Funeral Direction

I am down in the hostel hosing the mud off myself when the next event happens, so I am not there for the bullfighting. This apparently involves two drunken bulls (force-fed booze if necessary) incited to charge at each other by letting off firecrackers behind them. Frankly, I don’t know much more than that, so the first I find out about it will be at the same time as you, when I see the finished episode. By the time I am scrubbed clean and ready to stumble back up the hill, the event is over, substantially earlier than planned. It’s only later on that we realise this has caused all the other events to be moved half an hour earlier than scheduled. This, in turn, means that the singing contest starts early, and so my grannies from the other night with their song about subsidy incentives were the first on, before any of us knew the competition had started.

It is annoying. The whole evening comprises picturesque Kam tribeswomen, in their traditional black robes and silver head-dresses, singing about all sorts of polyphonic anthems. But my grannies have already been and gone. After such a great morning, with my catering show quips over a pit of boiling stomach juices, and my mud-fight star-turn being pig-piled in a pond by a bunch of idiots, we had managed to log maybe ten minutes of useable footage – half an episode. But the lack of a pay-off for my granny story means we can probably only talk about them for thirty seconds instead of three minutes. It’s not just today’s footage that we have lost, but any meaningful use for the night before’s.

Mr Wu is deep in his cups at the hostel by this point, having chuffed his way through an entire packet of the director’s fags, and what appears to be a litre of moonshine. The director is trying to entertain him by taking Instamatic photos, but his mates insist on getting me to down a beer in one every time she takes a picture. The evening continues with predictable results, which we will pick up again the day afterwards, after six hours standing around.

This is because Pan has located the Holy Grail for our shoot – an honest-to-god Kam funeral, happening at the next village. Someone whose name is also Pan, has died, and the ceremony is happening today, which will allow us to fulfil our Circle of Life brief this season. The Kam will be the Death episode, and the funeral will provide that difficult-to-find Death part. But this creates a whole new set of nightmares, because if you were burying a relative, the last thing you would want would be a film crew from National Geographic shoving a lens in your face and asking you about the origin of your local traditions. So I am obliged to spend much of the rest of the day sitting on a pile of logs being hassled by the village children, who regard the logs as their playground and food storage vault. The rest of the crew embed themselves deep in the crowd to get footage of the white turbaned mourners, the cortege preceded by sweet-throwing and firecrackers, the long march up through the rice paddies, and the various booze throwing and firecracker-slinging associated with a Kam funeral. All I can do is whisper a few pieces to camera about the dichotomy between documenting cultural traditions and taking a vacation in other people’s misery.

Funerals are a hot topic in China at the moment after a controversial government initiative that proscribed all burials. Henceforth, said the Party, what with all the land we need for crops and stuff, people can’t be buried any more – everybody has to be cremated. This directive is actually quite old, and Chairman Mao himself tried to initiate that for his own funeral, only to be overruled by his successors, who have kept him above ground in his mausoleum ever since. But it’s caused even more of a kerfuffle among the peasantry, since people like the Kam tend to commission coffins from their own carpenters years, even decades in advance, and live with them in their houses. When old people in the provinces refused to give up on the idea of coffin burials, some heavy-handed cadres sent around thugs with pickaxes to break the coffins up.

So, here’s the thing – among the Kam, and certain other tribes, cremation is reserved for people who die from unnatural causes. Taking away their right to burial is like condemning them to an afterlife separated from both their ancestors and descendants, leading a bunch of old people to hang themselves or drink pesticide in order to die ahead of the wrecking crews and the change in the law. This protest eventually swayed the Party, which countermanded its own order. Although I would like to point out that suicide counts as unnatural causes, so if anyone was a stickler for Kam lore, the old people in question wouldn’t have been buried anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).

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