All Souls Day 2009

My parents' ashes at the Mount Erskine columbarium in Penang
Photo by Wuan.

The gravelly laterite road wound through rambutan and durian trees that provided a welcome shade from the scorching midday sun. This is the path many had taken, by foot, in cars, in a hearse. Many tears had been shed as heavy feet trudged on the sometimes muddied trek to a loved one’s final resting place.

I made that journey once, a long time ago, accompanying my Ah Kong in the hearse that carried the casket he was resting in. First stop after leaving the house where the wake was held was the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, an imposing structure in rural Balik Pulau, for the funeral Mass. His father, my great grandfather, helped build the church. Many of our relatives worship there, and had their last Mass there, too.

After Mass, the casket was taken on a slow ride down the narrow tarred road, pass a wooden bridge, up the laterite road and on to a small grassy field where the hearse stopped. A simple structure stood on the left, a zinc roof supported by pillars, perhaps to shade mourners when the heavens opened up. Tall rubber trees bordered the field on the far edge and on the right. Drab grey granite tombstones filled the rest of the open space. They looked like dominoes arranged close to one another. My Ah Kong’s freshly dug grave was frontmost.

Mum would visit her father’s grave on All Souls day every year, without fail. I would tag along, not understanding the significance then. Lighted white candles were placed before the tombstone and on the mound. She would then pour some water into a glass jar that we brought and put stalks of chrysanthemums, orchids and carnations – whatever were available from the florist that day.

Wuan and I were in Penang last week to “tiam chek ga” for Mum. “Tiam chek ga” means lighting candles on All Souls’ Day in the Hokkien dialect. Mum’s youngest sister, Cheng Ee, went with us. We had picked her up from her flat somewhere in town. Where white candles are usually used for such occasions, I have decided to use tea light candles instead. They do not leave melted max and burn longer.

We brought along joss sticks, a pair of red candles and some joss paper for Dad, too. He practiced a mix of Buddhism and Taoism when he was alive. For one reason or another, I have never thought of bringing joss sticks and red candles the numerous times I were at the columbarium to pray for Mum although their niches were next to each other.

The columbarium is not accessible. I had to make do with getting Wuan to pray on my behalf while I said my prayers in the car parked just outside. I had instructed Wuan on what to do. On one part, six tea light candles were for Mum; on the other, the joss sticks and red candles were for Dad.

We brought some chrysanthemums too but forgot to bring a jar. The caretaker found one for us one and even filled it up with water to put the flowers in. By the time Wuan and Cheng Ee came out from the columbarium, it had began to drizzle. There was one thing left to do. They walked over to the pagoda-shaped furnace by the perimeter fence to burn the joss paper.

This two-in-one prayer is for the sake of expediency. I have never gone back to Penang during “Cheng Beng” to pay my respects before Dad’s remains since moving to Kuala Lumpur. In fact, I have never visited the columbarium after Dad’s remains were interred there until after Mum passed away when I had to place her remains there as well. May they both rest in peace.

All Souls’ Day Reflection 2006

File photo dated July 8, 2006.

Our destination was further up the road from the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. We had to cross a wooden bridge built over a river fed by streams from the hills surrounding Balik Pulau. Bamboo groves lined the river banks. The only audible sounds were that of the car’s engine, screeching of crickets and gurgling of the river. A constant cool wind blew in through the open window. The silence was eerie yet refreshing.

I knew where we were going. Shortly after the bridge, Dad would turn the car into a narrow earth road up a gentle slope. Like every year for as long as I could remember, he would drive Mum to light candles and lay flowers at the cemetery. Therein lie her father, her grandparents and those from extended families – many ancestors I have never met before or was too young to remember then. In my mind, they were all in black and white, just like the portraits embedded in their tombstones.

For a short period once a year, the drabness of the cemetery bloomed with vibrant colours from orchids, chrysanthemums, anthuriums, gladioluses and carnations. Little white candles that were lighted in the memory of the dearly departed flickered in the gentle breeze. It was practice that I unwittingly observed by virtue of having to tag along on those annual pilgrimages until I became paralysed. Mum continued with the tradition after that.

For the past two years I have lighted candles before the niche where Mum’s ashes were interred on All Souls’ Day and her death anniversary. Those were solemn moments. Since I am not in Penang this year, I am giving it a miss. Nevertheless, I have spent some quiet moments in reflection – thinking about life, death and where my part is in this big scheme of things – praying that I be given the opportunity to touch lives like how Mum did to countless people with her magnanimity.