6.2.20

Here's looking at you, kid.



When you look at the lifeless body of someone, they never quite look like themselves.

Their faces may be puffy at an unusual spot. Their hair is not how they will normally wear it. Their skin is both waxy and powdery at the same time, as if you can never completely hide the grey. The lips are almost always wrong - it's the colour they have been made to wear and the way their jaws are not allowed to slacken.

Of course they do not look like themselves because, you do not say this aloud, they are no longer in their bodies.

Almost a year ago, J in the coffin looked, strangely, still like himself.

Except that his hair had been combed back and unfashionably styled, oh terrible! Too bad, I would have said to him. I remember being a little surprised that he looked almost just the way I remember him looking when asleep. I checked back on the many photographs in my phone of him asleep - photographs snapped in the mornings just before I leave for work because he looked too "adorable" for me not to take a photograph - and in them he looked like how he did, lying in the coffin.

The undertakers did a good job, the people who saw say. They did do a good job.

I did not have to "recognise" the body the day he died. Thankfully a pastor from church did so. And at the morgue I think it was my brother who had helped. There are days I wonder if I should have. So that I won't have this missing piece of the puzzle: what on earth was he wearing that morning?  I've gone through his clothes, trying to figure out what was missing and therefore what he could have been wearing that morning. If I knew, perhaps, I would also know what was going through his mind then. This is illogical. Our desire to know is insatiable. We will be frustrated.

After a couple of days lying in wake at the funeral parlor, the body was eventually delivered into the fire at the crematorium in Mandai on a kind of mechanised cart.

We had watched from behind a glass, up above. At that point, it could have been any body - nameless, unknown to me.

The next day, in an air-conditioned room, a few family members and I had helped to fill the urn with his ashes.

The urn now sits on the table in the study. It's a common, respectable-looking, white marble urn.

I keep it in the study because it seems the most practical thing to do. For me, that is. It is probably impractical, inconvenient and selfish to people who want to "visit" the ashes. But since I can't imagine anyone wanting to do so, or what good such a visit can do for J or the other person, his ashes will stay in the study.

This dispassionate approach, we know, is necessary.




A couple of months ago in December, I invited Argentum (AG) to spend the afternoon in the flat. We were both going to open up the urn and go through J's ashes.

AG is an artist and maker of jewelry. She made both sets of our wedding rings, including the white and black rubber ones friends are always amused by. Every year, for the last decade or so, J would commission AG to make a piece of jewelry as a birthday gift to me.  He admired her, liked her person and enjoyed her company. He saw the process as a collaboration with AG. I have seen notes and sketches he made in his notebook. And because J always wanted to have a skill or craft he could call his own, this process satisfied a creative impulse in him.s

We chatted over tea and matcha cream puffs. There was a drizzle all throughout. The house was cool.

After we finished the cream puffs, we removed the sticky tape and the lid of the urn, took out the generous wade of cotton wool, and over a sheet of Chinese ink painting paper, we laid out the pieces of his ashes.

Because he was a fairly tall guy, the undertakers had to crush the bones so that the ashes could all fit into the urn. What a pity. After removing about one quarter of the urn's content, the remaining ashes were almost too fine to remove.

Most of the pieces we laid out resembled bits of bark or twig in their texture and form.

We held them up in the light, examined them.

AG picked out a few pieces she thought looked interesting. As did I. She found several that looked like bits of rib and veterbrae. And she identified a piece as being a part of the ulna or radius from the forearm. We discussed making something beautiful from one of these pieces. I imagined it as commissioning a gift for him - or more accurately, him continuing to do so for me.

AG's personal work - not the stuff commissioned for weddings - has always been somewhat dark. The silver is tarnished, ashen. The rings, hooks and chains, however fine, look more like they were hewn off armor, or found on the floor of slaughterhouses and iron mongers. J and I both really liked a show she made at the Substation years ago where a swathe of beautiful, finely wrought chains were intertwined and woven to form a large noose-like form. It was installed in an instant photo booth. You stood behind this noose and took your photograph. It is a kind of memento mori.  As this is.



I struggle to find the adjective to describe the experience of looking, touching and going through someone's body this way, even if the body has been transformed beyond recognition. Interesting?

Besides obsessing about health and how attractive (or not) we may be, we seldom think of our bodies. Yet we are fully alive only in our bodies. We are spirit, but we are also body. Every view we behold, our hobble or our dance, the rest we cannot find or enjoy, the flavours - oh Singapore - we savour, every touch we give or receive comes from the spirit and body as one inseparable whole. The division of inside and out, spirit and body, is philosophically expedient to get at the depth and complexity of how we perceive and experience our humanity, but in reality, can there be one without the other?  If nature had its way, we die, dissolving into its earth and bowels. 

We imagine death as an instant, the spirit leaving the body, the last breath, the flat-lining. But what do we really know about this dying? Only the sure decaying, destruction of the body.

Yet modern society has tried to censor this physical manifestation of death - the dead body or that ugly-sounding word, "corpse" - from our private and public spaces. While tombs and crypts had been part of churches and monuments, and funerals have always been a part of public squares and family homes, death is somewhat exiled today. We hide ashes in Mandai, in the creepy Mount Vernon, in the unpleasantly congested Sin Min district. Most of us will die, not in our homes, but in hospitals. The "void deck wake" as a community happening will soon disappear, together with the void deck.

We cannot shun death. It will not shun us.

That afternoon spent with AG and the cremated remains of J's body was a cool and relaxing afternoon. There was nothing distressing or morbid. Time seemed to have moved slowly in those few hours. We both  moved slowly too - handling each other's fragile memories with care. And although the ashes in my hand felt real, solid, they, too, are fragile. White dust.

Still I am thankful I can hold his body again; his body, transformed into pieces of beautiful, purified bone.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. 
(Psalm 103: 13-14) 

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