Monday, December 10, 2012

Drawer # 8.6 : Things for the Dead

We don't especially know the other people who live in our lane and they don't especially seem to know each other: it's hard to imagine anyone here on our lane organizing a block party.  In winter, we mostly see our elderly neighbors on sunny afternoons, huddles of small old women, made smaller & squatter still by the layers of their padded clothes, set on short-legged stools close to the ground, escaping their small damp rooms. 

We do, however, know when one of them passes away. In the mornings, sometimes we find the markings of a funeral rite: a large chalk circle drawn on the ground, at its center the charcoal smudge of a swept-up pile of ashes. The chalk circle encloses the departed soul's earthly place, protects that soul from wandering the earth as a restless ghost. Much has been burnt to accommodate the soul into its after life: paper money, paper mansions complete with garage & Lexus, dvd player & large screen tv, paper clothes & cellphone, cigarettes, medicines, all the material things of this life sent along by fire & smoke to the ancestral life. Sometimes at night we come home while the family is standing around the circle, quietly stamping their feet against the cold, chatting on their cell phones, waiting for the fire to burn down. 

Once we sat drinking coffee at a smart cafe on the futuristic side of the river, inside the photo view that is Shanghai to the world. For two hours, three employees of the cafe nonchalantly fed an unending supply of joss, spirit money, into a small brazier just to the side entrance of the cafe. Wads & wads of flimsy rice paper embossed with a thin metal foil square, all going up in smoke, to someone.

Sometimes the joss sheets are folded into boat-like shapes, paper counterparts of the traditional ingots of gold and silver. On the days leading up to certain dates of the lunar calendar, the old women sit together in the sun on their stools folding hundreds & hundreds of silver & gold paper ingots. They bundle them in red sacks & take them to the temple to burn.

I'm a fire person so I love all this: it reminds me of an elder's advice in a entirely different tradition:  
“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said:  Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts:  now what more should I do?"  
 The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said:  Why not be totally changed into fire?”                                                                                          
                            -(LXXII) from The Wisdom of the Elders, Thomas Merton

Drawer 8.6 from bottom: 1. Funeral circle made w/ in-laid silk pins,  heads dipped in some material the color of bone   2. Joss paper, pre-folded into ingots at the Buddhist goods shop, still in its store wrapping 3. Tin container containing Chinese medicine 4. Cast concrete souvenirs of the Terracotta Warriors, beneath a plastic pipe insulated with used plastic bags against winter cold ( drawer photo credit: Bruno David)

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