A Death in Yangshuo

AROUND THE CORNER FROM our guesthouse, a family was holding a funeral. The location wasn’t particularly dignified or sacred; the man’s coffin lie, raised up on what looked like table legs, in a windowless shop space with a garage-style door. Cars and motorbikes sped by less than 10 meters away.

This would not be a brief event. Certainly not the kind of subdued mourning — the guests, dressed in black, filtering in and out and offering their condolences in between — that is so familiar in the West. Over the course of three days, J and I observed curiously but solemnly as we passed by on our way into town and back.

Day 1:

The coffin appears. Tables are set out under a makeshift canopy on the sidewalk, and guests sit in the relentless heat. Several people — family members, I guess — wear hats along with baggy shirts and pants made of canvas. Everyone plays cards and drinks tea into the evening.

Day 2:

Crack-crack-crack-pop-BOOM! We awake to the sound of firecrackers, long chains of them, exploding in succession. We ask the owner of the guesthouse, Mr. Wei, if this is common at Chinese funerals. Yes, he says, and also it is August 1st by the lunar calendar — an auspicious day.

The explosions continue into breakfast. When we head out for the day, singed scraps of firecracker shells are littered all down the main street. The pavement in front of the funeral is hidden by them. It looks like someone blew up a flower shop full of only red carnations.

A picture has appeared in front of the coffin. He’s a gaunt man with white hair. There are also new decorations: wreaths of shiny colored foil.

At a sidewalk table, two men play horns in harmony. They are not playing in front of anyone, or even for anyone, it seems. There is no stage and none of the other guests stop their conversation. The horns are traditional Chinese instruments and they hit those in-between notes that sound sad, beautiful and strange to foreign ears.

Day 3:

More fireworks. By mid-morning, a band has arrived. There is a drum set and an alto saxophone and the band members are warming up. It’s still oppressively hot outside.

After nightfall, there is the band and there are the men playing horns. Both play at the same time to completely different melodies.

The next morning, everything has been cleared away. I only notice a few thin red candles burning in the shop where the coffin had been.

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