At the time, the Cultural Revolution, though winding down, had not yet run its course. Chairman Mao's political campaigns in the early 1970s included condemnation of Confucius and the eradication of old traditions and rituals. Funerals and weddings were simplified to reflect these views. Father said he had attended a public denunciation against a company official who gave his son a traditional wedding ceremony. Someone from the village with a grudge against the official tipped off the authorities that he had hired a red sedan chair to carry the bride and paid a band to play traditional operatic tunes. The official's denunciation was severe. Walls were plastered with big white posters painted with black characters: transform old traditions and customs! live simply and oppose waste! Posters even covered an outside wall of the communal lavatory in our residential complex.
For me, the thought of dumping Grandma's body into a furnace was rather scary, but at school we were taught that the traditional burial was a symbol of the decadent and cruel past of the pre-Communist era. There was a popular picture book for schoolchildren, A Silver Dollar, which told of a poor family in Father's home province of Henan. During the famine of 1942, the family sold the daughter to a wealthy landlord as a maid.
When his mother died, the landlord killed the girl by putting mercury in her drink so that she could serve his mother in the afterworld. At the funeral procession, pallbearers carried the girl sitting on a seat in the lotus position, with a fake lamp in her hands. The mercury preserved her peachy skin color, making her look as if she were alive. The story horrified me, making me believe traditional funerals to be abhorrent.
Superstition, I thought, was worthy of condemnation. At school, I was the head of the "Little Red Guards." During the annual singing contest, my classmates and I performed a song called "Down with Confucius, Oppose Old Rituals." I even helped put together a display on the school bulletin board that featured a cartoon of a big "revolutionary" fist pounding on an old man who was supposed to be Confucius. Grandma would hear nothing of my political activities at school. She even said Confucius was a saint. I was often vexed by her adherence to the old ways. On most things, I could bring her around with Father's help, but on burial, she was firm and resisted all of our attempts to dissuade her.
A filial son, Father had always respected Grandma's wishes and seldom argued with her in front of us. This was different. At dinner, he talked for the sake of Grandma about how Communist leaders Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai had embraced the idea of cremation back in the 1950s. "If our great leaders don't even ask for exceptions, what's so special about us?" After attending a coworker's funeral at Sanzhao Crematorium, in the southern part of the city, he told her, "It wasn't bad." The body of the deceased was brought over; relatives, friends, and coworkers gathered for a brief wake. Instead of the traditional sutra chanting and wailing, sad yet upbeat Communist-style mourning music played over a loudspeaker. Government or company officials delivered eulogies; family members thanked the officials and gave brief talks. After everyone bid good-bye, the body was slid into a furnace and the ashes were gathered at the other end and placed in a cinerary urn, which was taken to a big hall, like a library. Important leaders were accorded a bigger memorial service, and they didn't have to wait in line for the furnace, but everyone went the same way. On Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, relatives retrieved the urn and paid tribute to the deceased in a big yard behind the crematorium.
Grandma was skeptical. Neighbors had told her how crematorium workers never completely emptied out the furnaces after each cremation. "When they scoop out handfuls of ashes from inside the furnace, how would you know they're mine? You might pay tribute to someone else's mother at Qingming." Grandma ended the conversation by standing and clearing the table. Mother couldn't bear to see her husband beaten so easily.
Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir by Wenguang Huang Copyright © 2012 by Wenguang Huang
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