From an old diary, a funeral celebrates the memory of a much-loved grand old lady

GRANNY is taken critically ill and warded at Toa Payoh Hospital. The adult members of her extended family hold a council at Fourth Uncle's farmhouse in Koh Sek Lim Road, Changi Village, where Granny had been living the past few years. The kerosene pressure lamp is lit and hung over the rafter, casting a pale yellow glow over my uncles and my father as they discussed Granny's impending death and funeral arrangement.

Granny is now 74 years old and most people felt she could not survive this latest bout of illness. It is enough that she has lived through three generations. Sixth Uncle, the youngest of her nine children, and the poorest in the group, wanted an elaborate funeral and a good coffin that would cost, say $1,000.

"Where are you going to get that much money?" asks my Aunt (Granny's second daughter and my mom's younger sister), who together with her husband, was doing a roaring business selling Hakka yong tau foo. A decade ago, Granny taught the couple the secret of making delicious yong tong foo (the popular fishball and fish paste snacks), in the process, making them wealthy. Granny herself, however, remained poor. A cheap coffin would do, says the husband, since according to him, Granny would be cremated according to Buddhist rites.

His remarks start a heated exchange between him and Sixth Uncle. In the end, Fourth Uncle (Granny's favourite son who is the only one among his siblings educated in both Chinese and English, and considered the best talker of the family) settles the argument with his clever reasoning: He is all for a good coffin, he says. In fact, he wants only the best for Mother who has struggled and given so much to bring them up. But times are bad and not everyone is well-off. Granny surely would not mind if they give her a reasonably-priced coffin – not cheap, but reasonably-priced, he stressed – as she must be aware that though their sentiments are high, their funds are low.

With this, Fourth Uncle has everyone nodding to an inexpensive coffin with a clear conscience.

Next is the question of cremation vs. burial. Again, Fourth Uncle reasoned that it is time-consuming to bury Granny since sooner or later the government would acquire the cemetery land for development and the bones would have to be taken out. Moreover, it is right and proper in Buddhism to cremate a person. Lord Buddha himself was cremated; so uncle couldn't see why Granny – a devout follower of the Dharma – should be an exception.

Then the discussion moves on to more mundane things like who is to be in charge of refreshment and the supply of joss-sticks and spirit money, the number of guests expected, placing notices in the local newspapers, the number of days for the wake, which temple staff to call to conduct mass, and managing contributions for the expenses.

It is midnight when the talking ends. Thus, before Granny could pass away, all details for her funeral have been anticipated and settled, to everyone's satisfaction.

Granny dies at noon in the hospital. Sixth Uncle informs everyone he has, on his own initiative, ordered an $800 coffin. “Isn't that a bit too much?" asks my father tactfully, recalling what was discussed before.

"No," says Sixth Uncle. "I went to the undertaker and what cheap coffins he showed me were between $400 and $600. But the quality of the wood is disgraceful. The coffin I ordered is just about perfect, and I’m sure you will all agree with me that since this is the last chance to show our gratitude to mother, let's give her something good."

My father looks doubtfully at him and recites some lines from an old poem:

They placed costly medicine by my bed
But my heart only yearns
Beyond the clouds for my old home
Passing on, I leave this red dust never to return.

Grandma had been a remarkable person in her days. She was born in the British-administered Straits Settlements, in 1901. It was also the last years of the Manchu Dynasty of China. Grandma had lived through revolutions, wars, the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and political and social upheavals – from the last China Emperor to the day man stepped on the moon.

At 30, Granny was left a widow and singlehanded brought up a near-dozen children. She worked as a seamstress, she sold chicken eggs house-to-house, she was engaged in temple charity, and by the time I was born in 1951, she was a respectable landlady in Chinatown.

She must have been attractive in her girlhood, for when I was a child, I remembered her still handsome features, bright alert eyes, and straight poise.

My family lived for a decade at Granny's rambling house while my father was working in Indonesia. She could make cakes, meat dumplings, rice wine and almost every mouth-watering dish in the Chinese cuisine. In the last two years of her life when she was harassed by constant illness, her mental faculties were clear and alert. We felt as if she was a visitor from some better world who was even then making ready her departure.

In the morning Granny's body is claimed from the hospital mortuary. A vast green canvas awning is built over the courtyard of the farmhouse. The open coffin is placed in the middle of the yard. A tall wooden bench in front of the coffin serves as an altar; with a milk can filled with rice grain used as an incense holder.

The abbess from the Guanyin Bodhisattva temple in Geylang is already here, chanting the opening mass. During the reading of the Holy Scripture, the family, all 40 members, gather around the coffin to kowtow to their Mother and Grandmother.

When mass has been said, I gaze wordlessly at Granny's still form. It is the last time I am seeing those beloved, familiar features.

Even now, reading this diary piece four years after the funeral, I can still recall every facial line, so peaceful and resigned. A mist of sadness stole into my heart that moment.

Meanwhile, wreaths, scrolls and banners (blankets with words proclaiming the dead person's virtues in large characters) from relatives, friends and clan asociations, started arriving, and have to be prominently put up. This is important because when the guests come, they want to see where and how prominent their funeral paraphernalia are displayed.

The coffin is covered at 5 o'clock in the evening. The womenfolk broke into loud wailing as the last nail is hammered in. I am surprised to see my stout aunts, who, after duly shedding copious tears, dry their faces and start preparing dinner efficiently for the large number of visitors expected at nightfall.

As darkness settles over the countryside and the insect hum rises to a crescendo, I join a few of my cousins around the coffin, burning the spirit paper money or Hell's Banknotes, that would, hopefully, finance Granny's passage through the Underworld. We, all young working adults now, fall to talking about the way Granny had once loved and treated us – the movies she took us along to watch at Metropole Cinema, the religious festivals she celebrated with piles of cakes, buns and other yummy dishes (offered first to the household gods, then for the kids) and the trips we made with her to parks and fairs. The night wears on wih the chattering of insects all around. A cold wind springs up and we huddle closer to the fire feeling Granny's presence very much with us.

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Life is a dream,
they tell

Those who dream of the banquet, wake up to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow wake to join the hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they are dreaming. Some will even interpret the very dream they are dreaming; and only when they awake do they know it was a dream. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we find out that this life is really a great dream.

Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know – this one is a prince and that one is a shepherd. What narrowness of mind! Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams – I am but a dream myself.

– Chuang Chou, On Levelling All Things, translated by Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of China, p93 (1956)

Chuang Chou was the philosopher who famously said he dreamt he was a butterfly, and when he awoke, wasn't sure if he were a butterfly dreaming it was Chuang Chou.
Getting Granny ready for home