Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Soul and Its Ceremonies: Funeral Practice in Modern Taiwan

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Soul and Its Ceremonies: Funeral Practice in Modern Taiwan

Article excerpt

My father Shui-ping Hsiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1937-2012), a puppet master, died in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and out of order, all of which had to be set right by various funeral rites and masses. He died at 10:35 p.m. on April 25, 2012, after forty-six days in the intensive care unit at Chang Bing Show Chwan Memorial Hospital [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Changhua, Taiwan, following a car crash on March 10. When the doctor pronounced his prognosis grim after a month-long effort to keep him alive, my sister Li-ching Hsiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and I began the search for a funeral home. While we were consulting and pricing various establishments, distant relatives plumped for funeral homes owned by their friends or relatives. The funeral business in Taiwan is quite competitive, and funeral homes drum up their business through such connections. With a rebellious nature inherited from our father, my sister and I decided on a funeral home in Changhua City called Quan Fushou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Full Fortune and Longevity), which has no family connection. This, of course, furrowed a few brows.

The Death

When the hospital called to inform us that my father's heart rate had dropped below fifty beats per minute, we notified my brothers, Wen-cheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Wen-chang Hsiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], as well as the manager of the funeral home Huiling Peng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. My father was pronounced dead at 10:35 p.m. on April 25, while we were en route to the intensive care unit. Taiwanese hospitals strictly observe the custom of erasing all signs of illness and injury. By the time we arrived, the nurses had removed my father's bandages, cleansed him, and dressed him in the daily clothes we had provided. He looked rather like himself, with little indication that he had been hospitalized for forty-six days.

My father's body was taken by ambulance to the Changhua City Morgue. The drivers told us that we must explain every step of the journey to my father (entering the elevator, exiting the elevator, etc.). By the time we arrived at the morgue, Peng and her assistants had arranged a shrine in a large room on an upper floor, which contained dozens of such shrines. Before my father's body was refrigerated, Peng asked us to chant the names of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Guanshiyin pusa [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ) and Amitaba (Amituo Fo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) ten times each in the hope earning their blessing for my father. We were then led to the shrine. A female Buddhist layperson (shijie [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) named Wu Jinmei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] had already set up my father's Spirit Tablet (Shenzhupai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), while Peng's assistant prepared mourning headwear for us. The women's headwear (pima daixiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is a roughly triangular wimple; it's made of rough white cloth, with a colored tip made of hemp. The men, meanwhile, wear a white band across the forehead. The tablet displayed my father's name, birthday, and death-day. Shijie Wu asked us to kneel in front of the shrine as she summoned my father's spirit. She asked my eldest brother to bow to the tablet and toss two coins onto the floor, a religious ritual called "tossing divination" (jiaobei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). It was not until the third try that a result of one head and one tail--a combination called shengbei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--was achieved, meaning that the spirit of my father had finally arrived at the shrine. Shijie Wu then chanted a Buddhist sutra to the accompaniment of an iron bell and a little wooden drum (muyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The chanting, which lasted about an hour, is called jiaowejing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sutra at the feet), a ritual required upon any death to settle the roaming spirit within the tablet. …

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