The father of one of my best friends died suddenly last Saturday, and I passed by late Monday afternoon for the wake. Despite the fact that everyone at the funeral parlor appeared calm and almost... normal, I could feel a heavy sense of sadness that blanketed the entire room. There's a human trait that encourages us to put our best faces forward in any situation, and this was a prime example.
As you may recall, my own father passed on almost eight years ago, so I've seen these circumstances before. I don't think I've ever really seen it from this point of view, though, and sometimes the sadness felt as though it was going to suffocate everyone in tears.
There was a small shrine set up by the family in one corner of their little room, and sitting on the table was an assortment of remembrances: A pair of shoes. A favorite book. An old bowling ball. A group of old photos. A uniform, pressed and cleaned. I spent a few minutes going over the various mass cards and everyday items, and wondered why we never came up with anything like that for my dad.
But then I realized that I didn't know the deceased about as well as I hoped, and this family did. Maybe the little shrine was a way for them to tell us who he was, and what memories they would carry for the rest of their lives.
And that made me wonder further, about myself. For a moment, I wondered how anyone would remember me when I passed on.
I trudged outside to think for a few minutes, and perhaps get some fresh air. Outside the room, just beyond the entrance doors, was a massive construct of paper and wood -- a mansion made of glue and Japanese paper, with a few similar wood-frame sculptures nearby. There was a luxury car made out of paper, there was a yacht made out of paper, and there was even a sleek-looking airplane made out of paper. After experiencing the heavy atmosphere inside the room, the latter amused me somewhat.
I had seen the tradition before. You see, when the funeral takes place, the paper constructs are taken from their display and burned. This is done so that, when the deceased's spirit moves on to the afterlife, the sculptures will have somehow become what they were meant to be. In this case, the constructs were there to guarantee a mansion to live in, a car to get around and go places, perhaps a ship and a jet for longer journeys. Little human-size cutouts in the sculptures ensured that more than a few servants would be waiting in the afterlife as well.
I spent a few more minutes inside the room before I left. This time, I busied myself folding pieces upon pieces of ghost money -- bundled scraps of paper stamped with gold or silver foil that had to be curled and folded in a certain way. These would be burned along with the paper constructs to ensure that the deceased would have some wealth to use in the otherworld.
I was a little surprised that I remembered how to fold the scraps of paper in the right fashion, although eight years had dulled most of my skills in that regard. The family had already collected about an entire sackful of ghost money by that Monday afternoon, and I was sure that more would be completed by the time the funeral came around.
Putting about twenty of the bills together left me with a certain urge, however. Somewhere in the middle of the proceedings, I pulled the remains of a lunch receipt from my wallet and began making a few folds. After a few minutes I unfurled a tiny origami peacock in my right hand, to the smiles of a few onlookers.
And I remembered my father again, considering that he was the one who taught me the hobby in the first place. He was a collector of curiosities himself, and I wondered again as to why we never put together a little shrine to eulogize him during his wake.
I left the origami peacock leaning against a stainless steel thermos in the back room, then hitched up my knapsack and stepped out the door. Chinese tradition dictates a lot of things -- among them was the fact that one never says goodbye to the hosts during a wake. There was a strange metaphorical logic there, and I didn't question the practice.
Three floors down, I found that it was raining heavily outside. I was fortunate enough to have brought my umbrella, however, and as I passed more than a few pedestrians on my way to the car, I thought a little about the light at the end of life, our passing on, and the ones who we inevitably leave behind. Then I thought about how we are right now, we lone survivors on this gray earth, who carry the memories of those who have gone.
And finally, as with any being with a human heart would do, I moved on, leaving my ghosts behind.