Tradition and mourning rituals
December 7, 2016
There’s something about the cold, real cold for a Californian, the kind where you can see your breath, and stop feeling fingers and nose. Whenever that winter feels truly here, my bone deep memories surface.
It’s 40 degrees outside, and I needed socks inside, so I’m remembering other nippy mornings, going way back to when I ventured out into that cold because adults made me. Some memories are of junior high, 50 cent cups of hot chocolate to ward off the chill, shivering in too thin jackets.
Some are about recalling my ancestors.
My entire extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, lived by the Lunar calendar. I myself had no idea how it worked. All I knew was that when the cold settled down in California, it would be time. The one day a year that was designated for families to go to the graves of our family with food, symbolic money and clothes. Each family would bring a dish made potluck-style, and we’d light incense in remembrance of our loved ones, burning paper money and clothing for their use in the afterlife. We’d have one-sided chats with our deceased loved ones, telling Grandma about what we’d been up to that year, who was sick, who was doing well, who had grown three inches. We’d ask them to remember us, too, and send us their blessings.
After the incense burned out, indicating the end of the spirits’ meal, we would eat the meal together as a family, picnic-style.
This was part of the Buddhist culture I was raised in, though it wasn’t really shared as a religion or a belief system. It was a familial custom to honor and respect our loved ones’ memory, much as others might leave flowers at the cemetery, keeping them alive in our hearts and teaching the next generation the wisdom that would have been passed down from the deceased elders.
I remember this from when I was very young, too young to know that running around the graveyard playing wasn’t respectful, and I remember a cousin jokingly restraining us by saying that if we ran over people’s resting places, they would reach up and grab our ankles to make us stop. It was effective. To this day I still instinctively walk in very specific lines above headstones. He’d probably think that was funny.
We were exposed to the idea of death very early on, making it a normal part of life, without making it rule our daily lives. That distance I learned to be comfortable with became so ingrained that it’s difficult to follow any mourning rituals that dictate weekly and monthly visits to graves or temples or churches. More frequently than once a year is overwhelming.
I think my cousins still carry on the tradition because they’re still local to the graves, but we’re not, and so I can’t share it with JuggerBaby as I would like to. As a poor alternative, I started a journal after ze was born where I share memories of my mom and others whom I would have honored on that day and why I remember and grieve their loss.