A Memory of a Quiet Burial

Jess Liao is a Chinese-Australian, born and raised in south-suburban Sydney. Her parents immigrated to Australia in the mid-1980s, as survivors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Now, she calls Canberra home. She studies Arts/Laws at ANU, and is interested in human rights, culture, identity and faith. 

Our taxi rolled up at the roundabout, and I stood before the pearly white concrete walls. Two stone lions guarded its palace, their eyes hissing and their tongues menacing. I clung tightly onto my Ma Ma’s hands that had grown thick and wrinkled with time. The entryway was filled with old women selling delicate flowers, incense and offerings. I had always thought there was an air of desperation in them, as they endured the hardships of jobs that were forced upon them.

“Kuai lai mai ya!” they cried out, as they ushered closer towards our faces.

Instinctively, I reached into the pocket of my white puffy jacket but quickly realised I had no Chinese Yuan to offer. Out of pity, my Ma politely bought a few flowers and handed them to me to hold. 

The white buggy drove us through endless aisles of gravestones that were parallel and neatly lined up next to one another. Some stood significantly taller, larger, than the others around them, as though even the dead were still separated by class. But it wasn’t the biggest tombstones that drew me to them. It was the ones with flowers that stood elegantly amidst the stones carved with Chinese characters; those were the ones that belonged to the most adored and cherished. 

If I had paid less attention, my eyes would have quickly glossed over those with wilting leaves and dying buds. Life was not to be found here. The dead truly had begun to fade away, like a long-lost memory that had been tucked neatly away in a photograph. In a sea of gravestones that blended and sank into each other, the surrounding darkness and stillness breathed upon us.  

When we arrived at the gravestone of my Ye Ye, I stood blankly before it. The interactions I had with him had been so minimal – a brief encounter once every two years, if I was lucky. It wasn’t often that we would visit Shanghai. He’d sit in his faded cane chair at the back of the house, listening to the Chinese radio and smoking cigarettes. The glass ashtray was always filled to the brim, next to the black and white photographs of the man he used to be. My Ba Ba, who has always been a chronic smoker, would use his father as an example that smokers could live long lives. But over the years, I noticed that my Ye Ye would sink deeper into his chair every time we met; his eyebrows would be more overgrown, more unruly; and his hearing would be even worse. 

“Bow,” my father whispered, disrupting my thoughts.

And so I did. Three times, I think it was. The strong scent of incense flurried up my nose, and without anyone being able to tell, I discreetly held my breath. I bowed down to the picture of my unfamiliar grandfather, and prayed to my God. 

“Lord God, please, please…. bring peace and healing to this brokenness.” 

I was almost lost for words and was surprised at the desperation in my own tone. I only hoped that my God would understand. 

When it was my Ba Ba’s turn to bow, his head was hung low and his shoulders heavy. 

“Ba,” he uttered, choking back tears. “Why did you have to leave us when we weren’t ready?” he wailed out. 

It was so bitter a cry that my heart ached. This was the first time in my life that I had seen my Ba Ba cry, and I wondered if he experienced the satisfying relief of an unrestrained weep. 

Without a moment’s hesitation, my Nai Nai yelped in frailty, with her whole body prostrated on the stone tomb. She clutched onto my Ba so tightly, as though holding onto her son would provide relief from the pain of losing her life companion. Death seemed so near, only a touch away.

“How will I be able to go on without you?” she pleaded and begged in desperation to the grave.

She opened her mouth, as though to wail, but this time no sound came out. 

Tears had begun to roll gently down my face, silently, as I watched the scene of a quiet burial play out before me. The gathering dark fell like a curtain, and dusk bid us farewell.

© Jess Liao, 2021