a farewell

So we lay my mother at rest a few weeks ago with a spiritual Chinese ceremony; I never thought that I would do this, but for some reason, lockdown with time to reflect and think, urged me to acknowledge our Chinese heritage and arrange something that I remember that she herself had done for her 2nd partner. Of course it was a lot more difficult with social distance and the limit of guests, but it really was a beautiful day.

So I have learned a lot about Chinese traditions and superstitions whilst arranging my mother’s funeral.  strangely I haven’t really lived a very Chinese life, but I have grown up listening to my mother and her strange ramblings and phrases, and now I am understanding where they originated from and what they mean.

we decided to use Chinese funeral directors, partly as they were recommended by the community centre that my mother visited twice a week – a social centre run for the ‘Older people’ in the Chinese community, providing a place for them to go and meet other friends, play Mah Jong, do a bit of Tai Chi, where they basically feel that they are still part of a community.  Manchester has quite a big Chinese population, so there seems to be a ‘Chinese everything’ from hairdressers, solicitors to funeral directors.

The service started like any traditional funeral in the chapel with an introduction, prayer and words of thanks, but then we moved to the graveside, where we lay out a folding table, put a photograph of our mother on it, a bowl of her favourite food (noodles and veg in this case), and incense sticks which we all in turn lit and put into a sand bowl. we burned bullions of paper money, folded to increase the wealth, which gave my mother funds to start her new life.  we also had a travel document made with the name of her home village in China, so that if she decided to travel home, she has the permission document to do this – again this was burned.   In her coffin, we all left letters and gifts, and when the coffin was lowered into the earth, we all had to turn our backs and not look at this moment, but once the coffin was below ground, we three children were asked to check that the coffin was in straight and that we were happy with the way it looked.  the photograph and the flowers were buried along with the coffin, which means you don’t actually see the flowers.  Also as I am  the married daughter it is traditional to lay a blanket or cloth on the body, but as my mother loved to wear silk headscarves, I gave a silk handkerchief –  this all adds to her comfort for her journey.   When deciding on the rituals, we were offered pages and pages of paper replicas of computers, iPhones, food to have made and put in the coffin…..  apparently people choose the deceased’s  favourite things to remind them of their fruitful life.

There is some strange Chinese 3 year tradition that you shouldn’t celebrate anything after the death of a close relative, but to neutralise this superstition, the females of the family wear a flower clip and the males wear a black ribbon.  at the end of the ceremony, you throw your clip and ribbon into a firebowl, and then you step over the bowl with its flames.  This now means you only have to wait 100 days, rather than the 3 years.  I try to tell myself that superstitions are not for real, but once you know about them, it’s hard to ignore them and so we did follow a few of the suggestions  – I know that my mother would have wanted this and it all makes for an easy passing to the new life.

we even managed to have a traditional wake lunch, which consisted of 7 courses, the first being a sweet soup – the sweet after the bitter. the courses again were chosen to avoid certain foods, like beef, melon.  I am not sure of why, but again we obeyed the rules.

It was all very interesting and made for a very memorable and special celebration of my mother’s life.  we were very lucky that we were allowed 20 people at the funeral, I know its been such a difficult time in history  to organise a funeral and I feel so sorry for those who couldn’t even attend their own beloved’s farewell.  I feel fortunate that we had the small window of more freedom, just before the north locked down again.

of course there are lots of interpretations of funerals and traditions, and now people are turning to more modern ways, but I feel it was a wonderful memorial and enabled me to learn more about the Chinese and their customs.

Why I love this photo of my mother and my children, is because it reminds me of her strength and determination to be independent and self sufficient in both her life as mother and wage earner. Her smile is what I will always remember – even after her stroke and then recently her dementia, she would always smile. I now realise that I have taken her desire to forgo the male dominated Chinese culture and hence all the women in our family are the most vocal and dominant.


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