Shanghai. I was born here but so much is still foreign to me.
I wake up for my grandmother’s funeral. Funerals here aren’t the somber, private affairs they tend to be in the States. This particular funeral parlor is two-story outdoor complex, like a Californian mall – multiple ceremonies happening at once in doorless rooms. Friends and relatives spill out of these chambers directly onto the paved walkways. Groups parade by with a son or daughter in the lead, carrying a portrait of the deceased against their chest. Workers prepare funereal wreaths by the escalator, and a row of hedges half-hides the tour buses that will shuttle the various parties to the restaurant for the ceremonial meal. There’s almost an amusement park air to this place, partly because of the necessities of a country with so many people and partly because the default aesthetic here is utopian optimism. Today, at lunch, my aunt showed me an illustrated cartoon map of the cemetery where grandma’s ashes are to be interred.
We arrive early and they’re just clearing out the room from the ceremony ahead of ours, and raising the banners for my grandmother on the wall behind the clear viewing case. The rooms are linked by a common back area where they hold the caskets before wheeling them out. From this back area comes the occasional wailing. A pair of funeral consultants explain how to line up the flowers, how we should stand, who should do what. And Modern China being a secular country, they are the we are going to come to having a priest or a monk. They are more like tour guides short on time. They wear fanny packs.
Quick speeches, one from my aunt, another from a work colleague. A consultant takes my grandpa, parents, and aunt and uncle into the back to bring out the casket, and wheel it under the display case. We take turns viewing my Ah bu. “Groups of five,” the consultant says. “Bow three times.” “Put the flower on top of the case.” Then the casket is wheeled out into the middle of the room and Ah bu’s body is covered in gold and silver-colored origami cubes and nuggets – “riches” to take with her to the other side. She is then covered in flowers – roses, pink and red; birds of paradise; chrysanthemums – that we pull from the funereal wreaths. “Don’t use the stems,” the consultant says. “Don’t let the flowers touch her face.” Once the case is filled, the lid goes on, and I am given a yellow hardware-store hammer.
Since my grandmother has two children, both daughters, and I am the oldest and only grandson present at the funeral, it is my job to drive all four nails into the coffin. I’m supposed leave the last third of the last nail exposed, which is explained to me as symbolic of leaving a legacy for the current generation. I start hammering the first nail and my dad tells me to slow down.
And I wonder: How slow or fast are you supposed to hammer in the nails to your grandmother’s coffin?