I had never seen a dead body until the day my father died. They brought him home in a hearse, and he came from the hospital to the house. At home, he would stay for five days, for a thing called a “wake,” though he would never wake again.
My grandfather was going about his chores at home. I told him that Papa had died in the hospital, and he said: Gai liao, gai liao, gai liao. (Oh no, oh no, oh no.)
They are bringing his body back from the hospital, I said, and he shook his head. He went outside to scrub his shoes by the gate.
His sons arrived, the oldest first, then the youngest. Their job was to carry the sofa and move it to the side of the room. Roll up the rug, hide it in the back of the AV room. The hearse was coming, and so was the body.
My grandfather, he sat in the kitchen after he had cleaned his shoes. He must not see the body until it is safely in the coffin. His sons are beside him, but his son-in-law will be in the coffin. Who would’ve thought, they said. He’s gone too soon.
The hearse was a van and it belonged to the undertaker. My father died at 11 a.m., and now it is five hours later. My father was a mummy—he arrived in white cloth. They tipped him out, the undertakers, and put him on a metal stand with a wooden board plank. His body had been stiff, for it had already been hours.
Bring the clothes down, they said.
I gave them a blue suit, the one he wore at my graduation. My father hated suits, but there is no choice but to wear one now.
Bring a pillow, and some extra clothes.
Whatever for? I asked.
To stuff in the coffin, so he doesn’t move around.
They started with a singlet—he didn’t know it was called a wife beater, I told him that during my birthday party that year, because that was what he was wearing—then finished with a silk shirt.
I stood by the edge of the couch, making sure they dressed him well. They tipped him to his side, and found liquid dripping, yellow and light. Like a naughty child, he had been keeping medicine in his mouth. They held him on his side until the liquid emptied out.
This shoe is too small. Have you got another one? Moments later, Oh, it’s alright now, we’ve fitted in this one.
The mortician worked his magic, massaging stiff limbs and fingers. He put my father’s hands into a prayer, and placed it above his belly. The suit made him look communist, I said to my sister, though his little blue book was called Il Nuovo Testamento .
They tied his hands and legs with a cloth, then swung him into the box. They patted dry ice around him, like bricks around a body.
The make-up artist, where is she?
She was standing at the porch, waiting to be summoned. At our request she came round to his side, applied foundation and lipstick. Later, my sister threw it all away—the pot, the powder, and the brush.
For days I cried only in the shower, or alone in the darkness of my room. Beyond that door we were celebrating the life of a dead man, and I had to put on my best face. To my little sister I said, you’ll get over it. But I know, and she knows, that you never get over something like this. We’re all at the age where we’re losing our fathers, I said. But I know that was harsh; it is unjust and we are crushed.
To my best friend, I said, death happens to everyone. He called from Australia, asking what had happened. He sounded hurt that I hadn’t informed him of my father’s illness. The truth is, there was no time to grieve when flowers were arriving and folks were a-coming. The pastors, the ang pows, the speeches, as though it were a wedding. Let’s celebrate, they seemed to say, for he suffers no more.
At the hospital, I had been thirty minutes late. I dare not think of the ones who were much later—my sisters—an hour, ten hours, mid-flight from lands abroad and much further. But what would I have been early for? To watch the doctors resuscitate him? To see him catch his last breath? To hear the final pronouncement, I’m sorry, ma’am but he’s gone?
When I arrived, the doctors had left, never to be seen again. A male nurse, he nodded at me. The machine was kept beeping, but I know he is no longer sleeping. I will never forget seeing the body, cold and grey, his eyes open, his hair frayed.
The nurses marched in, pulling the curtains closed. The blood will soil his suit, so don’t put it on until he gets home, they said. Don’t forget his teeth, I said.
Brothers and sisters, fathers and friends, they peer into the dry ice. Some early, some way too late. Some wait until the crowd leaves, so no one can see them grieve. But the front doors are never closed, and the lights are always on. The air-conditioning is never off, so the dry ice can stay for long.
At the casket house, an argument almost erupts between Mother and I. Solid wood or plywood. White or brown. With window or no window. Did you bring his clothes? No. Why the hell not? Because you didn’t tell me to.
We sing hymns in Hokkien about holding hands and going home, crossing over to the other side. The wake is on every night: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I figure, it’s good to go home on a Friday.
On Tuesday the ad man from the local paper comes to take his payment. We are the same age, he says. Death is a KPI for my fellow peer, and today I have added to his paycheck cheer.
Come Friday my father can no longer hold his smile. His lips part slightly, his chin sags heavily. Droplets of moisture start to form above his lip. It’s time to go home. The hearse is now a brand-new one, white and waxed, speakers carrying hymns of courage, songs of solemnities. Superbikers send him off, leading the one-kilometer procession as mourners follow on foot behind the hearse. This is the only time traffic slows down in the neighborhood and no one is allowed to honk.
From the house, we head to the hills to a place called Batu Gantong, Malay for “hanging rock.” As nephews weep openly and daughters don red eyes, we sing him into the incinerator, a flat-plained elevator, whose railings are strewn with ashes of other fathers. The final words were not long enough, the three-ply tissues were not thick enough, but the door closes anyway.
A celebratory meal for a hundred people to end it all, for we are exhausted, we are famished. Come, let us feast. We feed our bodies and there is temporary peace, but our thoughts remain with the deceased.
Red or blue ribbon? The red is too gaudy, the blue however, matches the marble urn, its veins a light shade of grey. It’s a hot day to be back at the crematorium, but this time we are in a private room. Femur, pelvis, flecks of skull—father’s remains are served in a silver tray. In true hierarchical fashion, the eldest is invited for first dips. Clumsy chopsticks pick on calcium bits—curses befall the descendant who drops her father’s bones.
When the urn is filled, the man pushes them in with a pestle, pours more bones inside until the silver tray is empty. It’s a hot day to be at the crematorium, and there are no windows in this bone-crushing room. He pours a sweet fragrance, like oil into an alabaster jar. He closes the lid, and I see a sweat drip from his temple. He ties a perfect bow, snips off the extra edges. I sign a piece of paper, yes, sir, this is the remains of my father. When we leave, my cousin sees me put the excess ribbons into my pockets.
The mason is waiting at the Protestant Cemetery and our father is no longer human. He is now in a jar and L245 is a box, identical to the four hundred others on his block. (My mother booked hers at L244.) It could be a PO Box—for letters to heaven, or a safe deposit box for jewelry and for ashes. For here is our father, a man whom we treasured.
In goes the urn, with a pair of beloved spectacles. It’s clean and with no clutter, just the way he would have liked it. And now it rains after five days of sweltering heat. The heavens are rejoicing, even as the living begins for those who are left behind. You see, I had never seen a dead body until the day my father died. Now there’s no reason to cry, for today “you will be with me in paradise.”