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At a Chinese Funeral: Eternal Honor

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The father of a close Chinese colleague, a partner for more than a decade, passed away recently after a struggle with diabetes. His name was Mr. Ye.

I went to the funeral. In all cultures, key milestones -- points at which one's relationship with society and the cosmos are reaffirmed -- crystallize the nature of individual identity. This event, one that took place in twenty-first century Shanghai, city of new dreams and neon buzz, was no different. The fusion of clocklike precision, structured ritual and oceans of humanity could perhaps occur only in China, a land where scaled mobilization meets transcendent release.

The ceremony started at 10:50 sharp in ba xian ting, or Eight Spirits Hall. The funeral home was a mammoth complex with at least a dozen rooms hosting hundreds of families in a single day. When I asked the guard to point me in the right direction, he quickly scanned a scrolled computerized print out, identified the name and sent me on my way. The room in which last respects were paid was small, without seats, starkly modern yet festooned with six-foot grieving wreathes neatly lined against walls. The body, surrounded by flowers, was placed on a glass-covered bier. Lovingly tended and beautifully presented, the father rested beneath a large black and white photo, one from which his kind eyes and beatific smile comfortingly beamed. Mourners, perhaps fifty of them, were dressed respectfully, albeit in everyday attire. Few wore black, perhaps due to limited means.

Western observers might deem the proceedings awkwardly regimented. Indeed, all words and gestures reinforced Mr. Ye's contribution to society and fulfillment of obligation. Eulogists told few personal stories. There were no moments of levity and only a tentative sketch, articulated with controlled restraint, of his soul. An "emcee" opened the proceedings by acknowledging "leaders" in attendence. The first person to speak was not a family member but, per protocol, a representative of the deceased's employer, a state-owned enterprise from which he had retired more than 15 years earlier. Her speech, scripted yet sincerely delivered, extolled the man's professional accomplishments, work ethic and commitment to the harmony of the "work unit." Her words were not brief. She meticulously covered the arc of an engineering career that spanned three decades, limning steps of labored ascension, a worker's climb from tyro to expert, from fresh graduate to acknowledged master of his domain.

After the forty-minute service, groups of four stepped toward the altar, bowed three times with crisp precision and placed single yellow roses on the casket.

Despite the discipline, or perhaps because of it, the room brimmed with warmth. The father's elder son, forty years old and dressed in a black waistcoat tied with a white hemp sash, spoke on behalf of the family, recounting the story of a humble man born of peasant stock, a striver who elevated himself from humble beginnings by dint of hard work and a sharp mind. His rise -- Everyman's journey - mirrored the aspirations of countless Chinese and collective national ambition. The son's tone was measured, modest and workmanlike. But his final words were sublime. "Don't worry, dad," he said. "We will be good men. We will take care of mom. We will never forget what you have taught us. We will raise our boys in a way that honors your memory." When the son invoked the promise of his son as a testament to the grandfather, his voice broke. He quietly wept, quickly composed himself, said a last goodbye. Finally, he invited guests for refreshments.

Mourners cried, softly, too. Their tears honored a modest and gentle man, one who expressed love by fulfilling his obligation to his family, society and, finally, eternity.

China is not an individualistic country and likely never will be. The "demands of we" always supersede the "meaning of me." But, as the last tribute to Mr. Ye demonstrates, expressions of love, and grace, can be found everywhere if minds and hearts remain open to universal human truth.

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