As a church staff member, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to attend a number of funerals in Hong Kong. Each situation has been unique, based on the different circumstances of the family members, but there are several common characteristics I have noted through these experiences.
On a Friday evening, I make my way to a street lined with funeral parlors—large, imposing buildings with dull grey exteriors. Hole-in-the-wall shops are clustered along the edges of the neighborhood streets, each selling fresh flowers, caskets or the paper effigies used in these settings. Curbs and sidewalks are littered with the remains of mourning: crushed flower petals, dried leaves, a bit of ribbon or paper, discarded tissue and incense scraps. Groups of male employees huddle in the cold on the steps of the building, smoking and stretching their legs.
Most of these funeral parlor buildings consist of a lobby with one or two inadequate lifts, and several floors lined with small rooms reserved for a particular family. One step through the doorway and I am hit with the noise of talkative crowds, jarring music and the smoky haze of burning incense. A funeral home in the West might offer a calm oasis of dim lighting, discreet New Age music, and muted whispers among family members. Here, it is a cacophony of obnoxious sound, overwhelming odors, and bright lights.
After a short ride up a rickety elevator, I step into a hallway filled with people. Lines between faiths are instantly visible: Christian mourners dress in solid black clothing, while Buddhists are clothed in white from head to toe. Sprinkled in are a few shaven monks wearing habits of burgundy or mustard brown. At the doorway of each room, there is a reception table; guests sign their name to a book and receive a white packet, the contents of which include a tissue, a coin, and a piece of candy. In the case of Christian funerals, the white packet may have a cross and/or scripture verse printed on the front.
Inside the rectangular room, the walls are lined with tall flower arrangements, each labeled with prominent signs indicating who gave the bouquet. An altar of sorts sits at the front of the room, on which is situated a large photo of the deceased, flowers, candles, and—in the case of a non-Christian family—burning incense. Sometimes the family is seated on the left, and guests are asked to walk forward and bow three times toward the altar and the family. This “wake” may take the form of a Western visitation or viewing, or it may be an actual funeral service. Often the body is present, but visitors must walk behind a partition to view it. Apart from the organized service, these occasions are typically loud—family members and friends freely chat together despite interruptions from the presiding announcer, who counts to three into a microphone each time a guest arrives to pay respect to the family and the deceased.
The clamor and din from rooms next door disrupts all thoughtful conversation. For devout Buddhists, it is necessary to play piercing, haunting music and make loud clanging noises—ostensibly to scare away the ghosts. I’m still unclear on the exact significance of these elements, but the cacophony of what sounds like a toddler banging on pots and pans, with the added element of tear-inducing incense leaves me feeling unsettled and agitated. I’m ready to leave the moment I arrive.
I depart, passing along hallways lined with massive paper or cardboard structures: a child-sized mansion, a miniature luxury car, a stack of fake cash, a symbolic bridge and a cluster of paper dolls. These things can be purchased and burned for the deceased to enjoy in the afterlife. Found in any other setting—a shopping mall or an amusement park, for example—they would be interesting to study and photograph. Here, however, they carry the weight of hopelessness and meaninglessness. I turn away in disgust and hurry out.
The next morning, perhaps, I arrive at a crematorium building for the next portion of the funeral proceedings. (In the case of believers or church members, we may have already observed a memorial service which closely resembles that of one in America.) A crematorium complex is complete with small chapel-like rooms and rows of slots in which the ashes reside. I enter one of the rooms and find a seat on a beat-up wooden bench. The ceiling is high, the doors are open, and there is a crisp breeze making its way through the enclosure. A faint whiff of smoke and incense is detected, but the open-air room keeps the circulation flowing pleasantly.
After a few words, a scripture reading and a prayer, the immediate family steps forward. The casket has been resting on a short conveyor belt at the front of the room—a typical metal and rubber piece of equipment such as may be found in an airport. In a moment of solemnity and grief, the family members press a large green button which sets the conveyor belt into motion. The guests stand and watch as the casket slowly glides through a low doorway or into a lift. The doors close and the casket is gone.
In some ways, I find the trappings of such events to be oddly pragmatic and down-to-earth, even disorganized and messy. During the wake, family members may sit in the corner of the room slurping down a bowl of noodles between welcoming guests. As long as the mourners are wearing solid black (or white), the style of the clothing is not important; sneakers and t-shirts are apparently acceptable in most cases. Rooms are crowded and dingy; flecks of paint peel off the walls; bare bulbs hang from the ceiling, emitting harsh, bright lighting; flowers wilt and petals fall to the floor; impassive employees wearing sloppy clothing step in to do menial tasks without regard to decorum; coarse and loud talking is expected; a mobile phone rings and is answered.
Contrast this with Western practices: ornate and plush funeral homes designed with comforting color schemes, soothing lighting sources, quiet whispers, employees dressed in dark suits and ties with expressions of empathy on their faces, mourners wearing their Sunday best. In those cases, there is a distance from the practical, earthy procedures—the casket is opened, closed and moved when the mourners are not present; the cremation takes place when the family is gone; no one wants to think about these unpleasant, untidy details associated with death.
Here in Hong Kong, I come away from such experiences realizing the gravity of death without faith in Christ. Yes, in America many people pass away each day, not knowing salvation; but the demarcation between believers and unbelievers is obscured—if I see a funeral procession, I usually cannot immediately discern the religious beliefs of the deceased. When, however, the accessories of mourning in a non-Christian family are overtly displayed, the need for hope in eternal life is seemingly exacerbated. When my desire to quietly ease the suffering of a grieving friend or church member is disrupted by clanging cymbals from down the hall, the realization of peace in knowing God strikes me. Hours later, when I try to wash the smoky stench from my hair and clothing, as I fill my eyes with extra-strength Visine, as I gulp cold water in an attempt to clear my throat of the dusty incense particles, I’m still thinking about it. These people we encounter in local funeral parlors—indeed, the same people we pass on the sidewalks each day—may have no assurance of life after death. They need the comforting hope of a Savior who validates this life on earth and gives the promise of something better to come. They need Jesus.