Letters & Essays

Coffin Keeper

Wenguang Huang

When I was nine, I shared my bedroom with a coffin. My father had it made for my grandmother for her seventy-third birthday and referred to it as shou mu, which means something like “longevity wood,” and seemed like a strange name for the box Grandma would be buried in. The practice of burial had been banned in China since soon after the Communists took over, so I couldn’t tell anyone about it.

Grandma lived with my family in Xi’an, and when she turned seventy-two, in 1974, she became obsessed with the idea that her death was imminent. She knew all the old sayings and foremost in her mind was this one: “When a person reaches the ages of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell will make his call.” She couldn’t tell us the science behind it, but it had been passed down from generation to generation so it had to be true. And she wanted to be ready. Soon after the New Year, she began nagging Father about her funeral arrangements. She wanted to be buried in the traditional manner. Grandma often vexed Father with her adherence to the old ways, but on most things he could bring her around. On this, however, she was firm and resisted all attempts to dissuade her.

The Party mandated cremation, which made practical sense: burial wasted land that might otherwise be developed. There were also ideological reasons; many funeral rituals were rife with religious symbolism, which the Communists were eager to stamp out.

Father, who had worked hard to become a model worker and Party member, knew that a traditional burial for Grandma would get him into political trouble, erasing the status he had painstakingly gained within the Party. The Cultural Revolution was winding down, but you could still get into trouble for adhering to old traditions and customs. I remember going with my school class to the public denunciation of a man who gave his son a traditional wedding ceremony in his home village outside Xi’an. A local had tipped off the authorities that the man had hired a red sedan chair to carry the bride, a banned practice.

At school, I was the leader of a Communist youth group and at the annual singing contest we performed a song called “Down with Confucius, Oppose Old Rituals.” I found the prospect of a traditional funeral abhorrent. I remember being at the burial of an old lady in a village where enforcement of the rules against banned traditions was lax. Relatives wore white headbands, white linen shirts, and shoes covered with white cloth. They cried and wailed. The old lady’s grandson walked at the front of the procession carrying a bamboo pole with a long strip of white paper tied to it. I didn’t understand what was written on the paper, but Father told me the characters were about hopes for a peaceful trip to the other world and a successful reincarnation. I cringed at the thought of someday bearing that pole. My classmates would think I was a cheater, singing Communist songs at school but practicing ugly old rituals at home. Worse, they would laugh at me if I had to wear a weird white outfit.

 

At first, father tried to talk Grandma out of it. At dinner, he would tell Grandma about the famous Communist leaders who had embraced cremation, how people had been expelled from the Party for arranging traditional funerals and weddings, how their lives had been destroyed. After attending a coworker’s funeral at Sanzhao Crematorium he told her, “It wasn’t bad at all. When we die, our minds are gone and we cease to exist. Why does it matter what happens to our bodies?” Grandma shook her head; cremation horrified her. “I don’t want to be tortured in fire after I die,” she said. She had heard about how crematorium workers never completely emptied out the furnaces after each cremation. “When they scoop out handfuls of ash from inside the furnace, how will you know they are mine? You might be paying tribute to someone else’s mother at Qingming.” She stood up and, to put an end to the conversation, began clearing the table.

Mother couldn’t bear to see her husband beaten so easily. “Where do you expect us to bury you?” she said. “Have you seen a cemetery in this city?” Grandma waved Mother off with annoyance. “Who said anything about being buried in Xi’an? I’m going back to the village in Henan,” she said. “I want to be buried with my husband.”

Our eyes were wide with disbelief. This was new.

Grandpa had died of tuberculosis more than forty years earlier and, according to Grandma, he was buried at an auspicious spot next to the Yellow River. She often bragged about how a well-known feng shui master helped choose the site, which he promised would bring prosperity to future generations. Grandma believed that being reunited with Grandpa would complete a generation cycle and her descendants, meaning me and my sisters and little brother, would be showered with blessings. “You are not doing this for me,” she said. “This is for the future of our family.”

 

As Grandma became more vocal and persistent about her approaching death, Father became more withdrawn. He seldom talked at dinner. Sometimes when I woke up in the night I could hear him murmuring to Mother about Grandma.

Like many Chinese in those days, Father was a fervent supporter of the Party. I saw how confident he was at public meetings, but at home he was different. One time our teacher read us an article denouncing the Confucian idea of “filial piety.” “If your parents or relatives engage in any counterrevolutionary activities, you should not hesitate to report them,” she said. When I related my teacher’s remarks to Father, he dismissed them as propaganda. “That’s what people say in public,” he said. “Only stupid people would betray the parents who raise and nurture them.” He warned me not to talk to others about what I heard at home. “It is none of their business,” he said.

After months of struggling with the decision, Father finally made up his mind. He told us to stay at the table after dinner one night, where he announced, “Grandma has sacrificed much for our family. It is our turn to make some sacrifices for her. We are going to save money and make a plan so that she can have her wish when she dies. We need to be very careful, because not everyone will understand, so you must not talk to your classmates about what we are doing for her.” And looking at each of us in turn, he said, “This must be our secret.”

As if to underscore the urgency of our undertaking, Grandma fell ill shortly thereafter. Her fever persisted despite the antibiotics Father obtained from the company clinic and, on the recommendation of a coworker, he rode his bicycle into the suburbs to see Dr. Xu, who knew about traditional medicine. Father, despite his belief in most things modern, did not entirely trust Western medicine. Dr. Xu worked as a technician at a factory that manufactured socks, but in the evenings he practiced herbal medicine to make some extra cash. He had been caught several times and I had seen big posters on the street near his factory denouncing him. Dr. Xu now only tended to the needs of friends. Dr. Xu came to our house and took Grandma’s pulse, examined her tongue, looked at her eyes. He said Grandma was suffering from shang huo—too much heat—and it was fueling infections inside her body. He jotted down a list of herbs and handed it to Father, who squinted at the doctor’s scrawled characters. Since I didn’t have school the next morning, I took the prescription to a musky-smelling shop stocked with herbal medicines and watched as roots and grasses and things I couldn’t name were taken from glass jars lining the walls to be weighed and crushed and mixed into six small packets.

For six nights, Father emptied the contents of a packet into a small clay pot of water, which was left to bubble and brew for a couple of hours on a coal stove. The resulting infusion was enough to fill a bowl to the brim and Grandma would drink down the dark juice, grimacing as she swallowed.

The illness drained Grandma’s strength, but not her determination. She instructed Father to have the casket made. I sensed she was worried that, without a casket, Father would bow to Party pressure and dump her body into a furnace as soon as she dropped dead.

Over the next few days, Father came home early only to go right out again. He spent several evenings with one particular friend, whom we respectfully addressed as Uncle Li, and together they explored the possible political ramifications of Grandma’s burial arrangements. Uncle Li, who had known Father since they were apprentices twenty years before, was head of the Municipal Light Industry Bureau, the agency that regulated Father’s company. He admired Father’s courage. “Your mother has gone through so much and this would be a nice way to pay her back,” Uncle Li told Father. Uncle Li said he would try to cover for Father if anything went wrong, but if things were handled quietly he doubted there would be any problems. “You come from a proletariat family and your mother was a poor, illiterate maid. They’ll probably let you get away with it,” he said. It occurred to me that our neighborhood harbored many secrets, including where to find someone who made caskets for a living, even though the practice was outlawed and punishment could be severe, both for the maker and the buyer. Father thought that if a casket might in some way help make Grandma well and offer her peace of mind, he was willing to take the risk.

 

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