Death, the Naxi and The Castle

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The first full day after I arrived in Lijiang this year it was snowing. Looking out into the courtyard in front of my small house, I saw the first of my neighbours making his way slowly towards the courtyard from down the alleyway. He moved slowly and hesitantly, shuffling his slippered feet through the snow on the cobblestones. He didn't have a walking stick or Zimmer frame, but instead used the wall of a house as his support. Just an old man, I thought. Just an elderly guy going for his daily walk.

Then I looked again. He didn't look that young. Maybe in his 60s. And in that strange condition you sometimes get through jet-lag, tiredness, waking up, mental projection and your brain trying to make sense of where you are, a thought flashed through my mind:

He looks just like that guy from the movie The Castle. You know, Daryl Kerrigan, played by the actor Michael Caton.

So my first encounter with my neighbours was kinda reassuring and familiar. I figured if one of my neighbours looks like a film star, or even just an ordinary family man like Darryl Kerrigan was, I was in the right neighbourhood. Afterall, this being Capitalist China, the government could decide any day to extend the airport runway, just like in The Castle, and we'd need some brave folk to put up a fight to stop such a 'development'.

Also, given my liking for the movie The Castle, my frazzled brain at the time decided to find from my memory banks some of my favourite scenes and lines from that film. The opt-repeated line from Darryl to his kids: This is going straight to the pool room. Darryl's reaction to the price wanted for a second-hand item through the weekly trading paper: Tell him he's dreaming.

Darryl was the Homer Simpson of the Kerrigan family. Whenever his wife cooked something special (every night perhaps?) he would ask out loud: What do you call this?

He was always full of praise for those with smart ideas: 'He's an ideas man', he would say.

The scene where Dale visits his brother Wayne in prison: How's Mum? Good. How's Dad? Good? How's Trace? Good. How are you? Good. How's Steve? He's all right. Good. [voice-over of Dale - We could just chat for hours]

Or another of Dale's observations: Dad, he reckons powerlines are a reminder of man's ability to generate electricity.

Dale also noted how his Dad loved the tranquility of their secret holiday location by a lake. 'How's the serenity? So much serenity' Darryl would ask rhetorically. Dale [voice-over] I think he also just loved the word'.

There were the efforts of the lawyer Denis Denuto: It's Mabo, it's the Constitution, it's the vibe. It's the vibe of the thing, your Honor.

Dennis also touched on a familiar subject, technology - or in this case - photocopy rage: I cleaned you three fucking times! Tray three? What the fuck is that?

I knew all the trivia about the film. Like how it was made, in 11 days for less than $500,000, to showcase the skills of the filmmakers, so they could get funding to make a bigger movie. How the name the Kerrigans came from the towing truck firm which lent the filmmakers the trucks used in the film. And how they had to change this piece of dialogue for a US audience:

Darryl: Steve, could you move the Camerra. I need to get the Torana out so I get to the Commodore.

Steve: I'll have to get the keys to the Cortina if I'm gonna move that Camerra.
Darryl: Yeah, watch the boat.
Steve: Yeah.

So the next morning I was hoping to see my new neighbour. I was hoping he would shuffle down to the courtyard, do a slow circuit of the fountain and pool, then amble back to his house somewhere around the corner. Instead when I ventured out down his alleyway, I sensed there was something amiss. Around a corner, near where I thought my mystery man lived, a noise echoed along the alleyway. Someone was using an electrical saw. Nothing unusual in that, given this is modern China, we live in a tourist destination, and winter is the time for building.

As I walked along the lane closer to the action, I tried to figure out what three men might be making. Each wore a small white turban around their head. Weird, I thought. The object they were making was propped up on wooden stays. Then something in my bran clicked: it was a coffin. Someone had died. Maybe my own Mr Daryl Kerrigan.

As a result, I've been taking notice of how the Naxi grieve and commemorate the death of a loved one. From talking with some locals and reading more about Lijiang and the Naxi, this is what I've found.

For starters, Naxi prefer to die at home. And for their death to be witnessed by family members. Outrageous. What is wrong with wasting away in an old folk's home or retirement village, with an underpaid migrant nurse counting down the minutes til her shift finishes?

One of the reasons Naxi like to die at home is because the members of their family have some special duties once they leave this mortal plane. As soon as the person has breathed their last, a family member will quickly place some items in the deceased person's mouth. Under the tongue they will place a small amount of tea, salt, wheat and corn, along with a piece of silver or gold. This is essentially 'food-to-go' for the soul's journey to the world of ancestors, so they don't become wandering ghosts.

Then, the body is washed and cleaned, and dressed in a burial robe or traditional Naxi costume. A sheet is put over the body and the body is laid out in a coffin and the lid closed. Food is then offered to the deceased. Only then, once this ritual is finished, can the next-of-kin begin to grieve. Throughout the process, there has been great care taken not to cry, particularly not to let any tears fall on the body.

Usually the sons will stay with the body for the three days after death. The women of the house will cry and mourn.

Along my lane, those men I saw preparing the coffin may have recently acquired the timber for the coffin, or it may have been stored in the family home for decades. One foreigner I know living here lamented the fact that the house he rents still has the wood for a coffin stored inside, and when the landlord dies, the foreigner will have to close down his business for three days and do other duties he didn't expect from just renting someone's house.

The men used a black pine resin to seal the joints of the coffin, making it airtight and protecting it from insects. Along the way, over the days, at different stages of the death process, I hear firecrackers go off to dispel any bad spirits - and scare the heck out of any tourists venturing along the walled alleyway.

On the second day, a brick is placed on the stomach of the deceased with a small mirror on top. This way, if they wake, they will see a reflection of their face covered in a sheet, and will realise they are dead and will fall back in the coffin.

Four or eight plates of food and a big bowl of rice are offered to the body, with one chopstick laid across the rice and the other pointing straight up. This tradition explains perhaps the taboo of putting your chopsticks upright into the rice, as this also imitates sticks of incense used around this time. Relatives and neighbours offer food to the deceased three times a day during this time.

On the third day, the body is wrapped in a white turban and the 'bravest' person of the household or village takes some rice wine in his mouth and sprays it over the face of the deceased. This action is seen as an insult, but if there is no response, the lid of the coffin is sealed on the confirmed dead person.

The funeral ceremony itself is also held at home, with the coffin placed in a room, surrounded by the male members of the household. Again, rice, corn and beans are offered and those present pay their respects by kowtowing befor ethe coffin. After some speeches about the deceased, and more kowtowing, the coffin is lifted up by the men and put on poles. The women then form a line on their knees, with their heads towards the coffin, and the coffin is carried over this line outside the courtyard and to the burial site, usually on a hillside. The men take the coffin to the burial site where it is burnt, amid the noise of firecrackers. The women remain at home grieving.

The following day, relatives visit the grave site and offer food. One year later the ashes and bones are collected into a funeral urn and placed in the tomb. Those who lived with the deceased remember them seven, 14 and 21 days after their death, often wearing white turbans as a sign of respect. There are similar remembrance ceremonies 28 and 100 days after death, and on the first, second and third anniversary of death. Usually after the first anniversary there is a banquet to mark the end of any duties the family members had towards the deceased. Then after the third anniversary there is an even larger banquet. Family members and friends may visit the grave site on these occasions, as well as on 5 April, the national day set aside in China for 'grave-sweeping', when the site is cleaned and the families have a picnic.

During the three years after death, the household will not put up the usual red couplets on their doorways, instead white, or sometimes blue or green, couplets are put up to record the grief of the family. While death is seen as a sad event, the death of an old person who has three generations of descendants alive is regarded as an auspicious occasion, worthy of joyous celebration.

I had been thinking that maybe my neighbour didn't look quite old enough to have sons and daughters, grand-sons and daughters and great grand-sons and daughters. I was also thinking that maybe my arrival and the arrival of snow could have pushed my Mr Kerrigan over the edge.

So it was a relief, nearly a week after I first saw the splitting image of Mr Kerrigan, that I saw him again, alive, half-walking; half-lurching, making his way along the wall. He looked at me like Darryl would have, as if to say 'You've got to be dreaming'.

I realised later that someone a few doors down from him had died. Not him.

My Mr Kerrigan look-a-like seems alive and well. He is not the happiest person on earth, and the few times I have heard him talk, he speaks like a man who has had a stroke and is also deaf. Most days now I see him, clinging to walls in the neighbourhood. Clinging to this dear earth.
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