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.