By Daniel Emlyn-Jones
To be shining with sweat in anything other than an air-conditioned environment is one of the curses of being an angmoh, and when I arrived at the wake of my friend's uncle in an area beneath a block of HDB flats in Geylang, my clothes were sodden. The wake was in fact an easy breezy 15-minute walk from Aljunied MRT station, but I'd been looking at the map upside down, and managed to turn it into a one hour hike down Sims Avenue via Paya Lebar.
"What happened?" Nelson grinned his impish grin.
When I explained he laughed and I joined him. However seriously I was taking myself, it was impossible to resist that laugh.
Some of Nelson's elderly aunties waved their hands and said something in Cantonese, and I was carefully positioned between two fans so that I could dry off. I offered condolences to the widow in my terrible Mandarin. Offering condolences is what we do at funerals in England.
She smiled indulgently.
"You don't need to be so formal," said Nelson.
I could see what he meant. People were sitting around tables chatting, laughing, devouring char siew bao, reading the newspapers and playing mahjong. It was more like Christmas than a wake. The coffin was surrounded by white curtains forming a separate room in the midst of the tables, and in front of it was an altar of fruit offerings and burning joss sticks. Once I'd dried off, I went with Nelson to pay respects.
"Light the joss-stick from the oil lamp," Nelson told me. "Don't blow the flame out, but shake it out... put it in the sand with both hands…now bow."
My Reiki teacher in the UK had told me I had mediumship abilities. I'd only met Nelson's uncle once, but as we visited the open coffin, I could sense his spirit. He had cancer and was apparently keen to die, and I sensed happiness at his new freedom as well as sadness that he had to leave behind family and friends.
It was then that I understood. The wake was informal because family and friends were sharing with him for the last time what they had shared throughout life. Formality would have been disrespectful, because it would have treated him like a stranger.
My mother was abused when she was a child: physically, sexually and emotionally. For her entire life she was largely dismissed by her brothers and sisters as a troublemaker, because deep down they didn't want to face what they knew in their hearts to be true. It was only her brother Stan who came close to admitting that something had gone horribly wrong: he shuddered when he described how his father used to take his body temperature anally. When my mother died in 2006, her family attended her funeral, and just as they had blinkered themselves from so much during her life, they barely looked at me at her death. Dressed in black they sat in that church, stiff and cold as ice, while a bearded priest incensed the black shrouded coffin, as if the truth might seep out like a smell of putrefaction.
One of Nelson's aunties handed me a polystyrene tray of char siew bao. I took one, and as I bit into the soft white cloud of dough, tears rolled down my cheeks. Nelson clasped my hand and asked me what was wrong. Later in the taxi on the way home I would tell him, and that night he would hold me in his arms as if I were a bruised child.
The wake lasted three days, and on the morning of the third day a group of Taoist friends came to chant in front of the coffin. Many more family and friends arrived, until the chanting and chatting mingled into one great orchestral sound. The coffin was dressed with white flowers, and as the lid was finally closed and the coffin carried to a hearse, silence fell and everyone turned away from it. At the crematorium, we all bowed as it disappeared through a doorway into the shiny, silver embrace of an incinerator.
It was Nelson's turn to cry, and my turn to comfort him.
"I feel happy and sad", he said through tears. "Happy-sad."
All guests had been given a blue flannel containing a red envelope embossed with the character 'fu', meaning good fortune. Within the red envelope was a 20-cent coin. Outside the crematorium was a bucket of water mixed with white flowers from the coffin.
"Wash your face, it's good luck," beamed Nelson's cousin Josephine.
I dunked the blue flannel into the water and washed my face. I then gently dabbed Nelson's forehead. He smiled at the benediction but also flinched: he used so many expensive face creams he didn't like to get wet.
Nelson's uncle wanted to be buried at sea, and the following day Nelson and I travelled with Josephine in a bum boat from Changi Village into an area of the Straits of Johore between the mainland and the island of Pulau Ubin. Josephine carried her uncle's ashes in a red cloth on her lap, and chatted incongruously about some knee problems she'd been having.
The fat uncle driving the bumboat stopped it next to some rocks, and instructed Nelson and Josephine to open the red cloth and throw the ashes into the sea, saying: "the sea is now your home," in Chinese. I quietly said the 'Our Father', a prayer for every occasion. My mother advised me to pray it for everything from colds to exam stress to the panic attacks I used to get at university.
I watched as the pieces of bone and ash dissolved in the eddying water. In time they would be carried by sea currents throughout the oceans of the world. They would spread and disintegrate into unimaginable numbers of constituent molecules and atoms until every drop of water, every gust of air and every living thing in the world contained an infinitesimally small part of Nelson's uncle.
Atoms from my mother were also swirling there with the ashes, glittering like sparks dancing in the sunlight. I felt an invisible hand on my shoulder, and heard a voice calling to me over the water: "I'm alright, I'm alright, I'm alright." Through tears I looked at Nelson, kneeling on the edge of the boat, rubbing the white powder from the creases of his hands. I silently thanked whatever power: Jesus, Buddha, Allah, or just the ever-flowing streams of life, which had brought us together.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016