Friday, November 23, 2007


The other day a student from Taiwan brought me her essay about funeral customs there. Funerals last two to four weeks and involve several lengthy rituals--all pink and red are taken down (those are wedding colors) and replaced with black and white, altars are assembled, the body is put in what she called an "ice coffin" (she meant refrigerated, but I like "ice coffin" better) until the burial-OK lunar day on the calendar, and when the ceremony finally arrives, the family members don different kinds of fabric differentiating who was most important to the deceased, second-most important, etc. Most important: burlap. Second-tier: ramie. At her grandfather's funeral, her brother was on the burlap team; she wore ramie. Why? Because boys are more important. That blatantly.

But the detail that bowled me over was that they hire a professional mourner, called a siao nu, for the ceremony. This woman comes forth and weeps and wails at great length and volume over the body of this deceased stranger to her, transcribed by the student as such: "Oh Daddy, why do you left us? Don't go, don't go! Aarrrrrgh!" ("I didn't know how else to get across the sound she was making," explained the student.)

Since the Taiwanese are expected to keep their emotions quiet and to themselves, hiring a pro mourner is the way the family demonstrates how sad they are to lose their loved one. It is totally standard. This student, however, when I asked how she felt about it, wrinkled her nose and shook her head: "I don't like it." When she dies, she says, she wants a quiet, short funeral, like she has seen in American movies.

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