Staring death in the face

By Chen Ximeng

As Song Hua (pseudonym) lay in her open casket, nearly a dozen people dressed in black stood above the 34-year-old shedding tears and paying heartfelt tributes. Incense burned from an altar flanked by wreaths as moving music played in the small, candlelit chapel in downtown Beijing. But this wasn’t any ordinary memorial service. After all, Song wasn’t actually dead. Inner Light Group

“I really wanted to experience what it feels like to die,” said Song, whose faux funeral was attended by 10 “mourners” playing the roles of family members, friends and colleagues.

Death might be a certainty in life, but it is a major taboo in Chinese culture. Visiting ancestors’ tombs for Qingming Festival, which falls on April 5, used to be the closest most people were comfortable with getting to death, but now a growing number of people are participating in educational activities that help them to develop a rational understanding of death.

Try before you die

Song’s fake wake last month was organized by the Inner Light Group (ILG), a Dongcheng district-based counseling agency that has provided the service to around a dozen people since last year. Each wake costs 100 yuan ($16.11) and runs for two hours.

Faux funerals have been popular in Japan and South Korea since 2010, but they are still relatively new in China. They give people like Song, whose battle with depression had caused her to contemplate suicide, a glimpse of the impact their deaths might have on loved ones while reminding them of their own mortality.

“I couldn’t accept myself and wanted to end it all. I knew it was wrong, but I felt trapped in an abyss of grief and despair. I thought, ‘Why not leave the world?'” said Song.

Before Song’s faux funeral, she was required to give a farewell letter to her “relatives” played by ILG members. She was then draped in a white sheet and laid in her casket at the center of the 30-square-meter chapel before the agency’s 45-year-old founder and mock celebrant, Jia Dao, told the somber audience of Song’s death by suicide.

“I lay face-up in the casket as my ‘parents,’ ‘siblings’ and ‘colleagues’ circled me,” explained Song.

Everything seemed to be progressing like any normal funeral until a ‘colleague’ who had apparently returned from abroad to attend Song’s ‘funeral’ held her hand and sobbed about being left heartbroken.

Upon hearing his words, Song was stirred from her motionless state and tears rolled from the corners of her closed eyes.

“Their words were so sincere and warm that it connected deeply with my heart. Since then, I haven’t thought about suicide once. I can now accept death naturally,” said Song.

Ashes to ashes

For those who want to take their near-death experience a step further from a funeral, the Life and Death Experience Center in Shanghai might be the best option. Visitors can write their own will and epitaph, as well as nominate organs they wish to donate.

The experience culminates inside a 4D “crematory” that shows the living what the dead never see, hear or smell: roaring flames turning skin, hair and bones to ash.

The center, which has attracted more than 400,000 yuan from over 200 investors since July 2013, is slated to open later this year.

Ding Rui, one of the center’s co-founders, was inspired to create the grisly tourist attraction after climbing into a real crematory himself in November 2011 while working as a trainer for volunteers at Hand in Hand, a Shanghai-based NGO that provides palliative care.

“When I was inside the crematory, I felt breathless for a moment and very close to death,” recalled Ding.

A 'mourner' holds the hand

Although Ding knew he was safe, staring at flame vents positioned above his head and at his sides was an unnerving experience.

“Being inside [the crematory] strengthened my resolve to open the center to teach people about death. I wanted to simulate the vivid feeling of being cremated and also experiencing rebirth,” said Ding.

Dying to experience the other side

His time spent caring for people nearing the end of their lives led Ding to realize problems with Chinese being “unable to openly talk about death.”

“After taking care of more and more dying patients, I found that people’s fear of death is infectious like a virus,” said Ding, adding that his biggest concern from experience in palliative care was seeing how few people – from the elderly to their family members – struggled to directly face death.

No one lives forever, but sometimes people can be uncomfortable at being reminded they are mere mortals.

“The deep impact of Chinese culture is a major reason why few people are comfortable talking about death,” said Wang Zuoji, deputy director of the Beijing Folklore Committee and a member of the capital’s non-tangible cultural heritage committee.

In Chinese culture, the number four is considered unlucky because its pronunciation in Putonghua is close to “die.” Similarly, a clock is never given as a gift because it sounds similar to the word for “end.” Even the sight of chopsticks placed upright in a bowl of rice can cause superstitious Chinese to shudder due to its resemblance to incense.

“Some customs and taboos have no scientific reasoning, existing only to reject anything related to death or bad luck,” said Wang.

Preserving dignity at the end

Grim Reaper imitator

Ding said he shared a feeling of powerlessness with those he cared for in palliative care, noting that medical apparatus used to extend people’s lives often came at the cost of individuals’ dignity.

“People dying don’t have the right to decide matters relating to their death, which are instead handled by relatives often influenced by others’ opinions,” said Ding.

Most people spare no effort to give their loved ones the best medical care possible, even if it means extending their life for a short time only. Life-support machines and medical ventilators are often used to keep alive patients unable to talk or move out of bed.

In a society that values filial piety, many relatives don’t dare assist or speed up a parent’s death. Despite a December 2013 survey by Shanghai Jiao Tong University finding that more than two-thirds of Chinese have an open, tolerant attitude towards euthanasia, the practice is banned under Chinese law and there are no signs it could be legalized any time soon.

“In some regards, palliative care doesn’t work in educating people about death,” said Ding.

“We want to put it in the spotlight by letting people experience the closest thing to it. Death education is important because no one knows when their number is up.”

Learning about death

Wang Yifang, a professor at Peking University’s Health Science Center, recalled how one of his colleagues learned after teaching a class in 2009 that his father was terminally ill. Accepting fate gave both father and son peace of mind.

“My colleague shunned technology and medical care that would extend his father’s life, choosing instead to provide palliative care at home. His father died graciously,” said Wang Yifang.

Since 2009, Wang Yifang has taught a course about life and death that helps students come to grips with an issue avoided most of their young lives.

“My course provides theory-based education, while death simulation is a more radical version of interactive education,” said Wang Yifang.

Approaches to death education vary in China. It currently isn’t included in curriculums of schools, with opinions among experts divided over whether it should be added.

Medical students in Taiwan are required to lie in a coffin and read farewell letters, while students at a high school in Hainan Province visit funeral parlors to inspect how ashes are stored after cremation.

Chen Yue, a counselor at the Sunshine Psychological Counseling Corporation in Beijing, has taught a class since February about death education.

Attendance is low, however, with even some fellow counselors unable to sit through classes due to the grim nature of its subject.

“Parents need to take the initiative in teaching their children about death. The subject of death is horrible, but neglecting it makes it even more terrifying to children,” said Chen.

“China has a long way to go in death education, which can not be achieved in the span of one or two generations. People need to dramatically change their perception of death, but this can only be done little by little.”

Complete Article HERE!

Hump Day Humor – 03/26/14

Humor takes the sting away; it humanizes us; it helps us keep our perspective. Humor enriches us; it educates us; it brings us joy. Humor doesn’t dissolve the pain or make our life any less poignant, but it does help make things more bearable. That’s my philosophy, and I’m happy to share it with you on a weekly basis. I hope that if you enjoy what you see, you will take the opportunity to share it with others.

what's bothering you


why not you you look like death


Cemetery Art – 03/24/14

The task of interpreting the symbols on a headstone or memorial is a daunting one. Although most of the symbols that you will see DO have a textbook meaning, it is quite possible that the headstone or memorial you are looking at was put there simply because someone liked the look of it. Therefore, it will have no meaning beyond the taste of the deceased or those left behind to morn. The point is that many people choose a memorial motif not for its textbook meaning, but simply because they like the ornamentation or design, because it feels “right” or appropriate.


Holly Returns With Good News

“She stood and faced me, and her hands reached out until they came to rest on my scars. It was like her touch was both fire and ice, but I didn’t pull away. There was no turning back. I was finally doing what I should have done two years ago.”

Do you remember me introducing you to my friend, Holly? She is a 43 year old graphic artist who shares a home with her wife of ten years, Jean, and their teenage daughter Annie. She is also living through breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy three years ago and has been cancer-free since.

Holly has been dealing with some big-time body issues post surgery. The mastectomy scarred her psychologically as well as physically. This has had a tremendous impact on her intimate life with

In the earlier column I mentioned above, I recounted an meeting she and I had where we tried to come up with a strategy to overcome these emotional and physical obstacles so that she could resume some semblance of intimacy with Jean.

During that meeting I asked Holly if she had ever taken the time to grieve the loss of your breasts. I suggested that she go to Jean and ask her to hold her while she mourned for what is no longer hers?

I recommend that the Holly and Jean begin to explore what is possible in their sex life together now. I suggested they avoid comparing what they are able to do now with how things were in the past. “Keep the exploration simple and open-ended. And I suggested that they avoid creating a goal to be achieved in their exploration. That’s where most people in their situation go wrong.

hollyI gave Holly two exercises: 1) spoon breathing — to rebuilding a sense of confidence about being physically together with Jean again. And 2) guided-hand touch — to help reestablish a threshold for what is possible between she and Jean as they move forward now.

I suggested that she and Jean keep these exercises playful and that she honor her limits. I asked her to get back to me in a few weeks and let me know how things are going.

Two weeks later an ebullient Holly returned to see me.

“I’ve had a great two weeks. No kidding. Jean and I are on cloud nine. It all started when I got home from our last session. No sooner did I get in the door than Jean was at me with her usual twenty questions. ‘How did it go? What did you talk about with Richard? Did you talk about me?’ And so on and so on. She was following me around the house like a puppy.

I was afraid that was gonna happen. On my way home from your office I was trying to work things out in my head — what should I tell Jean? I couldn’t just blurt it all out, all the stuff you and I talked about. Besides, I was afraid that Jean would pitch a fit about me airing our dirty laundry in public. I thought maybe if I told her I have a headache she’d leave me alone and I won’t have to mix it up with her right then and there.

As a matter of fact, I did have a headache, a big one, but it was mostly from all the anticipation. I had so much bottled up inside of me for so long, all that fear and shame, I didn’t know how it was gonna come out or even if it would come out at all. I was so afraid that I would say the wrong thing and make matters worse. I’ve done that more than once in our relationship.

When I got in the house, I headed straight for the bedroom but she cut me off at the kitchen. ‘What’s wrong, babe? Don’t you want to talk about it?’ I was shaking all over. My legs felt like rubber. I began to cry. I kind of fell in a swoon right into Jean’s arms, just like in the movies, except I’m lots bigger than she is so she couldn’t really catch me. I wound up slumped on the floor where my crying became a wail.

‘Jesus, Holly, what is it? Talk to me. Are you sick? Say something, damnit. You’re freakin’ me out.’blanco:negro

It was only then that I realized I hadn’t yet said a word to Jean since I got home. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. I was like a madwoman curled up on the floor rocking back and forth sobbing like a motherless child.

Jean was indeed getting pretty freaked out by this time. She had never seen me like this. She helped me to my feet and we stumbled to the bedroom where we both collapsed on the bed. Mind you, I was still carrying on this whole time.

I started to undress. This generally is a signal for Jean to leave the room, because I haven’t let her see me naked since the surgery. She was afraid to leave me alone in my hysterical condition, but she also didn’t want to embarrass me any further. She got up to go. I could feel her anguish. By now, tears were streaming down her face too. I reached for her hand and pulled her back down to the bed next to me. Still no words.

I began to undo the buttons of my top. My hands were shaking and I was moaning deep inside. I turned away from Jean and undid my bra and let it slip from my shoulders. I had gone this far, now all I had to do is turn and face her. But I couldn’t raise my head. I was frozen in place.

I was never so scared in all my life. Jean stroked my back with her fingers. Her caress was so gentle that it could hardly even be called a touch at all. But for some reason her touch calmed me. I took a couple of deep breaths and stood. Then I slowly turned toward Jean. I brought my hands to my face in shame and began to sob more intensity.

black_and_white_hands_holding_sjpg70She stood and faced me, and her hands reached out until they came to rest on my scars. It was like her hands were both fire and ice, but I didn’t pull away. There was no turning back. I was finally doing what I should have done two years ago.

When I was finally able to speak, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘they’re gone.’ I took Jean in my arms and pulled her close and we kissed like lovers do for the first time in three years.

I was stunned by Holly’s story. Tears welled in my eyes as she recalled her joyous reconnection with her lover. I thought to myself, what a courageous woman!

After my breakthrough with Jean, I noticed that I have a renewed interest in living. I don’t mean just going through the motions. I’ve done too much of that already. I want to live. I want to be present for whatever life holds for me and for as long as it is available to me. It also means being aware of my limits. When I’m tired or in pain I need to acknowledge that and rest. I’m not real good at taking care of myself in this way, but that’s going to improve, so help me.

What a role model Holly is for anyone facing a similar situation, indeed anyone of us. Too bad there isn’t a place out there where people, like Holly, could tell their intimate stories, successes as well as disappointments, and inspire others.

Life is but a dream – 03/15/14

What does “life is but a dream” mean?

Sometimes when something unbelievable happens, it’s so outrageous (usually in a good way) that it seems like you’re in a dream.

Life is what you make of it. So if you dare to dream, envision what you want it to be – it becomes your reality. It goes right along with the saying “You can be anything you want to be…”

In dreams anything is possible, impossible becomes possible. In life there are limitations with unseen forces that work along with our motives to confuse us more on the path to fulfillment. Life is but a dream – nothing is so easy as to dream it and make it happen right that moment without obstacles standing in way.