A ritual of remembrance
We come to the graveyard so my son can see he is a link in a chain that stretches generations back, Fiona Tinwei Lam writes
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Every Father's Day and Christmas after my father died, our family would go to the cemetery to visit his grave. My father had passed away from cancer the day before his 42nd birthday when I was 11 years old.
Each time, my mother would trim and arrange the flowers while my siblings and I would clear away the stems and cellophane. We would then bow three times before my father's plaque.
During the ritual, I would feel the same way that I did when he died – blank and numb. At the funeral, I wasn't able make myself cry, even though I knew people expected me to. I just couldn't feel anything at all.
For years afterward, I'd feel the same way – hollowed out. In contrast, my mother's grief remained raw and intense, never diminishing as the years passed.
I puzzled over it, as my parents had had so many stormy arguments during my childhood. It was only when I became an adult that I realized love and discord can often co-exist.
Over time, that strange cold blankness inside me melted away as I started to understand the emotional, cultural and social barriers that prevented my father and I from truly knowing each other.
I started to piece together things that I had overlooked or taken for granted, the gestures and the few words or glances that cumulatively indicated that we were dear to him. When my mother's cognition started to decline with dementia, my siblings and I took the initiative for our family cemetery visits and we brought mom along on key holidays.
My mother passed away when my son was only 5. She was his only surviving grandparent just as he was her only grandchild. Because his generation and my parents' generation barely intersected, it has seemed even more important to affirm the connection – to tell as many stories to my son as I can about his forebears.
I want my child, my parents' only grandchild, to know about his origins, to know that he is a link in a chain that stretches generations back.
I hope to provide him with a context for understanding his place in the present world where his life is connected to others before him and those that may come after him.
The ritual of visiting his "poh poh" and "gung gung" at the cemetery can play a significant part in creating that connection.
In April, we join other families making their own connections. When we drive through the gates of the cemetery in Burnaby, B.C., where my parents are buried, we'll spot in the distance the colourful flowers adorning the Chinese-Canadian graves for Ching Ming, a traditional Chinese festival to celebrate and honour one's ancestors. Besides flowers, many of the grave plaques are bordered by incense sticks and the charred remains of paper money.
Sometimes, there are oranges or tiny cups of Chinese wine as offerings to the dead. For Father's Day and Mother's Day, there are always bouquets in that section of the cemetery, whether ornate or humble, and at Christmastime, there are wreaths and poinsettias.
Our visits tend to be short, maybe 10 or 15 minutes at the most, but they always feel meaningful.
They are not only a duty and responsibility, but also a ritual of remembrance and care. It might seem odd to some people that we come to the cemetery at all.
One person told me he thought it was bizarre, morbid, gloomy or even frightening, especially during the happy time of Christmas. But I've never felt that way.
One time, when my son was a preschooler, he scampered off to pick dandelions while I unwrapped the bouquets we'd brought for the occasion. We'd selected yellow and white chrysanthemums, traditional flowers to give to the dead.
After arranging the flowers, I called my son over. After he contributed a few dandelions to each vase, he bowed with our family three times at each of my parents' graves, just as I had done as a kid.
Visiting the cemetery was normal for him, an integral part of the pattern of our lives and the seasons.
My son then took one of the bottles of water we'd brought and watered a few of the potted plants and bouquets at other graves. He even watered a patch of dandelions.
I'll always remember that moment of generosity that extended past our family circle. It was as if he wanted to honour all the lives buried there, plus take care of all the flowers and plants, whether they came from a florist's shop or grew as weeds.
Will I expect my son to visit the cemetery when he grows up? Or my grave after I am dead? Perhaps I will just have my ashes buried under a tree somewhere. In the end, it will be his choice, as I have no expectations either way.
He will develop his own rituals of remembrance and connection. In the meantime, we'll be heading over to my parents' graves soon, just the way my mother taught me, with a bouquet of chrysanthemums and many, many memories.
Fiona Tinwei Lam lives in Vancouver.