Our Mortal Coils
Thank you…for gracing my life with your lovely presence, for adding the sweet measure of your soul to my existence - Richard Matheson, What Dreams May Come
We all gonna die, we bleed from similar veins. - Tupac
This one is about mortality.
A chilling thought crosses my mind from time to time: that the present is simply a recording for an older, fatter version of myself to replay. It forces me to consider the flimsiness of the present. And begs me to start taking in the granular details of life at high resolution.
I get emotional in that space and have to work to stay on top of whatever’s in front of me. The stuff that’s supposed to be important, but seems less than so. It’s hard. If you ever talk to me and I seem distracted, that’s one of the things I’m thinking about. Staring at a terrifyingly gorgeous situation. Trying to both absorb it now and remember it in the future. A deer in the headlights. We’re not quite equipped for the weight of what our imaginations can conjure.
There is a blurry version of a day in my recent memory. An experience I was both honored and nervous to attend. I don’t want to dishonor the dead by accidentally saying too much. I’d hate to break a social contract that I don’t understand. So I must treat this with care and tenderness. I can say that it was a funeral. It was a funeral that I was late to. And it was a buddhist funeral.
There were some crucial moments that engraved themselves into me. Stitching now a part of my fabric. Threads that I’ll eventually take for granted. They’ll be there but I’ll forget from time to time. Moments that were weaved together like a grim symphony, a shining moonrise testament to our raw humanity. One was epiphany, one was a bit abstract, but the first was looking at a dead body.
The dead body
I’d never seen a dead person before. It’s something I have probably lied about to avoid a conversation about looking at dead bodies, but I hadn’t seen one up to that point. There are few moments more emotionally poignant than a funeral.
Funerals are pointed and structured. Where mourning can happen in a less chaotic fashion than our angry biology would ask of us. And in that heavy air I tried not to look at the open casket. But I was somehow drawn to it against my will. Around an ornate shrine of dedication. Red and gold, with pictures and food.
But it was exactly that to me: an uninhabited home, well worn. Lived in for many years and now abandoned. The person I had known was gone. And that person had a very large impact on my life. She had told me my future.
Several years prior… An occasion that I’ll drink for is one close friend’s birthday party. It had become a tradition since college. One fantastic feature of each of these birthdays was Grandma. She didn’t speak a word of English, and my Chinese has always teetered on poor enough to just-get-the-gist and nod.
You’d think that a party that involved a grandmother might be tame, but she was the progenitor of most of my debauchery. It is impossible to turn down a shot from a very respectable old woman who just fed you food - a lot of which she grew herself. And fed us she did. Everyone remembers the food. I daydream about it from time to time.
There is an unnamed concept I would use to describe a set of memories like this. Those memories that happened in one place under one singular circumstance on more than one occasion. They feel like a single large instant where only the highlights distinguish them individually. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you what year or which birthday my future was foretold to me. The memory fits into a category of it’s own.
These parties would get crazy. Most everyone that came to the house would drink just a little too much. There was dancing and laughing and cajoling. I was wandering from room to room, probably looking for more food. Grandma, birthday girl and a friend were solemnly speaking in a corner of the kitchen.
I hovered on the fringe of the conversation to find out what was so serious amidst the music and disorderly fun. Then she looked at me and the party melted away. In a moment stolen from a tacky black and white film, Grandma grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in front of her. She stared into my eyes with ferocious focus and took hold of my ear, catching me completely off guard.
Then she shook her head.
She spoke fast and quieted Taiwanese dialect to me. I only caught a few words and asked my friend to translate. The fortune was strangely catered to my personality, strangely personal from someone who didn’t know me well and strangely delivered through a barrier of language. It was a fortune of almost-success and missed opportunities.
I’d bet that explanations are percolating to your tongue; You can spare yourself the mental summersaults. I’ve rationalized the moment at least a hundred different ways that don’t prevent it from messing with my head.
Nothing is or isn’t, but that moment felt so important. As if truly foreshadowing an event that is yet to come. Perhaps a self fulfilling prophecy. But that is the woman with so much life in her to share. With fierce sentiments, a strong demeanor, and an untouchable will.
In the present, she was not lying before me. Her painted, taut skin taught me what “done up like a corpse” means viscerally. And it was an icy plunge to behold in a chapel with the smells of grief and silent prayers carrying the tune. Chanting of monks drifted in from outside. In a flash, it was time for a procession.
We uninitiated stumbled over ourselves, confused as to where to go and what to do. Many attendees of those birthdays were present. Cleaving together in solidarity to ease our absolutely ignorant helplessness. There were miscommunications about who would follow who. And a car needed to get gas. Logistical nuances defy even death. We were driving to the cemetery when a thought dawned on me.
I looked at my girlfriend and inquired:
“What do you do for a funeral?”
“What do you do with dead bodies?”
“We wash them. The family has to wash them.”
“So if you were to die and we were a family…”
“You’d have to wash my body.”
I sat with the visual of each my favorite people lying in front of me. Lifeless. Some ceremonial sponge in my hand and my soul cringed. I realized that we all have these deep seated beliefs that don’t surface but for a few major events in our lives. We probably pretend that they aren’t that important because we don’t understand how important they are to us. They are subterraneous volcanoes erupt without our consent.
We flip out when people break our made up rules, and can’t even grasp why we’ve lost it. I imagined the human race as a stack of chimps. Silly looking animals pawing around a jungle forest. Taking themselves very seriously as they traded blows over mates and food.
Rows of the deceased greeted us as we drove over hills filled with droves of dead. Placards glared as we passed, shouting their years. 1993 to 2006; 1921 to 2011; 1900 to 1987. Is there an alumni association that welcomes us from the graduation from life? Do they hit up the recently dead with requests for funding for their next cohort?
The procession had beat us to the burial site by a few minutes, but the Four Pillars of Destiny (生辰八字 or more commonly referred to as the Bazi, which confusingly translates to ‘eight characters’) had decided a very specific time long ago; 10:20AM on the point. We walked up the steep and perfect grass to the ceremony.
A canopy, plastic chairs, a manmade promontory on a hill. And we tried not to step on the graves. They were plenty. Nearby, a bulldozer idled. A steel lever on wheels waited in the wings with a gigantic cement lid. A gas powered golf cart with tools and a hose queued behind that in turn. It struck me as strange that so much manual labor went into the whole affair.
And so it began. There was incense, chanting and bowing. Crying was stifled for the stern portions of the ceremony. There wasn’t a time for anyone to “say a few words.” Just a long series of sung prayers and the bells of monks in robes.
As the time became perfect, the immense lid was lifted and glued onto the sarcophagus. They lowered the vessel into a deep and rectangular hole in the ground. It felt like I had turned around and landed on a job site. Out of nowhere there were dirt compactors and sod layers. They operated sterilely. Machines pulled mountains of earth to fill the void.
I gazed at the people in plastic chairs with little plastic water bottles. The monks in bright colors. The spiritual master who dictated how the ceremony proceeded. The girl whose grandmother had died, who was falling apart. The gardeners, tending the hills of the dead. The strangers who were paying respects to the previously buried far off in the distance. The father, the son and the holy shit we’re all destined for death.
I was struck by the grandeur and began to cry.
I wanted hugs and warmth. I wanted sake and spicy shrimp. I wanted another conversation with grandma asking her what exactly she had meant. One more chance to know some secret that she had gained over her long and challenging years.
I was in sphere of cultural cross wiring. Humans clutching at their traditions when faced with the goodbye wave of mortality. This is life. Hinduism on the left, new age on the right, Islam somewhere in the middle at a Buddhist funeral. One gift of globalization. It’s these tears that we share that make it real.
We each carry a circle with us in our mindless day to day. It’s rare that these circles really ever touch or overlap. What do the ditch diggers at a mortuary feel when they attend a funeral for their loved ones? Death reminds us of the rules and then reminds us again that the rules are made up. I was once asked in a job interview what I think about diversity, now I have a good answer 6 years later.
The incense was put out. We walked down the hill without looking back.