I’ve been musing on death

…specifically on how we grapple with uncertainty, pain, and the pain of uncertainty. The idea to write this personal blog stems from unrelenting media on rising mortality (prominently Covid-, racial injustice-, police brutality-driven), reflecting on my grandfather’s funeral, and a recent incident involving a centipede in the living room.

Trigger warning: detailed mortuary observations, mentions of death and suicide

Let’s start with this leggy invertebrate situation. Last weekend, I was rolling out my yoga mat to follow along a YouTube workout when I noticed a centipede on the carpet. It was about two inches long and standing still on its hundred-odd legs, frozen as if a deer in headlights — but actually an arthropod in broad daylight stunned instead by my dark brown eyes observing it. I like most people, I think, am not tickled [figuratively] by the possibility of a creature crawling onto/tickling me [physically]; so I quick-grabbed a plastic bag to transport this little life back to outdoor freedom.

Plopping the centipede outside on the back concrete driveway, I continued to watch it from the back door window. It moved a few steps but didn’t scurry into the grass as I thought it would. Dammit, I questioned myself, did I now literally paralyze this centipede’s legs by dropping it from too high? My slight unease became mini-horror as a robin descended and darted to eat half of the centipede (whether the head or butt side I really could not tell); repeated to the other half just seconds later. Done swallowing, the robin hopped backward and cocked its head, seemingly side-eyeing me to ask “What other calories d’ya have to offer?” I, disturbed and knot in stomach, retreated to the living room where I distracted myself with my original exercise plan. Afterwards, I rationalized why I reacted so strongly to this live witnessing of predator meets prey.

The circle of life reminds me that dying is inevitable and that lives cycle in and out. In other words, I don’t fear death as a general concept. Still, I do feel a harsher pang of sadness when someone dies unexpectedly, unjustifiably. This centipede anecdote might be overstretched, but my initial shock was because I didn’t expect to carry the small pest to its immediate death-by-bird. Sure, it would die eventually but I never thought it would on that very day and directly because of my actions.

With likewise reasoning, a human dying one day is not a shock; but how one dies might be. Every memorial for a schoolmate before graduation day is. A boating or helicopter accident is. The abrupt contracting of a terminal illness or other — including mental — health condition is. All murders (starting with an intention to kill someone else), in my opinion, are. In addition to the tragic deaths alluded, I’m also “sending love and positive energy to” family, friends, and strangers who died without making headlines yet whose vibrant stories I still have gotten to know.

The quotation marks around love and positive energy is not in any way to lessen my respect to the deceased. Rather, they reflect my atheism (also spirituality); since someone more religious might replace that quoted phrase with: praying for. Given that over 80% of the world population identifies with a religion, an implied multi-billions of people turn to their faith for a sense of shared community, moral guidebook, and — going with this post’s theme — a way to react in times of death, loss, uncertainty. I am in the minority population without belief in god[s]. The corollary is that I neither pray (because I wouldn’t know who or what I’d even address) nor fast in penance (because what heavenly paradise even exists for me to strive towards). When I die, maybe everything I didn’t believe is true and my faithlessness will send me straight to some hell; I think I could at least say “Hi [insert deity name], aside from not worshipping you, I did try to live consistently with the religious values that I know of”.

For despite my secular upbringing, I do have various firsthand experiences with religion. The pre-school that I attended, for example, is its state’s third-oldest Presbyterian church and taught a curriculum imbued with Christian values. My youth involvement with Christian teachings went next level when my parents registered me for the local Awana club (part of a broader evangelical Christian organization) and then a summer of Vacation Bible School. My non-religious parents’ reasoning was that these were fun activities to learn something new and keep me busy. Turns out they weren’t wrong — every Wednesday night for a few of my elementary school years, I sang lyrics (like the names of all the New Testament books) to memorable melodies; and summer 2004 marks when I successfully memorized the Lord’s Prayer while jumping rope with my best friend. In middle school, I also attended enough classmates’ bar/bat mitzvahs to know the start to some Hebrew blessings.

Fast forward to more recently and I continue to learn various forms and interpretations of religion — once chatting with a friend, our conversation that first touched on the DMV and driver’s license renewals veered to organ donation and funeral ceremonies. (I must have showed her my driver’s license or somehow mentioned that “ORGAN DONOR” is printed on my ID.) The designation to be an organ donor is a checkbox I haven’t hesitated to tick, but my friend responded that she opts out — her body’s to remain intact upon dying. We further shared that I would prefer cremation (or some other way to disintegrate my body), and she (aligned with Islamic customs) would elect burial. This conversation renewed some of the swirling thoughts on body, soul, and afterlife I had when attending my grandfather’s (gung gung’s) funeral in 2018.

His body was the first and only dead body that I’ve ever seen in person. Definitely not the first death of a loved one, but I never attended viewings at prior funerals. Accompanying my aunt (yi ma) and grandma (po po) on a public bus to a mountainside morgue, I watched as they exchanged some information with the mortician and then heard the sound of a metal cart rattling toward our direction. If my aunt hadn’t screamed “ba ba [father]!” towards the frozen body in the cart, I’m not certain I would have recognized it as my gung gung’s. Once my aunt stepped aside (after the mortician had said something to the effect of: ma’am please wash your hands, it’s not sanitary to touch his face like that), I stepped forward to have a better view of my mother’s father.

His cheeks were deflated; his skin frosty and almost gray; his mouth was open and protruding, much like a fish out of water promptly flash frozen. My grandma must have also commented on his mouth because the mortician assured us that they would reshape his resting face by tomorrow’s funeral ceremony. Before going to bed that night, po po had arranged some of gung gung’s favorite pastries on the kitchen table and clipped a picture of him to the guardrail — the window behind it cracked open a bit. My grandparents are just as unreligious as my parents but I sensed heightened spirituality and religious undertones that day; all a precursor to gung gung’s very Buddhist funeral ceremony.

The mortician was true to his word because on funeral day my gung gung — his mouth closed and lips demure — looked like he simply fell asleep but with perfect posture and a bunch of makeup on; oh, and in an open coffin instead of in bed. And now to describe the ceremony…

Family and close friends sat in chairs with each half of the room facing each other. At the room’s center a ceremony leader spoke in Cantonese, instructing various family members through some rituals, and at the back table sat a group of four people who I’ll label as the choir; they played a medley of instruments I had never heard before, singing and chanting nearly the entire two hours. Later, I would crouch with my older cousin to burn some paper in a small-bowl-contained fire while funeral attendees would walk over to the viewing of gung gung through a glass wall. My quick internet research would later reveal that the white garb and bowing of my aunt/uncles were to show filial piety, the choir was singing away evil spirits, and the paper was to represent money buying gung gung’s way to peace.

Throughout all of these Buddhist rituals, I did not cry. I did not cry when I first saw gung gung’s body nor did I cry as I watched his coffin placed on a conveyer belt, leading him into the furnace that would fully cremate his body minutes later. This was all my first time seeing this, but — going back to what I said about shock — the general concept of death doesn’t really shock me anymore.

Briefly reflecting on the times in my life that I was shocked by something, I do tend to cry. Some examples (in chronological order) are: the time I watched the undercover video that led me to stop eating animals; the time I watched Twilight at the movies and an emotional song started playing during Edward and Bella’s slow dance; the time I didn’t get into my “dream college”; the time I got into college but then not into my “dream sorority”; the time I lost a friend to suicide when we had shared a happy dinner together a mere weeks prior; the time I regained consciousness after blacking out in a helmet-less bike accident; the time I moved across the country (more than my prior two-hour drive away) from my parents; the time I felt heartbreak from the first guy with whom I started falling head over heels in love.

From living more years on this planet, fewer things are surprising to me; I cry less and less. But there was one moment I did cry during the funeral in 2018, and it started because my po po cried. In the final round of goodbyes to gung gung before the coffin was sealed, each funeral attendee walked to his side and whispered parting words. My grandma was the last to go, and she — who had been peculiarly stoic the days leading to this moment — gripped the side of her husband’s coffin, stared into his shut eyes, wiped at her tearing eyes, and shuffled back to her seat. The sudden thought of losing someone after 60+ years of marriage — during which my grandparents raised four children and shared a lifetime of loving and supporting each other — overwhelmed me. Then my own eyes welled with tears.

I think in that moment I better understood why my very non-religious grandmother scheduled a very religious day for gung gung — in times of death and uncertainty (who knows what happens to someone after their heart stops beating?) we want to have at least tried our very best to honor their life and show that we are thankful for having known them. While some believe they’ll join other blessed souls in a paradise, others believe they’ll be reborn into another life. Alas, I personally don’t know what to believe but Keanu did offer some wise words of certainty in 2019.

During an interview intended to promote the new John Wick movie, talk show host Stephen Colbert light-heartedly posed: “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” The handsome actor took a deep, audible breath and his deliberate response is something that I will always remember. He said simply: I know that the ones who love us will miss us.

Gung gung, I miss you.

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