On cemeteries

An article I wrote for SBS about visiting the cemetery. Something to cheer us up! 😉

When I was a child, while other families would go bike riding or to the beach at the weekend, mine would have a trip to the cemetery. To me, it was better than going to the shops, and there was nothing creepy about our visits – no thunder claps or crows giving us the side-eye; in fact, it was always sunny when we went and the mood was buoyant.

We’d meet at family HQ (my Grandma’s), then drive convoy-style through the quiet suburbs to the cemetery. The sound of car doors slamming would be followed by the hubbub of baskets and trays of food being unloaded. My brother, cousins and I would race ahead through the entrance gate, down the main path, right at the end, then right again till we got to the grave.

When the adults arrived grave-side, they’d immediately start to work through the long list of things to be done to honour my Great Grandmother. Dad would whip out his gardening gloves and do a little weeding, while aunts would be emptying out vases of decayed flowers and swampy water. Us kids were tasked with getting fresh water, and off we’d pop to the nearest tap to fill up. When we got back, the grave top was laden with food – roast pork, roast duck, poached chicken and multiple kinds of buns – and a lacey, umbrella-shaped food protector plonked on top to keep the flies off.

As the busyness continued, I’d have a mosey about looking at the dates on other headstones, peering through cracked sarcophagi and marvelling at the more elaborate sites with glass doors and marble angels. Then I’d wander back to enquire if I could have a bun yet. The answer was always no.

Hmmpf. To an eight-year-old it seemed illogical to keep offering food to someone who never ate it. And who was this person they called Great-Grandmother? I knew she was in the grave, but I’d never met her.

Three decades later, I have a better understanding of my Great-Grandmother, Toy Yeung Chu, who came to Australia from China in 1966 to live out her final five years. She was illiterate and hobbled through life on bound feet. Her toes were bandaged down until they were broken, and her feet misshapen into triangles as was the custom then so she wouldn’t have to do hard physical work. And through all of this she was tough, clever and resourceful. She was also said to be quite strict, so maybe a substandard grave-top buffet offering would have unleashed an angry ghost.

Luckily my family always brought delicious foods, and other important rituals weren’t forgotten. Three wine-filled teacups and three pairs of chopsticks were placed close to the headstone so that Great-Grandmother had something to drink and something to eat with. The adults would then hold incense sticks and bow three times (apparently once for heaven, once for earth and once for man), then pour the wine on the ground. In hindsight, she’d probably have preferred it left in the teacups.

“Come on, bow!” the adults would tell us, gesturing for us to follow suit. Naturally, we’d do the most theatrical bows possible, usually in slow motion or frantically sped up.

Then it was time for the exciting part – the pyrotechnics! Dad would put a stack of fake money in a tin to burn, the translucent paper curling and turning black until it was ashes. This was definitely no currency that would be accepted at the local milk bar, and later I was told it was ‘hell money’. While it sounds terrifying, it was money for my Great Grandmother to spend on the other side, a kind of pocket money for the afterlife. It is also acceptable to burn paper replicas of cars and whitegoods, as well as PlayStations and fax machines – anything to help your relative be more comfortable in the next life.

When all the formalities were over, the lace food protector was whipped off and I could finally get my greedy paws on the custard buns. Then we’d start packing up the trays and basket and head off back to the cars and on to HQ to eat the rest of the food.

I haven’t been to the cemetery for two decades now: life, work, children and negligence have all gotten in the way.

“Hey,” Dad said a while back. “You should bring the kids to visit the cemetery one day!”

While that would perhaps not be as easy a sell as Disneyland, maybe I will. It would give them a taste of some of their culture and could gently expand the concept of death for them (my four-year-old’s current level of understanding is that there are French fries in heaven and you get there by helicopter). I could also tell them about Toy Yeung Chu and the other relatives who have died since I was a child.

While I don’t think that my children would continue these traditions, in the very distant future when I’m pushing up daisies, if they come to visit me I’d like scones with jam and some lip balm to enjoy in the afterlife.  Roaming about the spirit world with dry lips would indeed be hellish.

No bird gave me the side eye

3 thoughts on “On cemeteries

  1. I used to go to my wife’s family’s grave/s once a year, before Tet, to clean up the grave with a machete and broom and stick nice stuff on it.


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