Driving up into the mountains after the funeral, there are four of us in the minibus – five if you count the body. It is a beautiful day for a cremation: the light is sharp and the sky a crisp blue over the wide river valley in Nantou County, central Taiwan. The funeral itself had been a simple one, unlike others we see that day- no magnificent guard of honour of white phalaenopsis orchids nor an American-style marching band playing a noisy, brassy Japanese naval march. All of us wear black mourning garments with armbands signifying our relation to the deceased – pale orange for my Dad and two uncles, yellow for everyone else.
After formalities, my Dad carries the small wooden tablet bearing my grandmother’s name out of the funeral hall, shielded by my Uncle with a large black umbrella. It is a uniquely Taiwanese custom, I am told, whereby the Ming Dynasty ancestors of modern Taiwan refused to share one sky with their Qing conquerors. We file into the ‘freezing room’ (as labelled by a businesslike sign in both English and Chinese) to see my grandmother’s body one final time. This is the only time my Dad would shed a tear, he later tells me.
At number 51, we are one of the last cremations of the day. The minibus drops us off at the drive-through drop-off point in front of the furnaces, where a large number of coffins are already waiting on steel gurneys. They are numbered with small tags indicating their position in the queue, while an LED display above each steel-clad furnace shows what number is being served, the same kind of system as in a deli when one is waiting to buy sausages. We eat lunch and drink tea at a little coffee stand by a temple as we wait.
One and a half hours is the time it takes for the human body to become a pile of ashes. It is late afternoon when our turn comes and we walk back to where ours is the last coffin in the holding area. Without much delay, we pay our last respects and then my grandmother’s body is wheeled into the flames.
As the black smoke rises into the mountain air, I am told of my grandparents’ lives for the very first time. For the first time I feel the country of my father’s birth becoming a second home, whose stories I am only just beginning to uncover. It is a strange kind of comfort – a heavy mixture of loss and falling in love.
Thanks to Rita Liao for generously sharing her visual essay on Taiwan with us. For more of Rita’s photography, check out ritaxliao.tumblr.com