Friday, May 16, 2014, 10:58
It’s your funeral
By Ming Yeung / Focus HK
A music band performs at Willam Chan’s living funeral.
Funerals are seen as a fitting farewell for loved ones and friends. The rites following death vary from place to place, but all share in common the reality that the deceased will not be present.
William “Outcast” Chan wanted to rewrite the rules and become a participant at his own funeral. And he didn’t want to be attending a cold and dreary event. He wanted to have fun.
Chan turned 29 in 2012 and spent nine months making preparations for an event like no other to mark his 30th birthday — his own funky funeral celebration — a living funeral that would be the first of its kind in Hong Kong.
Richard Chan Chun-chit, principal of Luk Fook Funeral College, said the origin of living funerals could be dated back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). It was a common practice for the families to hold funerals for their dying members to “cheat” the messengers from the Underworld. Chinese believe that at the moment of death, one’s spirit is taken by messengers to attend a kind of preliminary hearing. Those found to be virtuous are allowed to go to paradise, while sinners descend to hell. The ritual continues in various parts of China nowadays.
Since the 1990s, living funerals called seizenso have become popular in Japan among the elders who feel they are burdening their children with their failing health. By having a living funeral, they feel they can somehow take the stress away and they do not need another funeral after they die.
Living funerals have become more popular in the West since the book Tuesdays with Morrie in which the author brought up the question of why one should wait until he is dead to be appreciated.
A smiling portrait of William Chan with his signature bowl haircut was set in the International Funeral Parlour in Hung Hom.
It was apparent that William Chan spent more time thinking about death than most people. He thinks his brush with death when he was a toddler made him that way. He was born with melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer associated with 75 percent of deaths. As dark moles spread across his body and into his organs, Chan was given little chance to survive much past his 11th birthday. And so, at the age of five, he asked his grandmother what people do when they die.
“Write a will and arrange a funeral,” his grandma told him, matter-of-factly. “As I was pondering over and over why my day hadn’t come yet,” Chan recalls, “I thought maybe there was a mission for me to accomplish.”
Specifically chosen as his middle name, “Outcast” seemed to suit his early encounters with people repelled by his appearance.
Chan came to the conclusion that his life’s mission must be to make a statement to the world that “no one should be an outcast”. Chan’s parents were supportive of his living funeral arrangement. They wanted to know “when” because it would mean taking a day off work.
On July 21, 2012, a smiling portrait of Chan with his signature bowl haircut was set in the International Funeral Parlour in Hung Hom. Above the portrait were bits of colorful calligraphy, in a sort of graffiti style, declaring, “leave with style”.
He was quietly carried into the funeral hall on a brown wooden couch. Then he slowly rose up, shocking one of his uncles who believed he had died.
“He didn’t know it was a living funeral and thought I was dead. When he was invited to the funeral, my parents didn’t tell him the details,” said Chan.
It was “pure Chan”, playful, bold and extraordinary.
“I wanted to tell my family and friends what was in my heart. I’m the kind of person — if I love you, I say I love you. If I hate you, I tell you right to your face,” said the young man, with a laugh.
During Chan’s two-hour “magic moment”, there was more laughter than tears, and most of the people wore rainbow colors instead of traditional, somber blacks.
There’s a Chinese taboo against speaking about death. Chan breaks it. He considers death merely a final destination, or as the saying goes, “some die, the rest get older”.
“Everyone says life is a stage in which we arrange every scene. But why can’t we prepare for our grand finale?” queries Chan.
“Nothing is certain in life except death. You don’t know if you will get married or not but you can dedicatedly plan your dream wedding, why not your own funeral? And it should not be exclusively for chronically ill patients who practically number their days.”
Gary Lam Yiu-ming is healthy, energetic and 21. He’s just graduated from university and at a time when he should have been making big plans for his future, he arranged his own living funeral. It happened at a casket shop in March of 2013.
The idea came to him while he was working on a project in his final year at university, about life and death education. He heard about Chan’s living funeral and decided the concept was essential to his project.
Lam shot a 10-minute video declaring his gratitude toward family and friends. “I regret that there are still so many things unfulfilled — I didn’t even get the chance to have an adventure in the Amazon,” he says on the sound track.
Remaining off-camera, Lam heard the things he would never be able to hear, the deepest, heart-to-heart thoughts about him from his friends. Not all were positive, as he got comments like he had been “too mean” at times.
The genuine words brought Lam to tears as well as making their bonds stronger. “At that moment, I knew that they would say these things to me when I die. I’m glad I have held the living funeral. If not, I wouldn’t have known what they thought of me,” Lam says.
“I think everyone should have a living funeral. Not only does it prepare you for death, you treasure your life more. When I reach 30, I want to hold another living funeral, with my family members,” Lam says.
People who die unexpectedly leave a void — the family has to decide what to do and how to deal with the mourning process.
Lillian Li suffered a terrible blow with the death of her younger sister. She and her sister had been close. Li Ching, deaf, bright, intelligent, degree holder, couldn’t bear life’s disappointments. Rejected time after time after applying for jobs, she took her own life. She left no note to reveal her final thoughts, only a single word written on a bundle of certificates — “rubbish”. Lillian believes her sister came to feel that she had no value despite her outstanding academic success.
The family was at a complete loss about what to do next. They let a funeral planner take charge. “But is this really what she wants?” Lillian wondered — knowing that the answer would forever elude her.
“Funerals serve not only as a last event to honor the deceased. It’s the last thing family members do for her. It has great effect on the family to help deal with their sadness,” acknowledges Lillian. “If my sister had told us what she’d like to us do, we would have felt more at ease.”
In 2013, Lillian established Lightbulb, a social enterprise that handles a variety of projects, including Party Lasts, a core project of the company that helps people arrange their last parties and plan their funerals.
The year-old Lightbulb has thus far organized four last parties, or living funerals. All clients were terminally-ill patients.
“We feel it’s inappropriate for a healthy person to hold a farewell party but we encourage people to plan their funerals ahead. We can help our clients publish a book or shoot a short movie if they want to have a retrospective that can be shown at special occasions, including funerals,” Li says.
“Living funerals is (a) platform where all family members and longtime friends say the things they have missed out and reconnect with people whom they have not contacted for a long time,” she adds.
Death associated concerns
A client of hers, a cancer patient in his 20s, had cut off all contact with his friends. But there were words he wanted to say so badly. By having a living funeral of his own, he got in touch with the friends again and understood that he was not alone in the battle with the sickness. His physical condition has significantly improved since then.
But not everyone is “brave” enough to do such a thing given all the concerns associated with “death”. The funeral industry is not against the idea but not many people request for it.
The Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, which let William Chan hold a living funeral at one of their two funeral homes, says they will handle such a request on a case-by-case basis, but after Chan, they have not received any enquiries about living funerals.
Richard Chan of Luk Fook Funeral College is supportive of living funerals, but he said it will take a longer time before the public would accept it.
“People evolve from planning their funerals to arranging a living funeral of their own. They need to keep an open mind to embrace death,” he said, adding that living funerals should not be held at funeral homes due to their limited capacities to serve the deceased.
“To embrace the idea of holding a living funeral, you have to let go of the baggage — a set of values you have created intentionally or unintentionally with this world — and ignorance — a profound fear of death,” William Chan says.
With an estimated life expectancy shorter than other people, Chan treasures every minute of his life, trying to educate the public the importance of “living in the moment”.
“Nothing and not a single minute should be taken for granted. I want to tell those who believe they have a future, regardless of age, that there might not be tomorrow for you, so get a life and fulfill your dreams,” says Chan.