Cheng Beng has always been a memorial occasion for me. I was fortunate to be able to travel back to witness it since it coincided with my study leave. Often waking up early, the aunts would be clamoring about trying to get everything ready; the various vegetarian dishes such as pseudo meat (foodstuff made out of flour to look and taste like meat), the incense, paper effigies and money as well as various beverages. All siblings of the deceased are supposed to be present for this day and as my father is back in Kuantan it is often left to me to fill in his stead. Besides the uncles and aunts, various cousins will also be heading along if they can make it. As soon as everything is ready a convoy of several cars and vans would soon set out for our destinations. We often visit two sites, the first is Bukit Seputeh where the Chinese graveyard stretches far and wide across the hill behind the old Sungai Besi airport. Here lies the grave of my grandfather as well as our great grandparents, the first to reach Malaysia all the way from China. The other would be the Nilai Memorial Center where my grandmother now resides.
It is often so amazing to see the contrast of these two places, the old cemetery is connected by a one lane tarred road and we often could see gravestones just inches away from the roadside. Lalang and shrubs would be overgrown and at this busy time various grass cutters would be peddling around offering their services to clean up the grave site before you we go ahead and perform ablutions to the ancestors. Once all has been cleared we would trudge along the winding and haphazard path, trying to avoid stepping onto any of the other grave inhabitants along the way. Ceremonies would proceed with the arrangement of foodstuff in front of the gravestone. The aunts would be talking to the grave as if addressing the deceased, asking permission to visit and also to strike small talk. The rest of us cousins would be tasked to pay respects to the grandparents, carrying several joss sticks and saying prayers, later placing the joss sticks at several sites. Next the cousins would be busy gathering more joss sticks and scattering white paper onto the gravesite. The adults would be preparing the paper offerings; hell notes for bribing the hell guards, paper effigies such as electrical appliances, servants and cars for the use of the dead and ‘gold’ chests as money for them to use. These would all be piled up and set aflame to be sent off to the other realm. When all is said and done, the dishes that were brought would be shared among those present.
The scene in Nilai was another sight, large avenues of beautifully sculptured graves, avenues lined with gardens and shrubs, golden Buddhas lining the road way, beautiful villas and pavilions and a record setting dragon shaped columbarium. The landscape and grave placement are carried out according to the principles of feng shui whereby the elements are configured for the best possible harmony for the occupants. The area is laid out along several hills whereby those at the top are the priciest and graves resemble mausoleums and mansions while less exquisitte sites are available further downhill. Upon reaching we would be greeted by a representative of the company who is charged to see us through a problem free visit. The people there would prepare everything like umbrella shade for the worshippers, tin urn to burn your offerings in and later cleaners would ensure that all offerings would be taken care of after we leave. It isn’t even much of a hassle, maintenance is year round and carried out by the workers here and we just arrive there and set out to do what we did at the previous site in a much more user friendly manner without mucky grounds, mosquito infestation and lalang clearing. The only catch is the plot is worth as much as a house and maintenance fees are paid to ensure the upkeep of the site. Well nothing is free in the world.
Dragon head which is a part of the hall where ashes of the diseased are kept for display. Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, 2003.
Sadly this tradition may not live on for long. Already only a single aunt actually knows about the full proceedings of the ritual offerings as well as in determining the best date to visit the graves. Most of my relations are already Christians and the more staunched ones are not even willing to come visit what they call a pagan ritual and even the more liberal ones merely attend and watch as things were carried out. It is a bit of a sad affair if one day our grandparents would not see us standing there as one big family to pay a visit to them, what would they say then? Would they feel the pinch of loneliness?