April 27, 2008

Reflections on burial

Posted in Musings tagged , , , , , , at 9:32 am by myrlinn

I was reading Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue, a collection of short stories about the Tibetan people, when I came to this passage about the practice of sky burial in Tibet, and was in equal parts fascinated and horrified by the tale:

At the burial site, the burial master lights a fire of fragrant juniper branches… The burial master hacks all the flesh from the corpse and slices it into small pieces. He grinds the bones into a fine powder and adds some water to form a paste. (If the bones young and soft, he will thicken it with ground barley.) He then feeds this paste, together with the flesh, to the surrounding hawks and vultures. (excerpt from the short story “The woman and the blue sky” in Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue)

Part of my reaction, I guess stems from having lived a large part of life in more suburban and urban communities. I’ve only ever encountered corpses being hacked apart in stories about crazed killers; and bodies being eaten by vultures when people are lost in the desert. Also, I come from a culture where we dress up the deceased and send him/her off with pomp and ceremony. It seemed a desecration to make the body part of the food chain.

I also wondered: is there really such a practice in Tibet? Or did the author conjure it up of his own imagination? The writer mixes both gritty realism and fantasy in his stories, so it can be hard to tell. He himself says in his Afterword that in travelling the high plateau of Tibet, “In the thin mountain air, it was hard to distinguish fact from fantasy.”

So I googled sky burial (but of course!). After reading more about the practice, I understand it better, and can see why in some ways it makes even more sense than burial in the ground or cremation. I find myself agreeing with the idea that the body no longer has the soul, and that it should be returned to nature, as it were.

I think the passage struck me hard also because, just over 9 months ago, I had to send my dad off. In Singapore, due to scarcity of land, most people cremate the deceased. But that was my father’s stated wish as well — to be cremated. In many ways, my dad’s burial was the opposite of the Tibetan sky burial. My dad was cremated at the Mandai Crematorium, a very modern facility. There was a short lovely service in a small room provided for that purppose, and then adjourned to a viewing gallery where we could see the coffin heading towards the cremation chamber. A few days later, we went to the funeral parlour, and collected the ‘ashes’. The ‘ashes’ were actually bones, made white by the extreme heat. It was all very solemn, civilised, sanitised almost.

But I think my dad would have appreciated the Tibetan sky burial as well. A wonderful gentle man, my dad, and very practical. He would have agreed, I think, with the idea of the body being sent back to be a part of the cycle of life and death.  I like to think of his ashes being washed and scattered by waves, makes it all seem that much more timeless, and death more bearable.

Talking about burial reminds me of a story my relatives told me. Seems that the body an ancestor of mine (great-something-something grandmother) was exhumed in China when the burial site was slated for redevelopment, and her body was discovered perfectly preserved. It was seen as a miracle, and apparently, she is now considered a saint in the ancestral village/town. I’ve been assured that this is a true story, but who knows? What fascinates me is: why is it when people discover something that is out of the norm, they try to make sense of it by attributing it to magic? Is that reaction hardwired into our brains? Or is it that when we confront the unknowable, we seek to make it less frightening somehow by constructing an explanation that fits our worldview?

Back to Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue, I must admit part of why the book first claimed my attention was the blurb at the back which said that the book was banned in China in 1987. The author writes in the Afterword that his book was banned for being ‘a vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots…’ Ironically, the ban only made the book more popular and sought-after.  After reading it, though, I couldn’t really understand why the book was banned, until I read his Afterword a few times. I realised that it had to do with how the outside world viewed Tibet, as an almost other-worldly region, a spiritual sanctuary; and that Ma Jian’s work paints a very different picture, giving a human face to Tibet and Tibetans, making them seem more like you and me, more possessed of the same desires as we do. Definitely a fascinating book to read at a time when relations between Tibet and China are so strained.

A final note: Today, in Singapore’s Sunday Times, there was a column by an expat talking about Singapore’s libraries and how wonderful they are. How she’s managed to see many parts of Singapore while hunting for books at various libraries. She’s right, you know. The library system is one of the best things about Singapore. I’ve discovered so many good books there just from browsing the shelves. That’s where I discovered Stick Out Your Tongue.

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