are still alive then, could pay another, much higher price to renew the tomb ownership for another 20 years.  But that is only a guess.

Photo credit: yurok via istockphoto 

About the author

Xujun Eberlein has lived half a life each in China and the United States. She is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a prize-winning short story collection. Her personal essays have won a number of awards and been recognized in the Best American Essays. She writes and translates from Boston.

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