Funeral Taiwanese style

Fr Larry Barnett offers this as the first of an occasional series of columns from his mission in Taiwan. Larry is a Columban missionary from Takaka.
Last week I wore gumboots to a funeral. It wasn’t the first time. In fact, with the frequent wet weat

Last week I wore gumboots to a funeral. It wasn’t the first time. In fact, with the frequent wet weather and graves being out in the fields, I often wear gumboots to graveside prayers.

What made this recent episode notable was that I wore gumboots for the funeral mass.

The people with whom I live and work are a group of TaiYa aborigines (also called Atayal), the second-largest tribe in Taiwan, who occupy the central and northern mountains.

Our parish consists of eight of the southern-most TaiYa-speaking villages and is the southern-most parish of Hsinchu Diocese. The villages sit in the steep Tai-An River valley and rise from 400 metres above sea level.

The funeral of which I speak took place in Tian-Gou (‘Heavenly Dog’), the innermost village, perched on the side of a mountain at 800 metres.

Like many colonised peoples, the Atayal have adopted many of the customs of their colonisers (the lowland Chinese). Traditionally, a funeral here was simple. The family buried their dead in the fields without ceremony on the day they died. For some weeks visitors came to sit around the hearth and sympathise. Today however, funerals have become more elaborate affairs.

Unlike the practice in New Zealand, funerals in Tai-An take place almost entirely in the family home. After death, the family wash and dress the deceased and place the body in a refrigerated coffin-like metal chest to preserve the body for the mourning period.

Outside the main door the family erect an altar to hold a framed photo of the deceased, flowers, a crucifix (if the family are Christian), and candles.

For the next week (anything less than a week is considered hurried and unseemly) family and friends visit to pray for the dead and sit with the mourning family around a fire that is kept burning outside the house.

The night before the funeral, believers from many of the other villages join the extended family for vigil prayers. Early in the morning of the funeral (usually before sunrise), the priest or lay leader blesses the coffin and family members place the body inside.

Later, the family carry the coffin out of the house for the mass which usually takes place at 9am under a tarpaulin on flat land near the family home (frontyard, street, parking area, etc). That brings me back to the gumboots.

I have never seen rain like it, even worse than many typhoons. It bucketed out of the sky from early dawn until after lunch. The rain was so heavy that MiMi’s family had to huddle around the coffin to keep dry and hang onto the pall to keep it from flying away.

Only the people in the front row heard the readings. The homily was indecently brief (a blessing for me and a relief for my listeners) and we skipped the customary farewell rites at the end (usually, fruit, flowers, wine, and incense offered by a succession of local elders, politicians, civic and religious leaders).

Still with gumboots under my vestments, I led the procession to the grave for burial. It is the custom here for the chief mourner (the deceased’s eldest son or grandson) to lead the coffin to the grave carrying the framed photo.

As MiMi’s son (aged 16) stood next to me at the grave, the rain pelted down on us both. I tried to recite the prayers while the rain poured down onto my book, and cascaded into the mud at my feet.

Someone held an umbrella over us but it was quite useless. We were both soaked to the skin anyway so more water made little difference at that point. Somewhat superfluously, I blessed the grave with holy water, the coffin was lowered and the gravediggers went to work while we returned to the family home for lunch served under the tarpaulin where the funeral mass had earlier been celebrated.

Several people commented on the parallel between the weather and the family circumstances. MiMi (35) is the youngest daughter of BuOh (78), a faithful Catholic lady who is already predeceased by her husband, two sons, and another daughter.

She is now alone except for one daughter and four grandsons. The family are very poor.

What makes MiMi’s death particularly tragic is that, for the last 10 years, she has been unemployed, divorced (her husband lives elsewhere and cares for their two sons) and alcoholic.

BuOh sat through the entire funeral, silent, absorbing the tragedy of her family.

People said MiMi died of the alcohol. I disagreed. She died of a broken spirit and a broken culture. What her mother thought, she kept to herself.

Heaven cried so much that I had to wear gumboots for mass. I’ll never forget it.