What Chinese People Talk About When They Talk About Death
Around two weeks after the spring equinox, cemeteries and crypts across China fill with mourners for Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, which falls every year on April 4 or 5. The Chinese generally consider it bad luck to speak of the dead — but not on this day.
Death is a long-standing taboo in China. Though customs vary between regions, religions, and ethnic groups, many Chinese tiptoe around the subject for fear of bringing misfortune. Some even avoid the number four because the Chinese words for “four” and “death” sound similar.
Residents have protested palliative care centers for bringing curses upon their neighborhoods, and younger family members have been known to conceal the deaths of loved ones from their elders, believing the shock would be too distressing for them to cope with. Even Chinese doctors often break bad news to family members rather than to the patients themselves.
Yet the inevitable has a way of sneaking up on those who are unprepared, leaving panic and distress in its wake.
Sixth Tone spoke to three people who confront death on a daily basis: a hospice volunteer, a palliative care doctor, and a notary. Each shared stories of how their interactions during and after the final moments of life might one day help to puncture China’s culture of avoidance.
I: The Carer
Jessica Fu, whose employer asked her not to use her Chinese given name, volunteers in the hospice ward at Shanghai’s Tongji Hospital, one of 76 hospitals in the city that offer palliative care. The fresh-faced 33-year-old began caring for those nearing the end of their lives because of her friend and colleague, Zhang Jingyi, who died eight years ago.
“On days when we were out shopping in the sun, I never imagined I would be accompanying her through her final year of battling cancer,” Fu tells Sixth Tone.
Zhang was diagnosed with a large kidney tumor in May 2008, a year after her own father died of cancer. She had surgery to remove the tumor but the cancer cells had already spread throughout her body.
“She showed such a strong will to live that we couldn’t bear to tell her about her condition,” Fu remembers. Zhang remained optimistic even after the cancer had entered her lungs and she began to have difficulty breathing.
One month before she died, Zhang came across a diagnostic report that showed the cancer cells had spread to her brain. Her mood sank as she realized this was not something she would walk away from. She died on Nov. 14, 2009, at just 25 years old.
Later, Fu looked after two other patients at Tongji Hospital who were so bony and frail that she hesitated to touch them for fear of causing injury. “I realized that not everyone can enjoy the rising sun; some don’t even have the strength to raise the curtain,” she says. “Both were soaked in the bitterness of dying alone.”
Fu played soothing music for the patients and opened the blinds to let the light shine through during their final days. She believes tenderness is always valuable, even when you know how the story will end.
“To not have a happy ending in life somehow makes you feel you have lived it all in vain,” Fu says.
II: The Doctor
In contrast to Fu, some people have little sympathy for the dying. “I have seen too many family members complain or show indifference toward dying patients, who can be very restless and hard to deal with,” says 35-year-old Chen Menglei, a palliative care doctor at the Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center. Some relatives, she says, don’t bother to visit at all.
That’s why Chen was so impressed with the husband of one of her patients. When he and his sick wife arrived, they were wearing brightly colored matching outfits. He was patient, considerate, and cooperative as he attended his wife at her deathbed in her last year, lighting up the faces on the ward with his jokes.
After the man’s wife died, the hospital staff heard that he had locked himself in his bedroom. Then came the news that he had killed himself on the day of his wife’s coffin-closing ceremony.
Chen and the other hospital staff were shocked. “No one had seen the slightest sign of his inner suffering,” she tells Sixth Tone. But as the staff shared their memories of the couple, they realized there had been hints beneath the surface of his cheerful demeanor.
The cleaner recalled that before nurses came in to close up his wife’s body bag, he had leaned over the bag and whispered, “Wait for me.” That evening, he gave all of his cigarettes to a doorman and wept in the car as he drove one of the nurses home. Instead of the individual portrait that is usually used for funerals, the man had insisted on a photo of him and his wife together, which many warned was a bad omen.
As it turned out, one funeral turned into two, and the couple left behind a toddler, who now lives with his grandfather.
Chen says she has seen countless family members and hospice volunteers shaken by death. “I’ve witnessed them being vulnerable and unable to return to their normal lives,” she says.
III: The Notary
“A notary is like a messenger between the living and the dead,” says Li Chenyang, a 45-year-old notary in Shanghai’s Putuo District. For 24 years, Li has helped clients draw up their wills, bringing him face to face with the practical aftermath of dying. “Death is not the end,” he says: There is still the slow work of respecting and carrying out the wishes of the dead.
Li remembers a terminally ill mother who sought his help in drawing up her will. The woman was a successful entrepreneur, and she worried that her husband would squander their daughter’s inheritance if he was granted guardianship of the child.
After the woman died, the grandparents came to Li with the baby, then just a year old. “She stopped crying and reached out to me the minute she saw me,” he says. As he held the child to his chest and felt their heartbeats intertwine, his sense of purpose awakened. “I realized the mother had sent me to protect this girl.”
Another client who believed in reincarnation wanted to leave her estate to her future self, rather than bequeathing it to her family members. Unfortunately, there was no legal avenue for passing an inheritance on to a reincarnated avatar, so Li had to entrust her wealth to her siblings.
Li has encountered many cases where dying patients’ wishes are ignored, or where they come to him too late for their end-of-life requests to be legally registered. Many are elderly people who live alone and worry that they will be kept alive using aggressive measures at the cost of a peaceful death.
The notary office provides a service whereby those aged over 60 can appoint nonfamily members to be their legal guardians. In fact, soon anyone over 18 will be able to do the same thanks to a new law that will come into effect on Oct. 1.
Li hopes to see more people making use of the service. His profession has forced him to consider what he wants for the end of his own life, and he has come to believe that a quick death is best. “The advancement of legal rights lies in helping people die painlessly and with dignity,” he says.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Illustrated by Long Hui and Cai Lin)