Grave business of death and afterlife

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 1998, 12:00am

Arising star of the Hong Kong civil service, Patrick Chim Wing-ming, 32, entered a humorous speech contest a week ago. He signed up at the last minute to fill in for a contestant who dropped out. This columnist and all the judges were highly impressed with his performance, and gave him first prize.

The next morning he was dead. Patrick collapsed doing a sponsored run to raise money for charity.

In respectful memory of this sadly missed man, and since we have just passed Chung Yeung, the grave-sweeping festival, let us consider a brief history of death in Hong Kong.

Today, most deceased are cremated in the SAR after a Buddhist, Taoist or Christian ceremony.

But until recently, the Chinese tradition which required the dead to be buried where they were born created a problem. Right up to the 1970s, the majority of the SAR's people were not Hong Kong-born.

That meant that Hong Kong needed a sort of Grand Central Station for deceased travellers.

For decades, dead bodies would be stored at the coffin depository at Sandy Bay (near Pokfulam), waiting transshipment to their heung ha, or ancestral home, in China. But in 1949, the Communist Party stopped allowing coffins into the mainland, and a huge backlog built up.

A visitor to the depository in 1960 found 10,000 bodies, in coffins, urns, boxes, rattan baskets and even old biscuit tins.

The depository was eventually shut down, and the remains buried in Hong Kong.

The customs associated with dealing with the deceased here have always been extremely complex. These days, families pick and choose which bits they wish to retain.

First, the dead body was washed. A loudly lamenting procession of male offspring would process to the village well, throw some coins in to please the Water God and buy water.

All cats in the house would be given into the care of neighbours. The ancient belief was that if a cat walked over a corpse, it would rise up and become a zombie.

Nails would be tucked into the coffin, because ding, the word for nail and male offspring, sound similar. Ancestors, even if they were dead, were responsible for making sure the family line continued.

Food was laid out next to the newly deceased person. This was for the local Earth God, who would invisibly nibble the food and then guide the soul through the regions of darkness.

Often, only one chopstick was provided, to slow down the Earth God's ability to eat, and prevent him rushing off before the ceremonies were complete.

It was long considered important to place several pairs of trousers on the deceased. Sometimes a man (or a woman) would be dressed in six pairs of trousers before burial. This was because the word for trousers, foo, sounds like a word for riches. The total number of garments on a male must be even, while those on a female must be odd.

When these ceremonies were complete, there were other challenges. Your neighbours considered it bad luck to have a coffin carried past their door. People on upper floors often had to have bamboo scaffoldings erected so that the coffin could exit through the window.

This practice ceased in the late 1950s, and bamboo stretchers were used to take bodies to the funeral parlour, sometimes on foot. One funeral in 1960 had a procession which included 16 funeral bands. Everyone did a circuit of the Happy Valley racecourse before heading to the cemetery.

Then you reached the graveyard. In the 1940s, a live cockerel would be held over the coffin and have its throat slit, so that blood would drip on the coffin. The cockerel's breeding powers would thus be transferred to the deceased for his next life.

By the 1950s, this was simplified. An unfortunate live chicken was swung over the grave on the end of a piece of string.

The funeral service was not the end of the event. After five years of burial, the coffin was dug up, the bones washed, and placed in an urn or a horseshoe-shaped grave. This was done to save space. These days, cremation fulfils the same objective.

The two grave-worshipping festivals in Hong Kong are Ching Ming (April) and Chung Yeung (October).

These days, families head for cemeteries where ancestors' ashes are buried in urns. They sweep the graves, remove weeds, and sometimes re-paint the inscriptions on the tombstones. The more traditional might have a picnic on the grave. As recently as the 1970s, clans would bring their biggest woks, light fires and cook entire meals for dozens of people in the graveyards.

Followers of tradition celebrate the major birthdays (51, 61, 71) of people even after they are dead. After the 81st birthday, they tend to stop, assuming that the person would have been reincarnated after that.

Traditional gifts to the dead (at the time of cremation or on major birthdays afterwards) were horses to ride, cranes on which to fly and sedan chairs in which to be carried. Paper versions of all these would be burned, to transfer them to the other world.

These days the 'designer-label' disease has invaded even this most sacred field. Today, death items shops in Hong Kong routinely carry Arrow label shirts, Mercedes-Benz cars, Ericsson mobile phones and Rolex watches, all made of card, and all with prominent designer labels.


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