“Compared to the esoteric medical treatments you endured for the past six days, this final procedure is sensibly named: The Last Breath.”
In 2005, Essay Liu’s (劉梓潔) baffled urbanite’s account of her father’s rural Taiwanese funeral spread across the internet. Liu was a copy-editor for a luxury crystal brand in Shanghai, then an editor for The Eslite Reader, a Taipei-based glossy. She said she never considered herself an author until she wrote this essay on her blog. The essay won the 2006 Liberty Times Lin Rong-shan Prize and was later adapted to a popular 2010 movie.
And now your body’s fine again, no wounds nor scratches, no worries nor illnesses, like a young man ready to fight the world.
Your pallbearers bow towards you — a deep bow.
This is day one.
When we arrived, they’ve rid your body of needles, leaving only a thin tube in your left nostril attached to a farcical two liter plastic bottle. They said we’re bottling your last breath for home.
Wasn’t this your favorite gag, your lamest joke?
“Pay attention to the sound of ambulance sirens. When the they sound like ‘heed— heed—’ get out of the way, the man inside is still alive. But if it sounds like ‘no—need—no—need—’ well, carry on. He’s a goner.”
When you collected our family friends’ laughter, I was the only one to say: what’s the use of an ambulance for a dead man?
“So he can draw his last breath at home!” you said to me.
And so we ride along with you in the ambulance, sending you home. At least in name, your children stayed with you on your last journey.
The ambulance driver deadpans: miss, who does your family pray to? Jesus or the Buddha? I stare back, clueless. He frames his question more directly: what I mean is, does your family pray with incense, sutras, that kind of stuff? I nod stiffly, sure. He flips the cassette, pushes it back into the tape deck. I hear Buddhist sutras begin — namo amituofuo namo amituofuo namo amituofuo.
What, I wondered, is on the B-side? Praise the lord, hallelujah, etc.? I knew then that my most surreal journey had already begun.
(No— need— No— need—)
I want to tell you what I saw: the male nurse squeezing the plastic bottle, forcing a life-like breathing pattern in your lungs so we can end it at home, at a more auspicious minute and hour. Compared to the esoteric medical treatments you endured for the past six days, this final procedure is sensibly named: The Last Breath.
We get home, passing the journey’s baton to the funeral directors, the pallbearers, the monks and our relatives. (Someone scold us for not chanting at your body: We’re home, father! And so we chant: We’re home, father!)
The male nurse pulls out his tool kit, raising his wrist for a better read on his watch. Folks! let’s choose the time —17th hour, 35th minute, does that sound all right?
All right? What could we say to this?
We say all right. We actually say all right.
I thought The Last Breath was just an ornament of tapes and tubes, something done for show. I didn’t expect the tubes to dig into your body so deeply, so much that they sliced you with a scalpel to dig them out. The nurse says, hold on there, brother, we’ll stitch you right up. You suffered your last earthly injury on the lower left side of your neck.
(No wounds, nor scratches—)
I don’t flinch when I see the tube, its tip once connected directly to your lung. I see it webbed and coiled with pus-yellow phlegm.
(No worries nor illnesses—)
All kneel! The funeral director shouts at us.
We drop to the floor, seeing you up close — your suit, your tie, the white gloves and the officer’s cap. (How dapper, I say to my sister later as we burn ghost money at your feet.)
Before they lay you in your casket, we’re told to fold the ghost money for your afterlife into origami wreaths. We test different folds, exchanging strategies, getting a knack for paper craft — the L-shaped and bridge formations burn the best. We parcel our overnight wake into three shifts: my little sister’s, from midnight to two; my elder brother’s, from two to four; my own, from four til sunrise.
The family elders pick auspicious dates for the funeral: on day three, we put you into your coffin. On day seven, we send you to your cremation.
At midnight, the funeral home delivers a refrigerator to our doorsteps. Its compressor clacks and clangs through the night, periodically knocking out the electricity fuse for our house. With each blackout, my heart winds a little tighter.
At midnight, most of the visitors leave. Uncle Ah-shan, your smoking buddy, lights a cigarette and plants it into the incense gourd before your portrait. He lights another for himself and quietly sucks its burning embers to its stub. Two red lanterns flicker in the parlor. We haven’t smoked together for so long, Uncle Ah-shan says. Your father, he followed few strictures. I watch the tobacco smoke unfurling from the gourd and think: yes, and that’s how you wanted it to be.
My first order of business on day two — copy editing.
The funeral director sends laser printed drafts of your obituary. I edit your lunar birth date, correcting the names of your surviving widow, your pious sons, your mourning daughters, weeping siblings, praying nieces, vigilant nephews — your entire sprawling mess of a clan.
Summoned by our shared family tree, our tireless mourners flounder for order — some missing shoes, others looking for mourning-appropriate trousers, still others hastily throwing together black outfits. (Exhibit A: myself, editing your obituary in my usual shorts and slippers).
“Should we look into group discounts for black track suits?” Some relatives suggest helpfully.
But what for? Would funeral uniforms pull our family into some saner orbit?
There’s no need, you would’ve said. You always wore crew neck sweatshirts or white tank tops. When I came home and found you wearing a long-sleeved dress shirt one day, I couldn’t help but aim a joke at you— finally, dad decides to dress his age. You rolled up your shirtsleeves to reveal two tubes buried deep into your arm — one for your artery, one for your vein.
Dialysis, you said.
Our next set of duties: the coffin delivery ceremony, the river water ceremony.
The funeral director forbids tears as we approach your coffin, but demands that we weep on our return. This is the movie script we’ve been handed, one we’ll be beholden to for days, and I know that many things are not mine to decide anymore. Even our tears have been planned for us. There’s always someone whispering in our ears: now’s not a time for tears; now’s the time. I exchange glances with my sister, making sure we don’t flub our stage cues. (Someone on our side suggests two token sniffles if true sobs aren’t forthcoming.)
Mornings, I find myself in the middle of brushing my teeth or setting down my breakfast rice bowl — only to hear the beginnings of a ceremonial drumbeat, our hired in-house monks announcing: and here come our weeping women! As if at a director’s cry of “action!” I throw the white funeral shawl over my head, stumbling into a fervent kneel in the room of your wake.
The miraculous thing is — the tears always come.
Day three, 5AM: coffin laying ceremony.
The funeral home prepares bricks of tissue paper, paving a thick cottony bed in your coffin. The funeral director says now’s the time to tell your father — the softer his bed, the sweeter his dreams. We parrot his chant — the softer your bed, dad, the sweeter your dreams. We refuse to think of how it aims to soak up your decay.
May your progeny prosper and thrive —aye — May your descendants become masters and valedictorians — aye — May your lineage yield rulers and leaders — aye. At the end of this chant, we arrive at the final act of the funeral.
When did I last see you? Perhaps at grandpa’s birthday dinner a month ago, when you still brimmed with laughter, burbled with warm chatter. Your last words to me — lost, never to be remembered.
We spent our last moment together yesterday. You were hooked up to a respirator, barely conscious, your tongue blocked by tubes, eyelids fluttering open with effort, hands wrapped in cheap thermal mittens strapped to the bedside, each glove a different flower pattern.
“He didn’t even leave any last words for us!” Your surviving widow — my mother— could bear this the least, biting back tears whenever she remembers.
But the nurse recorded your last words. Before strapping on your respirator mask, you told her — don’t serve me that glass of milk, misses, I forgot my wallet at home. It tugged at your sister’s heart, knowing that in your final moments, you were still so polite, and still so worried about money.
Your brother says, he was just sassing the nurse.
Day four to day six. Chanting Buddhist sutras remind me of school. Starting at seven in the morning and ending at six at night, we take ten-minute breaks after each hour of prayer. Compared to what is to come, kneeling and lighting incense for hours take scant effort.
There’s still your public memorial, the headliner event. The funeral director suggests picking a candid picture of you, since people nowadays prefer livelier photos of the deceased. My brother and I choose a photo of you lounging naturally, legs crossed in resplendent poise. We project the photo on to the wall. “Get serious, kids, this is too casual,” says a relative mindful of our elders. So we crop out your legs on Photoshop. They still take issue with the photo — too smiley, not dignified enough. What should we do? We finally concede on scanning your mug shot on your citizenship ID card (all our relatives crowding around my brother’s laptop computer and tsk-tsking: can’t keep up with them computers these days).
And here comes the crowd-pleaser — two massive pyramids of canned foods that flank our front door, each donated by friends and well-wishers, all 900 cans of Super Supao sports drinks, Vitali P energy juices, Assam milk teas piling up one story high. Like a sacrificial juice bar offered at the gates of heaven they stand sentry by the door, boiling under the sun. Who knew that the cans would explode under the punishing heat, their sticky juices puddling at the base of the pyramids? Greenhead flies are ruthless in Taiwan. I’ll not allow sports drinks to explode any longer, said a solemn elder relative. We’ll stash them under the awning. He delegates the task to your surviving widow your pious sons your mourning daughters and weeping siblings. With each wobbly inch we coax the towers into movement, a fresh pile of cans tumbles onto our heads, til each of us flees our line of duty to seek refuge in some safer chore.
There’s still another impossible task. Call it public relations. Your hordes of aunts arrive without warning. Ambushing us with earth-shattering sobs, none of them fail to prod and rile your mother and widow, tugging at their shirtsleeves, spraying sage advice in their direction. We consign them all to the ghost money-folding task force.
The miraculous thing is they calm down as soon as their fingers touch the coarse yellow paper of the lotus wreaths.
On the last day of your wake, as my sister abides her shift, my brother and I lie on the ceremonial straw mat that has been our bed for the past week (true mourners don’t sleep on mattresses).
I whisper to my brother that I finally understand what’s meant by that old saying: tiam ga ve kao bei — tired like your goddamn dad just died.
My brother wriggles uncomfortably with laughter, wheezing for a long time. Finally he says, kao bei, yes, you’re sassing like your goddamn dad just died.
We begin your funeral march. The monks promise that your soul will visit us today. The local senator delivers a speech. The monks chant dozens of sutras. The funeral director arms your father with a ceremonial staff, ordering him to strike your coffin and scold your impiety, your abandonment of your parents. Your old father raises the staff, pauses for a second, and tosses the staff aside. He crumples to the floor, wailing. Throughout all this, I look for a trace of your returning spirit.
Where are you supposed to be? I can’t help but wonder.
Did your spirit shiver under the black paper umbrella that I carried around for days? (The eldest daughter bears the umbrella.) Or are you the white cabbage butterfly fluttering above our procession? Or perhaps you really just lay in your coffin, slowly trickling through the paper towels and cypress panels, one decaying drip at a time.
The crematorium is a base camp of all the world’s armies of mourners. We collect our queue ticket number and our bundle of complementary bento lunch boxes before staking out our grueling wait. We watch other families send their loved ones into the cremator and retreat with panicked screams — watch out for the fire, watch out, quick, run away!
Our funeral director seizes this a teachable moment and tells us that we’ve just witnessed a bad demonstration. That will only frighten your father. When it’s your turn, say — dad, the fire has come, be not afraid, let the Buddha take you away.
And we say — dad, the fire has come, be not afraid, let the Buddha take you away.
We try to restore your house to its normal state. We’re supposed to rearrange our beds after a family funeral, but we leave our beds exactly where they are, contenting ourselves with changing the sheets and stowing away the mourning mats.
Someone suggests stuffing our faces with meat at your favorite steakhouse (we’ve gone vegetarian for a week). Another suggests howling the night away at Holiday Karaoke Lounge. In the end, we buy an issue of Apple Daily and a copy of the weekly tabloid, each of us lazing at one side of the sofa, flipping away the afternoon in the entertainment sections, discussing the newest gourmet hotspots in town — the meaty mutton stench of daily life.
We decide to do something trivial. We pool together petty cash from your ceremonial red envelopes and buy a lottery ticket. 08. 16. 17. 35. 41.
August 16th according to the lunar calendar. 17:35. Your last breath. 41 was your queue number at the crematorium.
(There were eighty coffins awaiting their turns that day.)
The lottery man announces the winning numbers. Among them are 17 and 35, the hour and minute of your death. Investors in this ticket include your father, your widow, your sister and three children — each of us a NT$100 stakeholder.
We win NT$4,500. We split it evenly. The old man at the lottery window delivers our prize in a red envelope and tells us that the jackpot number was 53. We slap our thighs, hissing our regrets. Why didn’t we choose 53?
53 was the hardest number to accept — you were only 53 when you left.
I take my share of the prize and break off from our tribe, returning home to my own city.
Sometimes I want the whole thing to feel lighter. Not just lighter, but more trivial, a matter of flippancy — so trivial that when I finally meet my college buddies at some rock music-deafened dive bar I slouch, booze-weary, and lean my head against one of my friends’ shoulders, blowing smoke rings, mentioning offhand as if some small thought just occurred to me:
Ah, I forgot to tell you, my dad just died.
Some of them may have once crashed at our house, or nibbled local snacks you’d offered them. Some of them bolt upright and say with pained incredulity —but why didn’t you tell me?
I tell them not to fuss. I often forget myself.
Yes. I often forget.
So it grows heavier and heavier without my knowing. So heavy, that weeks afterwards, as I sit on a business flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, as my eyes follow the stewardess’ duty free cart down my aisle, I catch myself reaching out to buy a carton of filtered Long Life Yellow cigarettes for you.
A split second of unfiltered thought chokes the next hour and half of my flight in tears, bleary — til the fasten seatbelt sign lights up, til the voice from the captain’s cabin cracks through the speaker overhead. His voice sounds just like yours.
You say: Please stow yourselves, we are beginning our descent.
Art and translation by Kevin T.S. Tang.
Essay Liu is a writer living in Taiwan. She edits the Taipei-based Eslite Reader.
Kevin T.S. Tang is an editor at Buzzfeed and at Blunderbuss, and his comics have appeared in [PANK]. For a few years, he translated ad copy for LG Electronics (“this phone has geriatric font sizes”), and designed posters for Christian rap-metal bands (“can you move the blood splatter 12 picas to the left?”) and midtown ultra-lounges (“we want sexy, trendy, sleek. Make it pop more”). He got his fiction MFA from Columbia and goes by @Yolo_Tengo on Twitter.