Dealing in Death, Pt. I
Okay, so the picture from “Up | Down” requires a little context. That photograph was taken inside the gilded Ming Palace of the private Nirvana Memorial Park at Shah Alam, the place where my parents will be cremated then compartmentalised.
Just typing that is unsettling.
On Sunday morning, mother insisted that I follow her to visit her “future home”. She actually used those words. The fact that it was an euphemism made it worse. She and my dad were going to attend a talk on Chinese astrology in conjunction with the arrival of the Lunar New Year, which commences on February 19. These talks usually involve an excessively chirpy emcee, unruly children, and free gifts per attendee, not family. That last distinction was the reason for my mother’s insistence.
I’ve never been comfortable about death and I’m unafraid to admit that my mortality terrifies me. Every now and then, when I stay indoors far too long for my own good and my serotonin levels drop to an all-time low, macabre discussions on death can cripple me for an entire afternoon, which is terribly unhealthy and reproachingly unproductive. I’m already a little anxious when I think about my grandmother’s age, so imagine how disturbed I become when my parents talk so casually about their impending deaths.
“It’s a very convenient process, much simpler than before. No hassle whatsoever. When we pass, you just dial the number and everything will be done for you. It’s better that we do this now instead of running around frantically over the sudden arrangements when it actually happens.”
My dad’s candid explanation of the process did nothing to soothe me. While I know it’s something I’ll be doing myself before I expire, seeing my parents do it now decades in advance (I am optimistic about their futures as long as I keep them away from irresistibly unhealthy Malaysian street food) just shakes my present reality. I occasionally have horrific nightmares of them dying, and I wake up with my eyes wide open praying, hoping that the visions were simply visions. I’m an only child; I don’t have any siblings to grieve with. Even in my independence as a twenty-something, I know it’ll be an excruciatingly lonely existence not seeing my dad sneaking a single peanut into his mouth from the snack containers at the supermarket, or hearing my mom admonishing me for my unkempt hair and stretch skinny jeans.
Upon arriving at the memorial park, I managed to convince mother that I didn’t want to hear predictions of how 2015 will be a particularly auspicious year for those born in the year of the horse like me (though I have to admit this forecast has been pretty consistent across various sources), and I’d much rather spend my time exploring the expanse. She kept telling me how the park was very well managed and maintained, with manicured lawns (that are actually synthetic turf), tranquil ponds (emitting an algae green phosphorescence), and landscaped vistas (that open up to power stations and housing development projects).
I didn’t have much expectations of the place, nor was I aware of the sights I’d be able to capture, but what I had found within the Ming Palace stunned me, which brings me to the Photo(s) of the Day: What you see before you is a luxury columbarium for the rich. Each and every single one of those tiles, or vaults, would contain cremation urns. In case you were wondering what’s in front of those tiles, here’s an up-close shot of them: Thousands of mini Buddhas sitting cross-leggedly, gleaming so resplendently that it’s impossible to take a picture inside the room that’s not yellow. Death, has never shone brighter. I’ve always known Nirvana to be one of the nation’s, if not the region’s, top death care service provider, but I never imagined they’d take it this far. Death is ultimately commercialised, and I frankly do not know how I feel about it.
When I think about death and funerals, I imagine them to be simple, muted, and unostentatious: what I saw at the Ming Palace was none of these. Here, have a look at this empyrean ceiling: Even in death, there’s hierarchy. The entire building is air-conditioned for the comfort of the deceased, and as described on their website, “each compartment is a unique design with space for individual style”. I guess that means we can treat them like high school lockers. Really expensive lockers.
The other thing about the entire place is that they play a soothing sutra / mantra perpetually to provide peace and tranquility to its “residents”. My mom agrees, in the way that implied she’d enjoy listening to the sutras from within her urn, though I can’t help but wonder… What if I grow sick of it and wanted them to play ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” instead?
Despite my ambivalence towards the opulent treatment and hefty price tag, I confess I am in awe with the work they’ve done to the place. Remember the photograph from the previous post? The elevators inside the Ming Palace have a different façade on each floor, and the one I took just so happened to be the most photogenic of the lot. While the interior of the building may have the appeal of a sumptuous hotel lobby, the exterior adopts a far more traditional appearance: I could say I took these in China and no one would even dispute my claim. Oh, and here’s a random trivia: the Ming Dynasty gave us the Forbidden Palace, and the edifice you see here takes inspiration from that. Directly in front of the Ming Palace is a statue of Buddha atop a fountain: And here’s another one for perspective: They could easily convert the place into a tourist trap if they wanted to, and as odd as it is for me to say this, I would bring my international friends to visit the place. I’m not sure if there are many places around the world that coaxes its community to place such high values on their final resting place. Nirvana is an example of that, and while I do agree their services come with convenience, I find it a little unnerving that death now comes with a price tag instead of a sickle.
P.S. I just realised how my earlier statement in the beginning can be a little ambiguous as my parents ashes will be displayed at the far more economical Heritage Court, not the Ming Palace. Will be covering more on that tomorrow.