My First Death

Writer Louise Hung shares her first experience with death, and how the lessons she learned from it became an important part of her life.

In the upcoming months check back with us as Louise interviews others about their first experience with death, in this intimate, sometimes humorous, and insightful series.

My cousin and I couldn’t stop giggling.

 

We sat at a big round table with a Lazy Susan in the middle, synonymous with any big, banquet-style Chinese restaurant you might imagine stateside or elsewhere. The food we’d feasted on was long gone – a big, red crispy skinned chicken, a pile of fried race, fried turnip cakes, congee, maybe some egg rolls for the kids – and all that was left were the grease stains and bits of rice that are cemented as in my memory as part of a family meal, almost as much as the food is. We came, we ate, we conquered, now gaze upon the carnage.

 

Tai Cheong Egg Tarts, by chee.hong on flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/chleong/2446041116

 

But instead of the grown-ups arguing over which deserts to indulge in (I always hoped for mango pudding) while picking their teeth with toothpicks behind cupped hands, the table was oddly subdued. The jokes that normally flew back and forth between my dad and my uncle, punctuated with my mom’s melodious, high-pitched laugh were hesitant and inconsistent. My mom looked downright cranky.

 

Tomorrow was my grandma’s funeral, and my younger cousin and I (she was 10, I was 12) didn’t know how we were supposed to feel, let alone behave.

 

My aunt Nora* couldn’t stop crying. She’d pause momentarily, her voice returning to it’s low, soothing British tone to talk about a trivial thing like where to get the best beef jerky (there are shops devoted to it in Hong Kong) or how much she liked her new jumper. But then something would set her off again, and her voice would break, her head would drop, and she’d sob. Through her sobs, I could hear her saying things like “mum” and “I’m so sorry.”

 

Unfortunately, my aunt had no fellow “weepers” amongst her siblings. Her older brother, my Uncle Carl, seemed downright jolly. A surgeon, and already rather casual about life, death, and the body’s inner workings – one of my favorite memories from childhood is gathering around the TV to watch the video of his knee surgery – Uncle Carl was just delighted to have the whole clan all together in Hong Kong.

 

“Mom left us a long time ago,” he said matter-of-factly. “She doesn’t have to be stuck in her old, tired body anymore. What a relief!” He shed no tears, he only cracked jokes. As my grandma’s favorite child, I wondered if she would approve of his demeanor. Probably, she was rarely precious about matters of mortality.

 

My mom, the oldest, and her middle sister, my Aunt Jane, were rather stoic. No, actually Jane seemed to be perpetually fending off a dazzling fit of eye-rolling over all the “theatrics” the clan was enacting.

 

“If I had it my way, I’d just cremate mom, scatter her ashes, and go eat lunch. Mom is not suffering anymore –“ then to her younger weeping sister, “– you wish she was still suffering?”

 

Aunt Jane didn’t meant to be so harsh (OK, maybe she did), but after living with, and caring for my grandma for years now, she was unabashedly relieved. Along with Aunt Nora, she’d watched my grandma go from a strong, opinionated woman to a timid, smiling stranger, cruelly stripped of her intellect by dementia.

 

Grandma’s death was relief for Jane and peace for grandma. “You don’t know, you don’t know what it’s like to see someone know they have forgotten everything, but they try and try and they cannot remember. It’s torture. I’d rather kill myself.”

 

Of all my grandma’s children, Jane resembled her the most in appearance and manner. I suspect it was troubling for Aunt Nora to hear such things, especially in a voice that so closely echoed her mother’s.

 

Jane wanted to move on, not dwell on her mother’s death; Nora just couldn’t. Not yet.

 

My mom found herself having to strike the balance for the family between her sister’s tears and her brother’s flippant remarks. This irked her more than her mother’s death.

 

While my mom harbored a lot of unspoken sadness and regret over the loss of her mother, her actual death did not upset her. Her absence, the things she didn’t get to say to her, the fact that she suffered – but not her death. Mom was almost as clinical as Uncle Carl when it came to death and dying.

 

But, because she’d always been charged by her mother as being the “responsible” one, the “strong” one, Mom felt the need to soften her unsentimental attitude towards death for her grieving sister’s sake.

 

I admit seeing my mom awkwardly reaching a hand out to pat her tear-soaked sister, her face contorted into a look that said, “THIS IS WHAT SYMPATHY LOOKS LIKE ON HUMAN FACES, RIGHT?”, freaked me out. I knew she wanted to soothe her sister, but the family’s subtext of, “But really, it’s fine,” hung heavily in the air.

 

“Oh, Nora. I know. It’s hard. I know you wish we could have done better for mother. But she doesn’t have to worry about all that now. I’m happy for her.”

 

I’m happy for her.

 

Even weird, immature, 12-year-old Louise knew that was the WRONG thing to say to crying Aunt Nora.

 

But I didn’t know what to think. Neither did my cousin Dana. This was our first exposure to death that wasn’t a turtle or a goldfish, and we were getting mixed signals. Hence the giggling.

 

We couldn’t stop.

 

It wasn’t the death that had us uncomfortable. That’s not how my family rolls. It was seeing the adults so uncomfortable that made us uncomfortable.

 

None of it was funny, but all of it was strange. I’d never seen an adult cry so much in real life. I’d never seen my mom so ill at ease.

 

I’m not sure any of the family knew quite what to do with each other. Everyone seemed to have their own idea of how to handle Grandma’s death; how to do it right. But somehow sitting around a table with Chinese food debris scattered around, while my uncle regaled us with the detailed story of the horrible food poisoning case he’d treated on a plane returning from Mexico, somehow seemed the most right. At least to me.

 

But then Aunt Nora would cry and I would start to giggle, setting off Dana.

 

The family was a mess; just not the kind of mess you’d expect before a funeral.

 

The next day I got dressed in a blue and white plaid skort-and-vest outfit for the day’s activities. You read that right, skort (skirt + shorts = skort). I looked like a Delia’s catalogue Catholic school girl.

 

I think my cousin wore a hand-me-down outfit of mine: a skirt and shirt set in – wait for it – neon orange tie-dye.

 

My mom purposely had everyone wear “not black” to my grandma’s Buddhist Chinese funeral. Everyone happily complied…except for Nora.

 

Poor Nora. Over time I’ve come to truly love my aunt – she’s actually as steady as they come, with a disarming capacity for sympathy. However, during grandma’s funeral I actively avoided her. She frightened me more than my grandmother’s corpse.

 

We took a few taxis to the hall where my grandma’s body lay. I don’t remember the building itself, only that it was very cold, that we took a gray elevator to an upper floor, and that it opened into a gray tiled hallway. We walked a little way down the gray hallway before turning into a huge room that exploded with color.

 

The far wall of the room shone with twinkle lights and shiny gold wallpaper accented with bright green, blue, and pink Chinese designs. On top of the wallpaper background were gold Chinese characters printed on green (velvet?) squares – each probably about two feet by two feet in size.There were candles and incense and framed octagonal mirrors at an altar. A white banner, I suspect with my grandma’s Chinese name written on it, was suspended over one side of the alter. The whole set-up was rather blinding after the gray of the hallway.

 

Near the altar sat my grandma’s coffin. It was tan, I’m not even sure it was wood. It sat atop a heavy table of some sort. The table was draped in white cloth. Grandma lay peacefully in the coffin.

 

I know it’s cliché to say, but she really did look like she was sleeping. I was afraid that her corpse would scare me, but it didn’t. The atmosphere felt celebratory.

 

I don’t really remember a service, exactly. Plain brown plastic chairs lined two sides of the room – like at a middle school dance in the cafeteria – and I remember my mom telling everyone to sit down at one point. We all lined one wall of the room, and two monks came in and recited some prayers or chants over Grandma, and at the altar. It sounded like singing to me.

 

 

Here and there I heard Nora softly cry. I noticed my mom reaching out for her and Nora leaned into her. This time, I didn’t giggle.

 

I clearly remember one of the monks smiling right at me as he walked past on the way to the altar. That’s all I really remember about the monks. I remember liking their company.

 

After the monks finished, the family stood up and we milled around the room. Dana and I inspected the altar, finding oranges and a picture of grandma and grandpa in their youth, as well as a picture of grandma’s parents.

 

Talk filled the room, even the occasional laugh. The family spoke in clusters around grandma; nobody seemed at all concerned that a corpse was in the middle of us all. At one point, I made my way to her side and stood staring at her, wondering what was so scary about a corpse.

 

***

 

Unlike a lot of my friends at home in the US, death had never been a taboo topic in my house. True to the picture I’ve painted so far, my mom believes that the body is temporary, that the spirit is what matters, and that it is a fool’s errand to fear death.

 

Death, questions of what happens after we die, how the dead are cared for were favorite topics. Spending a good part of my childhood in Dallas, Texas, we were the loud Chinese family at the catfish restaurant that you’d overhear barking, “No! Don’t you dare embalm me when I die!”

 

I have clear memories of my mom making me rewrite homework assignments in grade school because I’d chosen to write about, “The Time My Dead Great-Grandma Stayed Home For Three Days” (a story about sitting vigil with the dead in Hong Kong). Mom probably knew she was raising a little Wednesday Addams, but she wasn’t sure if Mrs. Ward and my fifth grade class needed to know too. Not yet.

 

So growing up I learned how to gauge how much I could say to people. Teachers, parents of friends, volleyball coaches – I stuck to the script of being disinterested in “gross” things like death and corpses. Like, ew. I let myself be shielded from even the thought of death and deathly things.

 

Occasionally I’d meet a young friend who I thought liked cemeteries, ghost stories, and funeral stuff as much as I did, but they always pulled up short when I’d ask them if they wanted to be buried or cremated.

 

“You asked Cary that?” my mom once said. “Americans don’t like talking about that stuff, they’ll think you’re weird.” She followed up with, “You are a little weird.”

 

But so is she, and the way she talked about death back then, as just a mysterious eventuality, made sense to me. Death still scared me as a child, as it does today, but the fear is not paralyzing. I’m much more afraid of home invasion, poltergeists, and the very real scenario that all my teeth have cavities and I’m going to need full dentures by the time I’m 40.

 

***

 

“You know she’s frozen.”

 

Uncle Carl had appeared next to me at grandma’s side.

 

“She’s not embalmed. She’s just frozen.”

 

And before I could respond he reached down and knocked on Grandma’s forehead. Despite my juvenile “okayness” with death stuff, my mouth fell open.

 

Partly because I wasn’t sure if it was disrespectful and I should be outraged, and partly because of the sound her frozen head made. I don’t know why, but her head sounded surprisingly hard. Like if you had a giant, human head sized frozen grape. And you rapped on it.

 

I reached down and touched grandma’s shoulder. She was so cold and felt so totally foreign. For the first time I understood what my mom meant when she said, “Bodies are just shells. When you die they’re empty. Why be scared?”

 

I don’t know if I ever told my mom that I touched grandma’s dead shoulder. In navigating between how my family regarded death and how everyone else back home seemed to regard death, it felt like a stolen moment that I should keep to myself.

 

Soon we were all gathered up and got into more taxis to go watch Grandma be cremated.

 

I’m not quite sure where we went, but it was out in the more rural part of Hong Kong, outside the bustling city. We all gathered before a big, white, outdoor furnace and my uncle and some men put grandma and her coffin (oh! it was cardboard!) onto a conveyor belt. I think a switch was hit, and the doors to the furnace roared open as the conveyor belt moved Grandma’s body closer and closer to its fiery end.

 

She entered the fire and the doors slammed shut. We then stood around a bit, not knowing what to do. Finally someone who worked at the crematory told us that it would be a while and that maybe we should come back the next day to get her ashes.

 

And that was that.

 

One more time we loaded into some taxis and caravanned to a restaurant on Hong Kong island. There, we all made it a point to eat noodles for long life and sweets to shed any lingering sadness. “It’s important to be happy after you’re so close to the dead, so no sorrowful or angry spirits will follow you home,” my mom says.

 

And I was happy. Not exactly jumping for joy – no matter how much of a stranger my grandma had been to me, the realization that my mom’s mom had left her, that the woman who hugged me so tight as a little girl and sent me trinkets in the mail with red packets that said “I love you!” in Chinese on them was gone, made me mourn for the relationship I would never have with her.

 

But I was happy that I had gotten to be there. It was like being in the inner sanctum of my family. My grandma’s death had been the sad part, her funeral was the celebratory part. How she was to be remembered was just being born.

 

Since my grandma’s funeral, all the funerals I’ve attended have been in the US. They are all much more somber affairs; there are always many more “Noras”.

 

Whenever I see young children at these funerals, or even “tweens” like I was at my grandma’s, I wonder how they are taking it all in. Is a solemn funeral, draped in black, with a procession to view a corpse in a fancy casket, a daunting experience for them? Do they feel afraid?

 

Do they have any relationship with death? Is this their first time seeing death up close?

 

When I wonder about these young people, I feel grateful for my first experience with death. While sadness pricked the edges of my family’s experience, and Aunt Nora’s tears kept reminding us that “Mum is gone”, I was never afraid. Once I got past the nervous giggling, I’d say Grandma’s funeral and cremation were peaceful, even soothing.

 

My first experience with death was fortunate in many ways. My grandma’s death was not unexpected, premature, or horribly painful. It was not a shock to my family, but a relief. As death goes, it was one of the gentlest introductions.

 

Coupled with the talks my mom and I had about the dead, my grandma’s funeral and cremation gave me positive memories on which to form my opinions of death and death care.

 

My grandma had wanted to be a surgeon in life. She never got that chance because she was a woman born in a time and place where women rarely did such things. But in her youth she had frequented hospitals, snuck into morgues, trying to learn as much as she could from the dead. It was her passion.

 

I suppose then, that it’s appropriate that her corpse was the one that taught me my first real lesson about death. I think she would have loved this. Her death became a precious part of my life.

 

 

 

*All names were changed to protect the identity of my family.

 

Louise Hung is an American writer living in Japan. You may remember her from xoJane’s Creepy Corner, Global Comment, or from one of her many articles on death, folklore, or cats floating around the Internet. Follow her on Twitter.

Next Post
Faces Of Death: Elizabeth Harper
Previous Post
Walking Amongst the Dead: The Neighborhood Graves of Hong Kong
  • Micah 李 文 Jung

    but why go through the all that just to have her burned and forgotten

  • Helena Handbasket

    This is lovely. I come from a lower middle class Canadian family, and we don’t do funerals. Just the cremation. But I stubbornly arranged a memorial for my father – outside by a lake, with laughter, tears and lots of food. I think these after-moments are important for the living left behind.