Traditional rites with modern efficiency

I visited a funeral home in Taiwan for the first time last weekend, and for a moment, I thought I was lost.

For what stood before me looked like a miniature Forbidden City of 10 yellow-tiled, ornate classical Chinese halls, instead of the drab, gloomy final resting place for mere mortals I had imagined it to be.

That’s partly because “Banqiao Funeral Home”, the name of the complex in the Banqiao district of New Taipei City, oozes 21st century urban functionality.

Opened in 1985, the complex was envisioned as the solution to noisy wakes held at homes, by providing the city’s growing populace with a one-stop facility to mourn their dead.

A good, elaborate send-off is practically required by default in Chinese culture, though, and the municipal authorities clearly was aware of that.

The palatial complex’s halls sported names infused with classical Chinese virtues and written in gold-plated traditional script: Chong Yi (loosely translated to respect and righteousness), Jing Fu (immense fortune), and Ming Xiao (wise and filial).

It was at Ming Xiao where I had made an appointment to interview a professional mourner, 30-year-old Liu Chun-ling.

I arrived 10 minutes before noon, the time which she had given me, expecting her performance to start at noon. But a funeral service had clearly just wound up -- a woman in mourning dress and dabbing at her eyes and holding a wooden tablet came out of the hall into the driveway, surrounded by her family. Workers were clearing up in the hall.

A quick call to Ms Liu, who had yet to arrive, assured me that I had merely arrived too early.

So there was nothing to do but to stand in the driveway, and watch.

The interplay between 21st century Taiwan and ancient Chinese customs unfolded again for the next 20 minutes.

With practised efficiency, a team of 10 or so workers lowered the condolence banners for the just laid-to-rest Mr Lee, took down the board with his name hanging over the entrance, removed pots of flowers decorating the altar, and even the one-metre tall Buddha statue on it.

The Buddha and flowers were loaded onto a pickup waiting in the driveway, which drove away as swiftly as it had come.

Another pickup soon arrived with different pots of flowers, which were promptly unloaded and installed on the altar.

A new board with the name of a Mr Yang was carried out from the side of the hall and hanged at the same place where Mr Lee’s was.

Four lines poetry which adorned the four pillars of the entrance were likewise refreshed. That is, a worker stapled the words one by one onto four fabric-covered boards before securing the latter one each to the columns.

Inside the hall, two workers put up the condolence banners for Mr Yang with paper clips.

There were more banners than the hall had room for, so each banner was folded in half such that one could see only the third and fourth words of the traditional four-character condolence message.

Voila. Ming Xiao hall was ready for the rites for a new final journey. At least, it was to be for the following four hours, before being retrofitted again for yet another.