The Death Issue


Calavera Las Bicicletas, by the Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada

It’s the time of year to honour the dead, usually by wearing outrageous costumes and eating too much candy. While we at the Ethnic Aisle love a good party where you can’t tell who anyone is, this year we thought we’d take All Hallow’s Eve and Día de Muertos a little more literally.

Here are some personal reflections by Torontonians of various cultures on death, dying and remembering both here, and abroad. They’re about ancestors, and decisions, and grief – and also about love, and how we choose to live.

In A Way of Death, Heather Li describes why her annual visit to her family graves is actually kind of fun.

Rawiya Kameir explains the Sudanese ritual of beit el-bikka for In the House of Crying, a dramatic display of grief that first annoyed, then comforted, her.

Perhaps it happens in many cultures, but Helen Mo has only seen Asian and South Asian families hide death and illness from older relatives. “With one act, it’s possible to both love and disrespect,” she writes in Don’t Tell Grandma.

In God Lives in India, Vivek Shraya writes about love, faith, disillusionment, and the death of his personal God, the multifaith guru Sai Baba.

After 40 years in Toronto, Septembre Anderson’s relatives still grieve using Trinidadian mourning rituals. She talks about the death of her uncle in Nine Nights and Forty Days. 

For many Torontonians, deaths of relatives we loved–or hardly knew–happen on different continents.

Adwoa Afful reflects on the passing of her grandmother and great-grandmother in On Death and Mourning From a Distance. 

While Pacinthe Mattar talks about how “shame and guilt move through my veins” when she missed the funerals of her grandmothers and uncles in Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived.


Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived


By Pacinthe Mattar

I knew my Booba was gone before anyone told me. My phone screen showed a missed call and voicemail from my brother in Dubai, and the tears came right away. “I don’t wanna check that voicemail. I know what it is,” I said to my best friend.

But I did, and after listening threw myself onto that spot – half-chest, half-shoulder – and sobbed. My Booba, my mother’s mom, the woman who infused generations to come with ideas of kindness, warmth, generosity, and above all love, love, love – had died.

It was March 2010 in Toronto. Mid-week. I was enrolled in a Master’s program with a full course load, a thesis project, and a job as a tutor. There was no way I’d be able to fly to Alexandria, Egypt, for the funeral. According to Islamic custom, burials take place as soon as possible. She’d be buried before I got off the first of two flights it would take to get there.

I was 25, and I’d still never seen death up close. Not my kind of death, where a life ends sometime before dawn and is put to rest before sunset after a final cleansing. All my life, deaths have taken place in Egypt, where I was born but had never lived, and I was never there when death came.

The first time death struck close to home it was my cousin’s father Khalo Mohsen, a heavy smoker who was just recovering from a heart attack. I was barely 10 and my cousin Mai, just a couple of years older than me, had already lost her mother to a car accident. Mai, whom I’d always envied for her beauty, was suddenly an orphan and completely unenviable.

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Nine Nights and Forty Days: Grief, Trinidadian Style

Septembre Anderson with, from left, her Uncle Ojay, grandmother and Uncle Lyndon.

Septembre Anderson with, from left, her Uncle Ojay, grandmother and Uncle Lyndon.

By Septembre Anderson

Two years ago, my 47-year-old Uncle Lyndon died from lymphoma.  A persistent shoulder injury turned out to be a tumor, and over a painfully distressing year, my family watched my athletic, energetic uncle, winner of many dancing, lacrosse and boxing trophies, succumb to the Big C.  Before him, the last person on the maternal side of my family to pass away had been my great-grandmother, when I was still in diapers. A family unused to death and loss was devastated as my grandmother had to bury her son and my mom and her siblings had to bury their younger brother.

My family has lived in Toronto for almost 40 years, but for my elders, coping with death means the Trinidadian ritual of the Nine Nights. The Caribbean is a medley of various cultures and the Nine Nights has its roots in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. For nine nights after my uncle passed away, my family held wakes filled with food, friends, family, booze and music. This collective mourning ensured that the darkest hours, figuratively and literally, wouldn’t be spent alone.

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Don’t Tell Grandma

Hazy Grandma PictureBy Helen Mo

One night when I was nine, my mother explained that my paternal grandmother would not return to our home in Canada. My grandparents had returned to Hong Kong for what was intended to be a short visit and it was there that my grandmother’s cancer made itself known. Doctors gave her three months. Because my father’s siblings all lived in Hong Kong, they decided that my grandmother should stay with them to be cared for in what time remained.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was unaware of her diagnosis. Her adult children shrouded her in unknowing. She had been told that her treatments were cancer “prevention” treatments, her medications also “preventative.” When my family flew to Hong Kong soon afterward, she was the only one not in on the secret that it was no ordinary reunion, but a last goodbye.

This story has a twist, however: to everyone’s surprise but her own, my grandmother defied her prognosis. She thrives to this day, seemingly oblivious to her fortune.

The next story has no happy escape. Two years ago, my teenage cousin died in an Algonquin Park car accident. My mother and grieving aunt called their sisters in Hong Kong; together, they decided not to tell their elderly mother. Her heart was bad, her spirits low. They reasoned that she was better off untroubled in what time remained.

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In the House of Crying

by Rawiya Kameir

The sound of wailing carried way down the road. Shrill, disembodied cries floated out of the house and into dusty Khartoum.

It was the day after my grandmother’s passing. Hundreds of people—literally hundreds, immediate and distant family, old and new friends, friends of friends, neighbours, former coworkers, classmates, domestic employees, women who simply might’ve sat next to her at a wedding—were passing through to offer their condolences on the death of the formidable matriarch at the helm of my mother’s family.

Conservative norms mean few publicly sanctioned social events in Sudan, making a funeral just as important an occasion for communal gathering as awedding. (There’s as much makeup and fine silk on display, too.) In the days and weeks following a death, the bereaved open their homes to masses of mourners, who arrive as early as 8am and stay as late as midnight, bound by obligation more than grief to make an appearance.

Beit el-bikka, which translates to “the house of crying,” is literally that. Some women cry for real, while others fake-cry with the theatrical dexterity of a low-budget soap opera. The louder and longer their sobs, the more hollowed by your loss they are proving themselves to be—according to one of my aunts, it’s respectability insurance for when it comes time to gossip.

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A Way of Death

Heather Li's grandparents' grave in Scarborough

Heather Li’s grandparents’ grave in Scarborough

By Heather Li

My family and I visit the cemetery twice a year, once in spring and again in autumn. In front of my paternal grandparents’ tombstone, we lay out a whole steamed chicken, roast pork, oranges, candies and tea on a wood board wrapped in a red cloth. We burn incense, bow three times then do it again two rows over, at my eldest aunt’s grave. Afterwards, my cousins and I catch up, tease one another and complain about how it always rains when we visit (it does). Meanwhile our aunts and uncles burn fake money (bills marked up to $10,000,000) in a metal barrel punched with holes, to allow oxygen to fuel the fire. Later, everyone comes back to my dad’s house after to eat the food offerings and hang out.

It’s a really fun day.

I’ve grown up visiting the cemetery, since my grandmother died before I was born, my aunt a few months after my birth and my grandfather when I was five. All of my Chinese friends with dead relatives buried in the city do the same around the same time every year. “What are you doing this weekend?,” I ask a close Chinese friend. “I gotta go to the cemetery,” she replies nonchalantly. “Oh yeah. I think we’re doing that next weekend,” I say.

As a child, I also spent a lot of time in funeral homes. My dad has a lot of cousins, a lot of friends and someone (who I usually didn’t know) was always dying. I was more stressed out saying hello to unfamiliar living adults than peeking at the dressed-up corpse at the front of the room. We have photo albums of family friends standing next to open caskets, posing for the camera. My older sister thinks it’s odd, morbid even, but I think I get it. We sent these pictures overseas to the people who couldn’t travel to Toronto and pay their respects. It’s a direct link to their community.

Death isn’t tragedy. And it isn’t something to fear. In Chinese culture, when someone dies, we grieve, we are sad but we also celebrate, we come together as family and friends and we understand the reality of life.

Lessons from an ‘Ethnic’ Wedding

By Helen Mo


Ok, but why did Rachel’s wedding have an “Indian” theme again?

Thanks to a tidal wave of Millennials hitting marriageable age, who among us hasn’t scrambled for a wedding gift or flicked through a score of Facebook engagement shots lately? In my own demographic, the flurry of matrimonial undertakings seems have generated a real ambivalence. On one hand, most weddings are inherently joyous affairs. Two people starting a life together with a public declaration of love and a big party – what’s not to love? On the other hand, a public declaration of love and a big party in an age of heady materialism and narcissism – what such event could escape a firestorm of judgment and participant fatigue?

There’s already a well established backlash against the standard wedding, that tulle-enshrouded extravaganza now homogenized into a pastiche of emotionally loaded and frequently expensive conventions. And although indie weddings may have been conceived as the hip, artisanal repudiation of uninspired weddings, once DIY brides and blogging aesthetes realized that rustic stylings are eminently photogenic, the choice between a flower crown and a tiara soon reflected mostly differences in taste rather than actual values.

In the midst of this fraught landscape, I propose taking a few lessons from an unlikely source: so-called ethnic weddings. It seems – in some slices of Canadian society, anyway – “ethnic weddings” get something of a free pass, particularly from those outside the ethnic community in question:

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