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Middleburgh - Dead in Hong Kong

Part 2 in Births, Deaths & Marriages Trilogy

There has only been one occasion during my time here in Hong Kong where I have found myself out of my depth and overwhelmed by the “Chineseness” of it all. This was when I went with my partner to her brother-in-law's "funeral service" in Hom Hung. I was unprepared and although (I would like to think) worldly wise it was outside my cultural experience and frame of reference.

He was a normal working guy who unfortunately died in hospital He was survived by his wife and two children both in their early 20"s.

As I understand it bodies normally go to a public mortuary pending autopsies etc prior to being released to undertakers arranged by their relatives. In this case the body was taken to the complex around Cheong Heng Lane, Hom Hung where a number of undertakers rent "funeral parlour" facilities from the Government. It consists of at least 3 blocks (buildings) with multiple floors and rooms of different sizes to cope with different sized "funerals".

Typically the body rests at the 'funeral parlour' for a day when visitors can go and pay their respects .The body is normally arrives about lunch time for preparation. There is a service in the evening and another on the following morning after which the body is taken to the crematoria or cemetery. We went to the evening service. To get there involves a walk over a bridge/flyover overlooking the complex. To me it looked like a industrial site all lit up and working the night shift and invoked images from the film "Solyent Green' of the recycling centre where people went to die. It certainly wasn't in line with images of peaceful rest homes set in gardens, nor (at night) did it resemble the image used by Universal funeral parlours on their website

Around the complex are florists with "touts" taking orders for wreaths. These are large mounted displays with a "dedication" and the purchaser’s name. You place your order, give your name, the deceased name and pays your money and as if by magic the wreath arrives before you. To my surprise they even spelled my name correctly although the presentation deteriorated by the end - it was the only wreath with an English name.

The place was crowded and not unexpectedly there were a lot of distressed people. We took the lift up to find the room. It was rather like hunting for a ward in a hospital. There was a long corridor with people sitting or milling about, and rooms off to one side. It was incredibly noisy and seemed chaotic. Rooms had wide double swing doors (and it seemed that most were open which meant that as we marched past we could stare in and gawk. There were Buddhist and Taoist priests chanting or playing musical instruments and it seemed to me that they were trying to outcompete at noise levels and in additional to genuinely hysterical relatives there appeared to be professional mourners wailing as well. In the corridor where people had retreated for a chat and a smoke (this was before the smoking ordinance was enacted) the noise was no less. Hong Kongers are apparently incapable of chatting quietly - you only have to go to a restaurant for proof.

It all seemed so undignified - almost disrespectful but then what would I know

When we found "our" room we signed in which I think it is similar to the signing in at a wedding. "Guests" were given a small Chinese sweet (a candy) and a small envelope containing a coin. They gave in return a "white" envelope containing money as a gift to the deceased family presumably to help with expenses and help them. Traditionally if the breadwinner had died this gift would go to supporting the family till the got themselves sorted. I believe the reason the coin is given is similar to that for money given with wedding invitation. However the coin should be spent and not taken home. My partner and her family were insistent were bought something to get rid of the coins before we went home. A local corner shop was doing great business in “tic tacs” and the like. My partner said the sweet was to take away the bitterness of death (?) but she wasn’t sure.

When we entered the room we faced a table at the far end on which was a large framed photograph of the deceased surrounded by lit incense sticks. As a group we made two bows towards the photo to give respect to the dead and then faced and formally bowed once to the immediate family who were kneeling to the right of the table, facing into the room. They also bowed to us. We then sat on the right side by them (on chairs) watching the throng in the corridor watching us and watching the guests who can after us genuflect as they entered. The body was laid out in a room behind the table and could be viewed through a window at the side.(we passed on that)

Opposite the "guests" were Taoist priests and musicians chanting and playing instruments. They seemed to be taking it in turns drifting in and out of the room and improvising (I am sure they weren't but that was the impression I got). Eventually they got to a point in the service where a large paper and wire construction was pulled into middle of the room. This as I understand was a bridge like those you see on willow pattern plates which symbolized the bridge between this world and the next. Essentially the service is about easing the deceased spirit into next world.

If I remember correctly the immediate family, shepherded by the priests, then got up and walked around the bridge carrying paper lamps and paper effigies symbolic of lighting the way and helping the deceased to make the crossing. (if they weren't carrying the lamps and the effigies then the priests were)

The family were of course dressed in white funeral robes made of a canvas/sacking material with white canvas ‘plimsoles” and white hoods and white head bands. White is the Chinese color for death. In addition to being upset due to the death it was clear that the children were very nervous about doing "things right"

Afterwards when it came time to leave we went up to them to offer our condolences and in keeping with my cultural tradition I wished them all a “long life” … before hitting the corner shop.


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