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So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday April 9, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 9, 2014 MYT 10:32:23 AM

Gift wrapped for return to maker

Environ casket with red banana leaf cover

Environ casket with red banana leaf cover

FUNERALS are not a good topic at a birthday party. But as it turned out, it was the subject of one of the most deeply affecting conversations I’ve had in a long time.

It was also entirely appropriate considering how many of us in the last month were forced to think about losing loved ones and the need for closure. I am of course referring to the grieving families and friends of those on board MH370.

I write this in Singapore after attending my youngest sister’s birthday. It was a fabulous affair and her many good friends came in full force. But one friend could not make it because she passed away suddenly.

I didn’t know her so all I could do was make sympathetic noises. But as I listened to my sister speak about her, it was clear this was a remarkable woman who had left too soon.

She was a very giving person always willing to help others. She was also a nature lover and a great proponent of the environment so when it came to sending her off, her family chose to do in a way she would have approved. Instead of an extravagant casket of expensive wood, they chose a coffin that was environment-friendly.

Intrigued, I pressed for more information. My sister told me it was invented by a Singaporean who sent many of his coffins to Japan hearing of the shortage after the 2011 devastating earthquake and tsunami.

A quick check online led me to Eco-ffin and the man behind it, Dr Ng Khee Yang. His website explains that his coffin is made of corrugated carton paper making it lighter and faster to cremate than a conventional wooden coffin.

What’s more, it can be flat-packed and assembled in three minutes, which is why it’s ideal for use in disasters.

While the inside is lined with fabric and the deceased can have a comfy lie-in, the Eco-ffin looks like a plain rectangular box outside. As the inventor intended, family and friends are encouraged to decorate the box as they see fit.

Indeed, my sister showed me photos of her friend’s coffin and it was the most beautiful I have ever seen. Every inch was covered with colourful notes and drawings so that the coffin looked truly festive. And indeed it felt like the deceased had been gift-wrapped to be returned to her maker.

From all the stories arising from MH370, the most heartbreaking were those on how the families of the lost ones simply did not know how to send them off to the hereafter; how to hold a funeral as it was unclear whether they were truly gone and there were no remains.

But you know what they say about funerals and elaborate rituals; they are for the living to come to terms with their loss and to comfort themselves that they have done all they can for the souls of the departed.

This is something we must all face: bidding farewell to loved ones and even our own mortality. It is easier said than done. I too have generally avoided the topic, whether it is preparing for my own passing or that of my aged parents. But MH370 and listening to my sister about her friend’s funeral got me really thinking.

While I decided on cremation long ago, I never went beyond that. Now I want to go in an Eco-ffin. I hope it will be as pretty and cheerful as my sister’s friend’s box.

It makes great sense and I think it’s so cool to have a coffin that brings smiles and tears. I like the idea that when people pay their respects to me, they won’t just look at my waxen, painted up face but will be allowed to scribble a farewell note or stick a smiley on my coffin.

Do I sound horribly morbid? Well, I do apologise if I do but I am actually quite chuffed about this.

Anyway, I am not asking for a send-off, Ghana style. The country is simply set apart when it comes to parting from their dearly departed.

Ghanaians love funerals which are elaborate, expensive parties, complete with fancy coffins shaped like fishes, aeroplanes, sports shoes or cars, that last for days. That’s pretty amazing but a bit too much for me.

At least the Ghanaians have a very positive attitude to funerals, a taboo subject to others.

And we all know how superstitious Chinese are. Then again, in the old days, the Chinese, especially the rich and titled, took great pains to prepare for their funerals so that they would have a great afterlife.

Traditional Chinese coffins are heavy and imposing. But because the Chinese have that perverse fascination with good luck sounding words, even coffins can mean good fortune too. That’s because the Chinese word for coffin, guan cai, can also mean official (therefore status) and wealth. So like the rabbit’s foot, another weird symbol of luck, miniature Chinese coffins are sold as charms in China.

That traditional heavy coffin is now rare and it’s the modern western casket more common at wakes.

There’s no reason why that casket cannot further evolve to something more lightweight and eco-friendly that is so right for our time.

But apart from my desire for an Eco-ffin, I really don’t care much about the rest of my send-off. I won’t insist on what songs to sing or play because I won’t be around to hear them anyway. My family can decide what music they find comforting. All I want is to go in a practical way that will give my friends and family one last good memory of me.

Now I would like to convince my parents this is the right way to go and they won’t be humiliated by gossip of being buried or cremated in simple cardboard boxes.

Really, we modern people take so much and leave such a mess - think of the resources we use and garbage, we chuck out in our lifetime - so the least we can do is to go as quietly and neatly into the night.

I know, it’s hard to change superstition but we should try. If bereavement companies in Malaysia don’t have such handy coffins, perhaps l should order my Eco-ffin now. After all, it’s flat-packed, so I can store it in my garden shed. Of course I hope I won’t need it for many years to come. Which means I should check if it’s termite proof too.

> Aunty loves this observation by Jerry Seinfeld: people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. Feedback to junewong@thestar.com.my.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, June H. L. Wong

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