When I was nine, I shared my bedroom with a coffin. My father had it made for my grandmother for her seventy-third birthday and referred to it as shou mu, which means something like “longevity wood,” and seemed like a strange name for the box Grandma would be buried in. The practice of burial had been banned in China since soon after the Communists took over, so I couldn’t tell anyone about it.
Grandma lived with my family in Xi’an, and when she turned seventy-two, in 1974, she became obsessed with the idea that her death was imminent. She knew all the old sayings and foremost in her mind was this one: “When a person reaches the ages of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell will make his call.” She couldn’t tell us the science behind it, but it had been passed down from generation to generation so it had to be true. And she wanted to be ready. Soon after the New Year, she began nagging Father about her funeral arrangements. She wanted to be buried in the traditional manner. Grandma often vexed Father with her adherence to the old ways, but on most things he could bring her around. On this, however, she was firm and resisted all attempts to dissuade her.
The Party mandated cremation, which made practical sense: burial wasted land that might otherwise be developed. There were also ideological reasons; many funeral rituals were rife with religious symbolism, which the Communists were eager to stamp out.
Father, who had worked hard to become a model worker and Party member, knew that a traditional burial for Grandma would get him into political trouble, erasing the status he had painstakingly gained within the Party. The Cultural Revolution was winding down, but you could still get into trouble for adhering to old traditions and customs. I remember going with my school class to the public denunciation of a man who gave his son a traditional wedding ceremony in his home village outside Xi’an. A local had tipped off the authorities that the man had hired a red sedan chair to carry the bride, a banned practice.
At school, I was the leader of a Communist youth group and at the annual singing contest we performed a song called “Down with Confucius, Oppose Old Rituals.” I found the prospect of a traditional funeral abhorrent. I remember being at the burial of an old lady in a village where enforcement of the rules against banned traditions was lax. Relatives wore white headbands, white linen shirts, and shoes covered with white cloth. They cried and wailed. The old lady’s grandson walked at the front of the procession carrying a bamboo pole with a long strip of white paper tied to it. I didn’t understand what was written on the paper, but Father told me the characters were about hopes for a peaceful trip to the other world and a successful reincarnation. I cringed at the thought of someday bearing that pole. My classmates would think I was a cheater, singing Communist songs at school but practicing ugly old rituals at home. Worse, they would laugh at me if I had to wear a weird white outfit.