Our eternal beings
A conversation on the living, living together, death, death together
By: Shary Boyle, Howie Tsui, and Raji Kaur Aujla
Avatars of Entombment #1 (Calcify), 2021
Paint pigment and ink on mulberry paper mounted on silk
44" x 28.25”
courtesy of the artist and Patel Brown
Raji:You both responded to this theme, Ceremonial Deaths, from your respective vantage points. I’m curious what you've been thinking about?
Howie:I was like: oh, I am already thinking about mingqi (burial objects) and developing a project around this practice of bone repatriation and funerary objects. I’m researching this Canadian Chinese history around the practice where railroad workers would dip into their meager pay and put aside some money for managers to have their bones returned to their home village in Southern China if anything were to happen, like if they were blown up in a dynamite accident while opening up a mountain.
There's a whole practice that went on where bones of Chinese Canadian labourers were buried on Vancouver Island for seven years during which time Earth did its thing to remove the flesh. The bones were exhumed, placed in organized boxes with names and native villages on it, and then those got shipped across the Pacific to a hospital in Hong Kong.
Shary:Would the managers do this? I'm so curious about the administration. This seems so outside of the Canadian government.
Howie:Chinese benevolent associations managed it.
They ran the program along the West Coast. The communities in San Francisco and Seattle would send and store bodies to Vancouver Island in these places called Bone Houses before returning to their desired home.
My interest in that stemmed from this powerful allegory for how I'm feeling. It’s this term I'm calling diasporic yearning- this wanting to go back to Hong Kong. That's why I've been exploring this idea of ceremonial death and how you set death up afterwards for yourself.
Shary:It is beautiful to think about all the people shepherding the bones, making sure they were returned to their home community. Because many people- depending on your culture and ideas- see the body as immaterial, of no consequence once you're dead. Yet there was such a strong collective urge to get home, everyone pitched in.
Howie:I was looking at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s funerary objects in their archives. They have ceramic objects of comfort that you bring with you into your tomb. They are doll-sized representations of domestic things like a dinner table with some bowls and plates or entertainment items like musical instruments. It’s the idea that you have these items with you in the afterlife to furnish your afterlife home. Comfort.
Shary:An awesome ghost pad.
Raji:Shary, you spoke about death doula…
Shary:Yes, that's a practice that was interwoven with midwifery and other female European settler practices in North America pre-20th century, when women were managing community birth, abortion, and death. They would have skills to facilitate those natural states of being. This was before Western medicine and the funeral biz got their claws into practices here on this continent.
I've been interested in rituals and practices around death most of my life.. I’ve had a fair amount of experience watching the process of loved ones dying whether from disease, age, or more unexpected violent circumstances. We see how communities- depending on their cultural practices- gather around death to process, have ceremonies, or make rituals. There's been a certain rigidity in dealing with the dying and the ceremony of funeral practices in modern white settler cultures. I'm not finding a lot of meaning, for myself, in contemporary options.
The idea of the death doula is a resurgent phenomenon. It's traditionally a calling but people have begun to monetize it as a career. It’s about being with people as they die to advocate for their wishes, and to help facilitate emotional, psychic and bodily needs between the dying and their loved ones. It’s also about how to cope with the body afterwards if you don't want a funeral home to interfere.
I'm more interested in the ritual, as I’ve experienced deep sadness in my life because of superficial, or straight-up lack of, death acknowledgement. We are left with this huge sense of loss without a fulsome, engaged ceremony.
Howie:That’s not good for healing and grief. It’s very cold. Some of these Western practices feel so cold.
Shary:It's not right. It's not good. I had an experience with losing someone that I love very much. Her wish was not to have a big church-family funeral. This wish was interpreted in a rigid way to block any collective ritual in her honor, so all of these people that were deeply connected with her were disavowed of speaking about her death formally in public. It created so much residual trauma in a way. A whole community of people couldn't get over their grief because they had no way to come together. I began to research death doula practices after that.
Raji:I feel death should be celebrated. Sikhs cremate their bodies and the ashes are to be dispersed into the banks of the Sutlej where our ancestors' ashes have been dispersed before. Death assumes a finality but this ritual of being reunited in form and spirit with our ancestors feels more like a continuum. A union of ashes moving in water.
Shary:You cannot underestimate ritual. Ritual is baked into our genetic code. Ceremony can be a symbolic metaphor that helps you understand how you're connected to the universe through the cycle of life. I observed how North American people went crazy by the prospect of death when Covid first hit. No one seemed to have ever considered the fact that they were mortal- or that something like a plague could exist. There appears to be a phobia around dying in Western culture because it's been put into the hands of hospitals and funeral homes. It’s so out of sight and out of mind. Then people panic when they're confronted with it- as if it’s an impossibility. But we're all subject to dying at any moment, at any time. We all need to embrace death a lot more in order to respect it, each other, our elders, our sick. Ourselves.
Howie:I’ve understood two different burial trajectories. There's a traditional one where there'd be a Daoist priest that finds a good Feng Shui spot that oversees the ocean or something with good vibes. You’d also want to be buried on certain auspicious dates. If not, you come back as a zombie or something like that.
Raji:High stakes...high stakes.
Howie:Lol, there's apparently these horror comedies in Hong Kong where the priest had a disagreement with the family of a deceased and they purposely buried the body in a bad spot. The dead would come back as a vampire and then haunt the family.
There’s another trajectory that I found while researching the bone repatriation project. This new fad is called burial balls and they’re pretty popular in Florida. You get cremated and your ashes get mixed in cement and formed into domes with holes in them. They’ll just drop you into the ocean and then you become a structure for the coral reef and other species to grow off of. It's the new age-y thing I'm into now.
Shary:There’s also the mushroom suit that is seeded with spores, so when you're buried in it the fungus uses your body to start a new forest community.
Howie:That sounds good.
Shary:Personally, I want to be cremated. I have a very strong desire to have my ashes cooked and eaten at a feast. I know that freaks a lot of people, but I'm not kidding. I don't mean a copious amount of ashes but just a small amount.
Shary:Maybe a little more than that. You can’t taste it. Maybe equally distributed in some kind of stew or casserole.
I want to be consumed. I want to be consumed and become part of the bodies of the people in my life that I have loved.
Black Basket, 2016
30 x 26 x 16cm
Shary:Yeah, something good like that. Something people want…not some crappy hippie thing where everyone is like, boo.
Raji:How do you think your loved ones would feel?
Shary:A few people I've spoken to are open minded enough to get behind it. I also know there would be all sorts of people that would be challenged. That's also a part of it…where I love the mischief of commanding- even after I'm dead- people to do something they’re afraid to do. Getting people to do something fun that's just on the edge of their comfort zone is my special skill.
Howie:There’s an idea I had when I was speaking with my partner twenty years ago. I was like, oh, if I was dead at the funeral, I want my corpse to be embalmed, then made animatronic, and then I would emcee the actual funeral.
Shary:So morbid and macabre. People would be crying.
Howie:But also still super A-type and power trippy. It's still me watching you. This is how it's going down.
Shary, Howie, Raji:We all laugh.
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