Sunday, 21 June 2009

18 levels of Hell

My first "experience" with death or rather funeral was when I was in Standard Two, age about 8 or 9 years, when my "big mother" (tuah mak) died from self-medication. The ceremony was elaborate and I didn't understand a single thing that was happening. About 5 years after that, I went through another funeral - this time it was my father. My recollection as a kid was that funerals are scary like hell. And it is meant to be. It's traumatic. Even now, after almost 40 years, images from my father's funeral is still vivid. The coffin, for one, was huge and imposing, made of very thick wood. There is one scene when the heavy lid was finally placed on top of the coffin and sealed, with 6-inch nails. When the pounding of the nails are made, the family members must turn away. I remember there was loud wailing and anguish. The sound effect from hammer on nail was just incredibly heart-wrenching. There was also alot of pantan. Other people don't want you in their homes, and you are supposed to be wearing the attire (costume) of someone mourning the death of a family member, so you don't just walk into a coffee-shop to eat your lunch or dinner. Well times have changed. People don't cry anymore, except the very old ones. In fact, I was actually making fun of my sister-in-law during a ceremony where the dutiful daughter-in-law was fanning an earthen pot over a charcoal stove to brew medicine for her mother-in-law. The ceremony was being conducted by professional funeral organisers and the lady was leaning in close up to my SIL and "crying", trying very hard to make my SIL come to tears. Later, my SIL said she avoided eye contact with the person trying to make her cry so that she wouldn't end up in tears.

I still don't understand Chinese funerals but according to Taoist, Buddhist and Chinese folklore, if you have sinned in your life, you will be judged in 10 Courts in the underworld where there are 18 levels of hell. Wealthy people who do no good or waste food will be grind (so, I guess that's why the rich give alot to charity?); if you are a sexual deviant or pervert you will be boiled in oil; corrupt officials will be dismembered by chariot; cheaters and profiteers will be made to climb mountains of knives; cold-blooded murderers will be pounded; evil people will have their hearts dugged out; peeping toms will have their eyes gorged; crooks who use loopholes in the law will be eaten by maggots; if you ill-treat your parents and elders you will be frozen into ice; and more. Scares the shit out of you yet? Yes, it's intended to do so. If you ever visit Singapore, go the the Haw Par Villa. You will be able to visit the 18 levels of Hell in all its gory glory. My young kids at that time were quite distressed after the visit. Oh, after you have been punished, they give you a portion to make you forget everything. And then you could be be reborn - as a rat, a cat, a dog, some insect.

No, this is not what Hell looks like. This was the final night after all the ceremonies and the paper house is taken to a street intersection and set on fire (permit from Fire Brigade required). Chinese burn all sorts of stuff so that the departed will not lack anything in heaven. Definitely not carbon-neutral.

Paying respect.

Part of the ensemble of Teo Chew "opera-like" funeral services. I kinda enjoyed some of it. They put in a lot of effort in the music, the singing, the chanting, costumes ... Started at 6.30 pm on the dot and ended almost close to midnight. The poster on the right depicts some of the 18 levels of Hell.

Each of the children (and in-laws?) contribute a treasure chest of gold and silver (made of incense paper, of course). So, a lot of folding and sorting.

Hey, what's this, I thought there's a funeral going on? Well, dinner was not provided so some of us went for savory pancakes at a Mall. Times have changed.

Four grand children carrying a paper sedan chair. No idea who's spirit they are carrying.

The final journey. Nowadays its mainly symbolic and covers a very short distance. In the old days, the heavy coffin would be carried for several kilometres. The guy in front is throwing "kim chuah" or golden paper to pave the way for the spirit of the departed.

At the end of certain ceremonies, those who participate wash away bad luck with Huah Chui (flower water).

It's a tradition to provide snacks to family and friends who come to visit or attend the funeral services. At the end of the funeral, usually porridge is provided with some simple vegetarian dishes or even meat. In the old days, the favourite snack was porridge with meat (Bak Moi). In fact, Chiak Bak Moi (eat meat porridge) used to be a euphemism of going to attend a funeral or to say some one has died.

After the funeral, I gave this Memorial Lecture to a group of secondary schools students ... about choosing a greener lifestyle. Attended by my wife, three children, 2 nephews, 2 brother-in-laws and 2 sister-in-laws.

Yes, I know. My brother-in-law had asked me whether burning the big house is green. Of course it is not. Some temples now forbid the burning of candles and incense paper. People are more conscious about health and environment and eventually many of these practices will die out. In the meantime, we must document them for our memories. One of the things we modified was the need to continuously burn incense paper in an earthen pot while the decease's body is waiting to be placed in the coffin. This is to guide the deceased's spirit; to make sure it does not wonder around and get lost. But the fumes from the burning was getting to us in the closed confines of the living room, so it was almost unanimously decided that it should just be symbolic.

Oh, yes, I checked. Apparently people in the olden days treated the environment will much respect. Otherwise there would have been a 19th level of Hell. Guess for what type of offenders?


nch said...

Funeral in HK has some deviations where space is a major concern for 7 million population:
1. A long queue at crematoriums is no surprise. Body has to be kept frozen in a 'drawer' for about 3 weeks before a decease can be cremated. In recent years, these mortuaries are also underprovided, at times, 2 bodies are stacked in one 'drawer'!
2. Generally no more heavy coffin is used in HK, lightweight is the ideal option for quick disintegration in a furnace.
3. Funeral ceremony is carried out in a multi-storey funeral parlour (not 18-storey hell). The local will call them 'grand hotel' as the word 殯儀館 is just unpleasant or taboo to others. Those who run the parlours are multi-millionairs. No one will care to bargain on prices quoted! (But saying that they have to provide a lot of charity in retun for money earned from the deads).
4. There are midddlemen or brokers to take care of everything. Different prices are quoted for various classes of service needed, low, medium and high! Low budget with small room, higher prices enjoy a big hall.
5. Taoism or buddhism is equally popular. Today, 'specialists' are engaged from China to perform ritual services. Basically the ceremony is the same, except some details varies from individual background.
6. Road side parade is out of question in HK of course. After all the "two-day/one-night" ritual service, the body will be loaded in a hearse which will quickly head for the crematorium on tight schedule, at specific time booked 3 weeks in advance!

PJ said...

Uncle LM,
This website is cool, thought might interest you if you haven't seen it yet.


Matthew Tripp said...
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