“We sat around the table on stools, lunching on simple foods, stir-fried greens, meats and rice. Nainai had her bowl as well – placed by one of her grandsons at the foot of her coffin. There a wick, in peanut oil, had burned for the past three days.
It is an eerie and poignant feeling to eat with a coffin at one’s back, a last supper with the dead, but it made sense. So much of my Chinese family’s world revolves around the dinner table and Nainai was such a grand cook, what better way to see her from this world to the next than with a meal?”
These were words written by my husband in 2003 documenting the passing of my 84-year-old grandma in China. Strangely enough, all memories came back last night, when a close friend of mine lost her mother yesterday at age 99. We did exactly the same thing, we gathered, a small group of friends, each of us brought food. We sat around, ate, and drank some fine French wine, talked about our earliest memories of our own mothers. Frequently, there would be a phone call of condolence that broke the pace, then we all returned to the topic, then we drifted away to talk about Kate Blanchard’s performance at the Kennedy Center and babies. We talked about how miracles happened that on that same day, my 1-year-old baby looked at me in the eye, and called me “Mama” for the first time. We simply had a good time.
I wondered if we should feel guilty for having a good time when someone just died? Then I decided, no! It was the right thing to do, to celebrate the passing of a beautiful life one year short of a century. And that is ok with Chinese culture, and that’s alright by me.
I learned when Grandma passed away. There are two most important celebrations in Chinese life – the red celebration and the white celebration. The red one is the wedding and the white one is the funeral for people who lived longer than 80 years. The commonality of the two? – family and friends gathering around lots of good food and good wine! The only difference is in color. A Chinese bride wears all red, and everything is decorated red, as red color will fend off any evil spirits. (I know, I know, all the young Chinese brides today wear white. don’t get me started on the diminishing Chinese cultural traditions!) A white funeral is celebrating the end of long life, a person leaves the world in white, as pure as he or she entered the world.
In the end, both weddings and funerals celebrate the glory of life.