(This is my essay for a Guided Autobiography (GAB) workshop on death and spirituality.)
I must be between four to five year old when I first learnt about death, probably from TV, and knew it affected old people more. I was also influenced by my neighbours at Cuppage Road who were Catholics and taught us to pray. So I would pray nightly to please not let my gong gong die, as he was very old to me. Till this day, some of my aunts are still influenced and attend Novena Church weekly. I used to attend with them in my teens and enjoyed singing the hymns but I stopped attending because it took too much time and effort. Throughout my childhood, I thought I was a Christian because my paternal family members are Christians and Grandma had a Christian funeral, but I’d never been brought to church by my father.
When I was in the university, I met a fellow math student who was baptized a Catholic at birth but chose to become a Buddhist because he felt it made more sense to him. I was in awe when I heard that. I attended a few Christian meetings and like him, I felt the teaching does not resonate with me, and was particularly offended when I was told that I’m a sinner. I would rather be a knowledgeable sinner than an ignorant savior. Thus on I called myself a free-thinker.
I now consider myself an atheist or humanist and follow more the Buddhist’s philosophy of life. My spiritual mentor is Ajahn Brahm, a Cambridge Physicist who was ordained as a forest monk. His public talks are relevant and secular. Buddhists believe in impermanence and that make deaths easier to accept since everything in life is impermanent – including the good and the bad.
My sons were invited to City Harvest Church for Christmas by their cousin and when they returned, they told me they went up on stage. Why? I asked. They said the MC asked those who are ready to accept Christ to go on stage and they did. I was aghast. How could you be ready in just one night? So I plonked an encyclopedia of World Religion on the table and demanded that they do a comparison study between the different religions before they decide. They decided they want to be religion-free instead.
I think it’s great being a free thinker as I can do as I pleased and be morally guided by only my conscience (and not a preacher or a holy book). I have a friend who can’t go do Yoga to cure her bad back because her pastor deems doing Sun Salutation as not Christian. Another can’t visit a Chinese temple in China as part of a tour because she can’t view the sculptures inside. Grandma is studying the bible because my Aunt wants to convert her and she wants to go to heaven when she dies. I don’t agree but have learnt to keep my mouth shut, although I did ask her, where she thinks heaven is. Just as when the visitor asked us last week, that if everyone should end in death, including the good and the bad, where’s the justice. I wanted to educate him about karma. I also disagreed with him about meeting my spouse again when I die. Oh please, I thought, where’s the fun?
I don’t consider myself spiritual and am impressed by people who consider themselves to be, especially if they have no religion yet are spiritual. I think we should celebrate death in order to celebrate the life of the deceased, like how we celebrate the birth of a baby. My uncle who just passed away recently at 62 had lived a good life, often with a cigarette in one hand and a can of Tiger in another. I’m glad he didn’t allow us to visit him in the months leading to his death as the memory I now have of him is one of a cheerful man who embraced life. I wrote an elegy poem celebrating his life and wished I had the opportunity to have read it at his funeral if I had been around, like how a friend from NZ celebrated his mother’s life at her funeral.
If I should die, I hope my family celebrates my life with a one-day funeral party where I shall lay in my cheerful white coffin painted with folk art roses, and guests be served tea and scones with strawberry jam, and then ends the party with a singalong.
I would like to end this essay with by reading my favourite poem by Christina Rossetti.
When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.