Over the entrance was a small sign with gold letters that read, “Zhao De Tang”. Yin Mo-Qian had arrived at his appointment on time. He recognized this as a funeral home from sometime in his past and briefly pondered why he was present at a funeral since he rarely took time out of his self absorbed life style to give reverence to a passing soul. His gaze now wandered to the large spray of plastic flowers and a cheap styrofoam placard announcing:
"Mr. Yin Mo-Qian Memorial Service"
I must still be dreaming he thought, I don’t recall dying. Immediately in front of him the entry door was adorned with white pompoms signifying that a funeral service was in progress. Armed with tentative self assurance that he was not dead, he entered through the door, mostly out of curiosity, to see what unfortunate soul merited his precious time. Inside was a Buddhist memorial altar draped in the traditional solemn yellow cloths. On the table were various objects to accompany the soul in the journey to the afterlife and a shrine to serve as a resting place for his remains. All were surrounded by abundant arrangements of white lilies; fruit to eat, three symbolic images of Buddha to lead the new soul to heaven and paper money as well as other objects to burn with the body.
A white silk mantle behind the alter separated the coffin in the viewing area from the reception room. He knew that if he could peer into the coffin behind it he would know who had died and his curiosity would be satisfied so that he could resume the quest to recover the missing events of his life. Instead, he chose to continue surveying the surrounding decor and ceremony with a mixture of intrepidness, detachment and apprehension. Qian was still not positively certain whether he was dead or just dreaming but decided to indulge his curiosity for the moment.
In front of the altar, family and friends had already been seated in their respective sections waiting for the memorial ceremony to begin. Above the alter were banners from prominent people eulogizing the “guest of honor”. A particular banner from a congressman, highlighting his contribution to the country, caught his attention. Wait, when did I do anything great for my country? I’m just a businessman interested in making money, trying to survive. No time to make noble sacrifices for the Party and country.
Reading the praise from congressman Yen Shao-Zhang (Yun Shao-Jahng) brought to mind their meeting 7 years earlier. After Shao-Zhang contacted him requesting a campaign contribution, Qian gave him a check for 1 million NT$, only because every businessman knows that you should never offend a person in a high position of power. This thinly disguised practice of extortion theoretically guarantees that continued long term contributions to a politician will ensure that their party will maintain control of the government and will favor enactment of legislation that will help the businesses of their supporters to prosper. The businessmen have no nobility and the congressmen have no shame. All are wallowing in the same muddy water. The thought that this should be called a service to the country made him laugh and shake his head.
Because Qian was unmarried and had no children, his nephew, Yin Shan-Wei (Yeen Shawn Way), was selected to act as a surrogate son to avoid the cultural stigma of dying without a familial survivor; a traditional belief that this was a curse reserved for the most evil of people. He knelt in front of the alter until the monks had finished their ritual chants. He then stepped aside and the host presiding over the memorial began the service.
The first event was the reading of the family registry, announcing the family details of the deceased; birth, death and surviving descendants. Pitiably, the last two entries, spouse and offspring were blank for Qian. But, nobody ever remembers what was read and after the burning of the record, along with his body, his life would also be soon forgotten. A sudden sadness and feeling of futility welled up inside him.
After the host finished his reading, Shan-Wei reverently held up lit incense between his hands and said, “Uncle, today is May 30, 9:00 in the morning. This is your funeral and if you are here, please give me a sign.” He put the incense in the burner and cast two tokens into the air for his answer. Qian envisioned the position for tokens to land in order to give his nephew a sign. The tokens clattered to the floor and landed, one heads and one tails, which gave his nephew the affirmative answer that he was present and at that instant, Qian realized that the distant voice he had been hearing in his head was the voice of his nephew. Am I really dead? He thought as he was suddenly overwhelmed by a state of confusion. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been gripped by such an intense panic reaction. He calmed himself somewhat as he recalled the traditional religious belief that on the 7th day after death, you will know you are dead and return to your home to visit your family for the last time. If my memory was lost because of death, I would have been dead 9 days, he reasoned. If I were truly dead, I would certainly have returned to my home for the 7th day ritual by now.
Still shaken but somewhat calmed, he continued watching as the relatives came forward to pay their respects and give a final farewell. Though still in denial about his death, he hoped he could collect enough information, by hearing the farewells of family and friends, to help him resolve the confusion still swirling in his head. Through the smoke of the incense he watched the expressions on their faces as they spoke their last words in his memory and realized that he could also somehow read their inner thoughts and emotions as well. His older brother and his wife looked almost cheerful, assumedly at the thought of the divvying up Qian’s wealth following the funeral. Or perhaps because of the cessation of the constant struggle caused by differences the brothers had over handling the affairs of business and family. They were as incompatible as fire and water, especially after his brother’s marriage to Cui Qin-Yao (Tuway Chin-Yow). She influenced his brother in a way that intensified the animosity between them.
Next to approach the altar was a young woman that his youngest brother, Yin Mo-Fan (Yeen Maw-Fawn), had announced as his fiancé after the family questioned why she was included in the list of family members. Gu Xin-Xin (Goo Sin-Sin) was dressed in a white blouse and black mini skirt, totally inappropriate for a funeral, and her hair was died a garish burgundy color. She projected a spontaneous air of celebration most certainly induced by the expectation of sudden wealth. Qian resented her disrespectful appearance and hated her intensely, knowing that her marriage into the family would cause serious discord in the future. He glared deeply into her eyes and she suddenly shuddered as if to feel his presence. He profoundly wished that he could prevent the marriage but what could be accomplished by a wandering soul with no control over physical objects in the mortal world? Frustration, loneliness, worry and sadness flooded his thought and he choked uncontrollably, as his eyes filled with tears.
After the remaining relatives had finished paying their respects, the host summoned prominent businessmen and dignitaries in order of their importance in society, to come forward and pay respects. Qian pondered the sincerity of the mourners. He speculated that most wanted to project themselves as the most important person in his life but doubted their words could be trusted. Who among them all were truly sorry for his passing? Still, it would be the last time he could look closely at his friends and associates and hear their voices.
At the top of the list were:
Mr. Wang Yu-Ren (Wong Yee-Wren), chief executive of the Industrial Technology Research Institute division of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Mr. Yen Shao-Zhang, congressman.
Ma Yi-Long (Maw Yee-Long), Chairman of the board of the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce and CEO of the Taiwan Electrical and Mechanical Corporation.
These and all the other officials and celebrities, each in turn, formally bowed, offered lit incense and then left immediately, probably to attend to some other more important event. Qian mused briefly about the reason for the ranking of the mourners and concluded that this was only important to the living. The dead wouldn’t have a care about that. Other than pride, he supposed a case could be made for giving priority to important individuals as they assumedly would have very busy schedules and wouldn’t want to be kept waiting in line any longer than necessary.
Qian’s attention drifted to a conversation between Chen Wei-Cheng (Chun Way-Tzung) CEO of Virgin Technology Inc. and Li Xuan-Shan (Lee Shuan-Shawn) GM of Guanming Electronics as they were leaving the funeral.
“The Yin family is so miserly” Wei-Cheng said, “Qian’s net worth is at least 4-5 billion and this looks like a pauper’s funeral. Besides, they are having the funeral so soon after his death as if they can’t wait to divide up his wealth. No shame in that family. So disgraceful!”
Xuan-Shan answered, “Alas, no wonder men are so worried about dying without a wife or children to attend to the funeral arrangements. His brothers, with their own families, will have to be troubled to take care of these matters. You cannot rely on your siblings to handle your funeral like your spouse and children would. I heard that they even skipped the 7th day family farewell ritual. Shameful!”
“Really? I can’t believe that!”
“He was the golden bachelor that any woman would want to marry. Yet what was he working for so hard? He never took time to enjoy his fortune. Nobody knows if he made a will but if not, his brothers will grab his wealth and I don’t think Qian can ever rest in peace if that happens.”
“Nobody knows. But one thing is for sure, no matter how many affairs you have, never divorce your wife or you will end up like Yin Mo-Qian.” Wei-Cheng said, winking at Xuan-Shan who nodded and returned a knowing smile as the two of them left together, laughing.
Qian wasn’t superstitious but hearing that his brothers had not even observed the 7th day ritual aroused a deep anger in him.
With roll call of the officials and celebrities completed, the friends and general public were invited to pay their respects. Qian looked on with a deep melancholy as his classmates, friends and business associates formed two lines and slowly, with a great somberness, each in turn offered their parting farewell. Most of the women were weeping openly while the men, in keeping with cultural tradition, held back their tears and their reddened eyes were the only visible signs of their grief. After the last of the mourners had completed their tribute and all but the closest friends had departed, the host invited those remaining, to view for one last time, the mortal remains concealed behind the white mantle.
Qian was disappointed but not very surprised that, of his family, only the youngest brother and his nephew stayed for the viewing. His curiosity was aroused however to see a lone woman standing over his coffin. She felt strangely familiar to him but he couldn’t manage to recall her name. She was thin and pale and her long straight hair, hanging down lifelessly to her chest, gave her a haggard appearance. He was perplexed as to why she was wearing dark sunglasses inside which is unusual at a funeral. She did not step forward to offer incense but stood silently, as if waiting until the very last moment. Her handkerchief was soaked from wiping the tears streaming from her eyes, obviously heart broken as if having lost her spouse. She pensively lingered in front of the coffin and as she reluctantly departed, she accidentally shed a tear onto the face of Qian’s body.
Simultaneously, he felt a warm, wet sensation on his cheek and was momentarily stunned by a deluge of emotion. A deep, warm awareness of love cascaded through his soul; an emotion from long ago in his past, which he had forgotten until this instant. He was relieved to know that he was not forgotten by the world; that somebody deeply missed him.
At this moment, he fully accepted the realization that he truly had died and now had the courage to view himself for the last time before he was reduced to ashes. He moved toward the coffin and gingerly peered into it. He was pleased that his body was complete and that the mortician had done an excellent job of preparing him. His face looked nearly like his portrait on the alter, which was always one of his favorites; but no matter now, since all would be ashes very soon.
“It’s not finished, I can’t just go, I have to stay!” he said to himself with a great conviction as if he could sense the journey of his unfinished destiny that lie ahead.