No one is truly ready for death, and no one knows how they might act when faced with it—numb? Overly emotional? Relieved? It has been a long time since I have attended a funeral, but I have experienced many deaths and losses since then. (Most of the funerals in my family so far have happened in China, or I was told about the death after the fact—and with many relatives dispersed around the world, it’s always difficult to keep updated with everyone’s lives.) Through these three short stories, I will touch upon three steps of death.
Step #1: Preparing for Death—“On Planetary Palliative Care” by Thomas Ha
“On Planetary Palliative Care” by Thomas Ha is a story about the end of life of a planet and those who are trained and tasked with its end-of-life care. This story takes the form of a letter and instruction manual of sorts. What is most interesting to me about this story is the concept of preparing for death, and not just preparing for the death of people, but preparing for the death of a home—an entire existence that is on the verge of extinguishing.
It touches on how, even given the choice to leave, there might be those unwilling to leave their homes and would prefer to die with it. And even those who are trained for palliative care all their lives will not be prepared for death. This is a story that is very much centered on the terrors and preciousness of time and explores through a new lens the unwillingness to let go, and the sacrifices we might choose to make, even when it means guaranteed death.
Step #2: The Dead Among the Living—“Douen” by Suzan Palumbo
“Douen” by Suzan Palumbo is about a child’s—Samantha—recent death and how they wander among the living still as a Douen, usually seen as malevolent in nature. This is a story written in dialect, centered on mourning the dead. I have always been a fan of Suzan’s writing—there is always a dark, emotional, and heart-wrenching tone, along with the layering of raw sorrow through a unique choice.
There is an interesting exploration of the confusion of being dead, of not wanting to be dead, and the mourning of the loss of loved ones and wanting to return to the land of the living. Palumbo also touches on how one might change after death and the fear of such change, as well as the pain of having to watch life move on without you.
Step #3: The Dead Among the Dead—“Thirteen Goes to the Festival” by L Chan
“Thirteen Goes to the Festival” by L Chan explores what happens after death, where spirits might go, and how they might live. In this story, there are intriguing concepts such as spirits gambling memories, which raises the question of how memories might hold different value and weight to the dead, particularly those who have been dead for a longer period of time, almost as though these spirits are forgetting what it means to be alive and the connections they have to the world of the living fade overtime—just like memories. There is an exploration of death and Dìyù as confinement, an eternal prison.
On materialism, Chan also highlights how wealth and power in Dìyù is determined by whether the dead are mourned by the living, by the offerings the living burn for the dead in term of material goods and money and food paper offerings. In Dìyù, time continues to move, but for the living, the dead remain the same age at which they passed and burn offerings of similar nature appropriate for the age of passing—an example being toys for children.
And, just like the world of the living, there are times when even the dead leave the dead behind. It is interesting to see how there may be ghosts who choose to stray from their homes and past loved ones even if they get the chance to visit the realm of the living rather than latching on to them. But I think the most intriguing question the story explores is what happens to those who are not mourned?
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