Talking to my kids about death

Image credit: KC Wong

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

Tomb-sweeping, or qing ming comes round once a year in spring. There are several stories that explain the origin of this festival, but we have more or less accepted that it is a day when we pay respect to and remember our deceased ancestors.

In today’s modern society, family members and relatives find themselves living in different corners of the country or the globe, and qing ming serves as a good opportunity for everyone to return to the ancestral home and burial grounds.

My birth place is a small town in Johor that is about 30km from the Causeway. On this day, my uncles, aunts and my own family would travel from as far as Sarawak, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore respectively to this nondescript town. There is always much to prepare – shopping for items used in rituals, cooking, the folding of paper offerings into the shape of gold ingots, and making sure the different bags containing the ingots are correctly labelled and sealed.

Inevitably, when my kids first visited my grandparents’ tombs and witnessed the incessant burning and the food offerings, I had to tackle questions like “Why are we burning all these fake banknotes?” and the like.

“We remove the weeds around the tomb, we give the engraved characters a new coat of paint, we clean the headstone. We do all this not because my grandmother will have a cleaner and nicer home to live in, but [because] these rituals are means for us to remember her and to express our love as though she is still alive,” I said. “She will never receive the paper money that we burn, nor the spanking new paper TV, the swanky paper house, or paper effigies of servants and security guards because the major religions in Singapore state that after we die, we are either go to heaven or hell, reincarnate into other life forms or return to nothingness!”

At this point I received lots of death stares from the elders and my wife, but to further drive home the matter I continued: “Even if the dead can receive all the offerings, the endless injection of money supply to the netherworld would cause hyperinflation and render all this money useless!”

Turning to look at my daughter’s confused expression, I added: “Please tell me why a dead person would need an iPhone? To catch Pokémon Go in the underworld? To Facetime her grandson? I thought they have dreams for that?”

Ironically, in the olden days, when a family member dies, the surviving family members burn his or her belongings – not with the hope of “teleporting” the clothes or shoes to their loved one, but in the belief that everything returns to dust and ashes. A person is born with nothing, and thus returns to earth with nothing.

I have always been a free thinker and do not attribute much importance to rites and rituals. At the same time, I understand that rituals “provide a focal point from distraction; a level of comfort and familiarity; and an opportunity to demonstrate reverence for being in the moment, moment to moment”, in the words of autism and parenting author William Stillman.

However, I also want to teach my kids to look at things objectively and rationally. It is imperative for me to help them separate traditions from superstitions, so that they look at things with a critical mind.

What is the point of criticising everything and offending everyone even if, deep inside, you believe you are armed with all the facts? “But darling, you know what? We will still burn the offerings as long as our elders practise it, because we must always respect other people’s beliefs. That is how we can live together in harmony. Fortunately, you and your brother need not do it after I am dead because I am opting for an environmentally friendly send-off.”

To round up on the issue of death, I never treat the subject as taboo in front of my children. Where there is life, there is death. News stories about deaths are always good opportunities to broach the subject. If the victims are young, I would hope that they have had the chance to pursue their goals. If the victims are old, then I would pray that they have led a meaningful life by bringing much joy to people around them. In this way, I reinforce the notions of making the best use of our short lives and being useful members of society.

I do not condone going to bed with an angry heart. Whenever my wife has to resort to shouting and scolding amidst tears from the kids just before bedtime, I would chide and remind her to use gentle words and resolve the issue with kisses and hugs instead. We never know what might happen in the middle of the night. My wife might pass away in her sleep, or one of the children might be struck by a fatal infection. We are going to remember our lost ones by the last words they speak or their final acts, and I certainly want them to remember my wife or me by our smiles and love we shower on them.

This might sound a little morbid, but one of the reasons why the Bhutanese are considered the happiest people in the world has to do with their contemplation of death, which can be as often as five times a day. Not only does it make us value life and live it positively, it mentally prepares us for the inevitable which might strike when we least expect it. It is as important to prepare for life as it is to prepare for death; to know when to celebrate and when to grieve.

Well, there is always the next qing ming. For the sake of the environment, my kids can just electronically transfer a couple of trillion dollars to me when it is my time.


KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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