What was wrong with me? Was I just selfish?
OK, I admit I meant to write about the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas.
A grand old (supposedly haunted) hotel that dates back to glamorous early 20th century Dallas, I was going to spend part of the day exploring, talking to folks, and soaking in the atmosphere. All the people of a "certain generation" I've spoken to in Dallas have a story about the haunted Adolphus. And while I can't afford to stay there, I thought I could certainly do some firsthand sleuthing.
Well, things didn't go as planned.
I don't have a driver's license anymore, so I'm at the mercy of my parents to drive me everywhere (until Mr. Louise gets to town from Hong Kong tomorrow). Unfortunately my mom had to work and my dad had to deal with some dudes fixing their flooded bathroom. So no Adolphus for Louise.
Writing those last few sentences while sitting in my childhood bedroom I really feel like I'm 13 again.
But never fear, Creepy Corneristas! I actually think I stumbled into something just as interesting, if not more so: Story time with Mom and Dad Hung.
Sitting in my parents' favorite strip mall seafood restaurant ("They have such good catfish!") between work/bathroom fixing, we SOMEHOW found ourselves talking about my great grandmothers' funerals.
While admittedly very "un-Texas" and an unexpected way to kick off my Great American Road Trip, I found our conversation oddly fitting and TOTALLY fascinating. I hope you do too.
"I'm glad I get to tell you all this stuff before I forget it," my mom started in. "Chinese-Buddhist funerals just aren't quite like this anymore, it's so much time, and frankly it's probably so expensive now. But back when I was a kid, my mother INSISTED her mother be buried in the Chinese-Buddhist way."
"Oh yeah," my dad chimed in between sips of his sweet tea. "Your Mar Mar [my grandmother on my dad's side] felt the same way. We had to honor her mother properly."
OK, so how did it start?
"So, my grandmother died and we immediately moved her body downstairs, and put her over blocks of ice," my mother dove in.
"You know, my mother could smell when someone was about to die?" My dad added in with more than a little pride.
"Yeah! I wish she was still around to tell you about all the Chinese death stuff," my mom sighed. "She was like one of those death cats who know when someone is on their way out! I know there's an actual medical reason for the smell, but Mar Mar was also very sensitive."
I really love thinking of my beloved Mar Mar as a soothing "death cat."
"Anyway, so we moved my grandmother's body down to the ice blocks, and from there we waited until the most auspicious time to bury her. This was a common thing. Depending on when the monks said was the best time and day, we could either be waiting a very short time, or a rather long time. With my grandmother it was over two days."
"My grandmother too, it was about two days," said my dad. "And there were so many monks! Over 30 monks chanting and hitting metal gongs. There was so much incense in our house!"
"You know why there was so much incense?" asked my mom. "Because in the Hong Kong heat, sometimes the body — depending on how long it was waiting to be buried — would start to smell. So aside from religious reasons, the incense was practical."
Over those days, did you stay up around the clock with the dead?
"Oh yes!" Both my parents said.
"We'd take turns sleeping," explained my mom. "But someone was always sitting awake with the dead, so the soul of the deceased would not get lost, lonely, or confused. It's a strange transition, you know, death."
I'd imagine so. And Dad, your family sat up too?
"Yes, and the monks kept chanting, chanting, chanting. Oh man, all the chanting! And there was so much bowing! People would come to pay their respects and bow to my family, then bow to the monks, then bow to the body, and then everyone who was able to bow would bow back at the visitors. Bowing and chanting, bowing and chanting!"
"And you know, the dead had to be dressed in a certain way," Mom said, appearing as if she was trying to pluck a memory out of her brain. "I think... I think it was seven layers of clothing. Definitely an odd number, so the death would not repeat. Even numbers will bring repetition. I don't remember all the layers, but there was a layer of silk, a layer of cotton, a layer of a very rough fabric like a sack... I don't remember it all."
So how would the actual burying go?
"You're getting ahead of yourself," my mom held up her hand. "First you had to get the body to the coffin. THAT was a whole big next step."
OK... how would that happen?
"So first, the head monk took over and told everyone what to do. When the coffin was ready and in place in the next room, and my grandmother's body was ready to be transported, he said in Cantonese, 'I invite you all to look away.' It wasn't an invitation though, it was a command. You CANNOT look at the body as it is being moved to the coffin."
"The soul will get confused and try to latch on to the family and home. So you look away so the soul can focus on transitioning to the next life."
Oh, that makes me kind of sad.
"It's not easy to be a dead person in Hong Kong."
So once the great grandmas were moved — body and soul — to their coffins, would they then go to the cemetery?
"Yes," my dad picked up the telling. "My grandmother was driven to Chiu Yuen Cemetery, where the grave was all ready for her. Once we arrived, the coffin was carried to her grave, but before it could be lowered in, a giant white tent was raised and the monks told us all to look away again, literally turn our backs. Then her body was lowered into the grave."
Same reasoning of not confusing the soul?
"Yes. The hope is that the soul would not try to reach out one last time to stay with the living," Dad explained. "The last thing that had to be done was my father, as the male head of the family, had to inspect the coffin's placement in the earth. He had to make sure it was perfectly straight in the grave, and adjust it if it was crooked. I'm honestly entirely sure why, but it had something to do with the head of the dead person facing the right cardinal direction."
"But then!" My mom remembered a detail. "You couldn't just throw dirt over the coffin and call it a day. There were layers. A layer of dirt, a layer of sand, a layer of dirt, sand, dirt, sand, dirt... again I think seven layers. Definitely an odd number, for good luck."
"And the monks would keep chanting," my dad reminded us. Dad is obsessed with the chanting.
Mom got that distant look in her eye and shared with us what to me was the most profound aspect of my great grandmother's burial and funeral.
"My favorite part was that after we buried my grandmother, the head monk said [in Cantonese], 'We come empty handed, we leave empty handed,' meaning that we go unencumbered to the next existence. We are born with nothing, we go with nothing. I love that.
When I think about the possibility of past lives and future lives, it's so important that we pass through each life empty handed. How horrible would it be to carry the full knowledge of your children, your loved ones, into the next life? You'd be so sad, so regretful. I don't know what I believe, but I know I want to leave the world alone and free, and with my loved ones free too."
And with that, my mom turned a lunch over sweet tea and catfish into a meditation on how we choose to approach death.
As we three Hungs exited the catfish restaurant back into the hot Texas sun, my mom asked me if their grandmothers' funerals frightened or unnerved me. I told her that "frightening" or "unnerving" were the LAST ways I think of those funerals. They are the ultimate human rituals — actively devoting a little piece of your life to caring for your dead. What could be more intimate? More precious?
The entire afternoon spent talking to my parents about how they were raised to regard death was not how I expected to spend my day, but it was an experience that left me a little wiser.
We come empty handed, we leave empty handed.
I may not have gotten the chance to visit a piece of Dallas history, but instead I got to learn about a piece of my own history.