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COLUMN ONE

Death's lessons learned

Taiwanese family traditions meant little to an American journalist before the loss that struck his family. Now his grandmother's gifts are plain to see.

March 11, 2010|By Rong-Gong Lin II

On the day of the funeral, my aunts and uncles gathered in front of the coffin to tell my grandmother stories. An aunt recalled how, half a century earlier, Ah-Ma had worked so hard on the family's farms that she didn't get home until well after nightfall.

"Sometimes," my aunt said, "I would be hungry until 9 o'clock at night. We would lie in bed surrounded by mosquitoes, too weak from hunger to fight them from biting us."

She continued:"The first day of each semester, you would always worry about not having enough money to pay for school tuition. All these memories came through my mind when I heard about your passing. I felt so much pain inside."

I was surprised to learn how poor my grandmother, who had seven children, had been. That explained why she put so much pressure on my father to do well in school and become a doctor. She once told him: "If you don't study hard, it is worthless to have you as a son."

Now I understood why my parents had always pushed me and my siblings to become physicians.

As I listened to the stories of my grandmother's hard work, tears streamed down my face.

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At noon, it was time to bring Ah-Ma to her final resting place.

My father carried a paper lantern, and my older brother carried her spirit tablet -- a placard bearing my grandmother's name.

An uncle held an umbrella over the tablet, a funeral tradition dating to the Japanese occupation. The umbrella blocked the deceased's view of the sky, which was said to be under the rule of the Japanese emperor.

We arrived at the Forensic Medical Autopsy Center of Hsinying, and walked downstairs to a large, white room. A machine slid the coffin into a steel tube, and orange-yellow flames quickly engulfed it.

"Leave, Ah-Ma!" we shouted, urging Ah-Ma's spirit to leave her body while the coffin burned.

Several hours later, we returned to receive her ashes. Using tongs, family members took turns placing her bones into her urn. "Ah-Ma, this is your new home," we said.

We took the urn to the columbarium, which houses the ashes of the deceased, and placed it on a shelf. Then, it was time for us to leave. One by one, we lined up to say a few words to Ah-Ma.

When my turn came, I stared into the urn, head bowed, palms clasped together.

I took a deep breath, and I prayed.

I realized that the rituals passed down by my ancestors were helping to ease my grief over the loss of Ah-Ma and my nephew. And I began to believe that death could be a door to a new state of being, for them and for me.

ron.lin@latimes.com

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