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Home / Lifestyle Experiments  /
Two Days From Vacation To Cremation
vacation cremation

Life can undergo a huge alteration in the most unexpected of places but the long term horizon always looks the same


For the last five years, at least, my wife has spoken about us visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.  Although I'd returned to Laos a half dozen times on visa runs since officially moving to Thailand, I'd never made it back up to this Communist peoples' republic's tiny cultural showpiece in the north since my first visit there in 2005.  My wife finally committed, selected a quaint well regarded hotel on the less popular side of the Nam Khan River, and during the third week of June, we caught an economical 90-minute flight out of Bangkok.

She made her objectives quite clear: she wanted to do nothing over our three-night stay.  I put up no argument.   I had explored the town's temples, the nearby waterfalls, and the scenic Mekong River during that initial 2005 visit.  During the humid afternoons, we'd pedal our way to the town center on bicycles the hotel provided, to visit a Western café for organic coffees and French-style pastries or get a massage, then return to the hotel to lounge in the pool with a couple of Beer Laos.  In the evening, we'd ride the hotel's rickety longboat back across the river for happy hour and dinner.

This R & R proceeded, without event for our entire stay. On our final night, we went to bed late after a superb Lao fusion dinner. We had nothing to get up early for. We could avail ourselves of our hotel's fantastic breakfast until noon, and our flight back to Bangkok was at 4:45 PM. With June being the extreme low season and no other guests at the hotel, the staff graciously allowed us to check out at 3:15 PM for no extra charge before we caught our shuttle to the airport only a couple of kilometers away.

Such was the plan. We never got a full night's rest that Monday night. At 4:30 AM, my wife's phone rang, a call from my her sister-in-law in South Korea.  You can assume that any call coming in at 4:30 AM from abroad isn't going to be for the purposes of conversing about the latest hit Korean soap opera.

The news over the phone was horrendous: my wife's father had passed away a couple of hours before.

Sleep was cancelled.  Our last hours in Laos weren't spent lazing by the pool with dark lagers and spring rolls.  Calls had to be made, new flights purchased to get back to Bangkok a few hours earlier. We needed to have time to go home, pack, and return to the airport to catch an ongoing flight to Korea, marking the first time I've ever flown into and out of Bangkok on the same day.

Korean funeral proceedings are a compact series of rites which occur over a three-day period, culminating in cremation the morning of the third day.  As my father-in-law had died early Tuesday morning, day one already started before our vacation in Luang Prabang officially concluded.  We arrived in Korea on the morning of day two.  The initial rituals are held on the bottom floors of a hospital in proximity to where the loved one died.   There lie a number of identical condolence halls, one beside the other, a sort of mortuary and funeral parlor all rolled into one; right next door, you can select flowers, rent or buy funeral uniforms, get an urn.  At the entrance of each condolence room is a digital signboard with a scan of the deceased's image, name, and the time his body will be hauled out of the hospital in a casket to the crematorium.

In the back, next to a tiny room where four might be able to squeeze in to sleep on floor mats, was a long decorated table on which was positioned a large framed picture of my father-in-law. In front of that, on a lower table, were foods he enjoyed. When visitors came to pay their respects, they donated an amount commensurate with the closeness of their relationship to the deceased or to one of the deceased's offspring.  These collected funds were applied to the funeral expenses. The condolers bowed twice before the picture of the dead and then turned to the right to bow once to male family mourners standing there against the wall.  Afterwards, the guests sat with the specific mourners they were paying condolences to and commiserated over food and alcohol the hospital included in the funeral package.

As a male and as a family member (via marriage), I was often one of the mourners standing to the right of the makeshift funeral altar and always the one standing out.

My wife, her brothers, my stepson, and other relations were in tears a good share of the time.  Confucian culture actively encourages the display of grief.  I was stuck somewhere between a state of exhaustion and shock.   I'd last seen my father-in-law only two months prior when we visited Korea for a week before going to Japan, and there was little to betray he only had a couple of months left.  He was supposed to have come to Bangkok to visit us for a month in August, the tickets already paid for.   In five more months, he would have turned 86.

Now his life was over.  It didn't seem real when the family was escorted into the display room in the late afternoon to see his dead body. Or the next morning when I was a member of the small party escorting the casket to the crematorium in a hearse. Or after we saw his casket slide into the flames. Or most definitely when a portion of his ashes were sorted from the charred bones and inserted into an urn.

These three days were his days. People who may not have known him personally or who may never think about him again were bid to look at his picture. They had to think about him in some capacity when they came to the condolence room.

That's when it dawned on me: isn't that how it always works at any funeral? Most of the people showing up only have a tangential relationship to the deceased.  They're the wife of a man who knew him.  They're friends or colleagues of the children.  Even if everyone showing up knew the deceased on a personal level, like what you witness at a massively attended celebrity funeral, the long term equation doesn't change. The dead may live on in all those they've touched; but eventually, all those they've touched will be dead, too.

Our close peers and relations will probably think about us the most often, but they'll be departed or senile within a short time of our own passing if we die close to the statistical guesses. Our own kids might think about us when they look over all the digital photos we've taken, if we've bothered to organize them, but with the explosion in album sizes since digital cameras became the norm, it wouldn't surprise me if my own stepson never glanced at any of the photographs documenting our lives together.

My stepson was very close with my recently departed father-in-law.  His grandfather's passing greatly affected him, and I don't see my stepson ever forgetting him. My father-in-law's other set of grandkids, twins currently ten years old, barely seemed effected.  They couldn't process it.  I think as they get older, their memories of him will become more what other people tell them about their grandfather than what they can personally recall.  This, I believe, is more the norm for grandchildren reflecting on their long gone grandparents hopefully resting in peace.

So my own stepson's kids, my future grandchildren, will probably think about me rarely, if at all.

The majority of us will be mostly forgotten within four decades, once our own children die, and all but forgotten within seven after our grandchildren bite the dust.

It doesn't matter much if you're famous either. How many of us spend time thinking about famous people from a hundred years ago and beyond?  Even fifty years ago?  Quick: who were the ten richest people in the world in 1950? 1960?  1970?  Who were the bestselling novelists from those decades? The biggest box office draws?  I don't know - or care.  I doubt you do either.  And if you don't give a $)@*$@(), do you think the people fifty years from now will give a flying petunia who occupies those lists now?

Extremely wealthy people/families can donate money to a hospital, university, or library for a new wing, department chair, lab with their name on it as a way to preserve their legacy into the eons. That gets you noticed, but does it get you remembered? Let me ask you:  do you ever research the name on the signs hanging outside your local schools and parks? No one else does either.

A tiny few of us, a miniscule fraction of a fraction, will wind up in the history books.  Not the prestigious achievement it once was when anyone can have a friend write an article about him on Wikipedia.  If you were able to triumph over immense odds to become one of the less than fifty American presidents, you are going to have biographies written about you. That realization would have done much to stoke Donald Trump's ego. But being "remembered" one hundred years from now by a high school student writing a banal report about the American economy in the first quarter of the twenty-first century is a dubious honor. We have some say while we're alive how we wish to be remembered, but once we're dead and our deeds are viewed through the lens of some future time period, will we still be glad the current unborn know our names? The Hollywood adage that any publicity is good publicity doesn't hold up if you're remembered as an a-hole for the next millennia.

In the instances were historians have been kind, for personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi , Jesus, and Abraham Lincoln, are these people being remembered as the personalities they really were? More often what we remember - what we're taught - is a highly edited version of a historical figure's life story. Sometimes, it's so highly edited and fabricated as to become a mythological story, as in the case of the first two leaders of North Korea. No one actually remembers Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. They remember fictional creations who happen to share the same names as two formerly living people.  Our egos might get titillated imagining people generations from now remembering us for things we didn't really do; but again, so what? We'll be long dead.  Whether people think about us every day or not at all won't make a difference in the next place we're going.

Is our ultimate purpose here not to be remembered at all but to spread love, as new age mystics and pop singers constantly suggest?  Didn't the Beatles tell us that all we need is love? Spreading love would be the more productive course of action considering how difficult it is to be remembered.   Measuring this spread, however, is almost impossible.   How effectively we've spread love can't simply be tallied up by some official poll's results of how many people claim to love us.

When pop singer George Michael died on Christmas Day 2016, the tributes stated that George was loved by millions.   I am sure there were even more millions who claimed to "love" John Lennon upon hearing of his death thirty-six years before.  We regularly distort the difference between the two concepts of loving someone and loving something noteable someone did. Did fans love George Michael or did they love listening to the music of George Michael?

People similarly said they were devastated when Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher passed away all of the sudden two days after George Michael.   While the news is certainly shocking to those not expecting it, how many of us can say we're really devastated, like my wife was when she found out her father had died?  What do we really know about Carrie Fisher personally?  The most we can say is that some of the  projects she was involved with touched us.

When Steve Jobs died, my wife cried.  My wife didn't love Steve Jobs. She loved some abstract idea of what he represented. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if she actually ever met him, she'd probably think he was an a-hole.  My wife doesn't have a very thick skin. If she worked under Jobs, he indubitably would have made her cry, by making her feel incompetent when she didn't deliver what he wanted.

Spreading love is making people feel loved.  You don't require an audience of millions to accomplish that. My father-in-law often told me and my wife that he loved us and showed it.  If one can live, die, and be recognized by a few for disseminating love, by as few as a couple of people for just a couple of decades, is there any shame in finally being forgotten?


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