When My Two Cultures' Death Rituals Collided, I Found Unexpected Comfort

"In some ways, leaving food out for the spirits and talking to our dead relatives was a way to gain access to them."
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo: Getty Images

For weeks after my Chinese grandfather died of cancer, we left him an empty seat at the dinner table. He had his own set up that none of us were allowed to touch: chopsticks, a bottle of Tsingtao beer and a dinner plate. For many months after he passed, we ate next to that empty space, in case, we were told, he decided to visit from the spirit realm.

After my Mexican grandfather from my paternal side died of liver disease, my grandmother set up an altar for him. She framed a photo of abuelito next to one she had of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Each morning, she spoke to him 鈥 when I visited, I woke up early enough to listen to her hushed supplications. This was not part of our Catholic upbringing, and I suspect our pastor would not have approved. I would hear different people in my family speak to the framed picture of abuelito, so I did, too. Te quiero, I鈥檇 say to it when no one was looking. Te extra帽o.

Death is something that we all process in dynamically different ways, but it wasn鈥檛 until my grandfathers died 鈥 both in their 60s, both from drinking or smoking too much on opposite sides of the earth 鈥 that I realized that the death rituals of both of my cultures had some pretty profound things in common. Leaving physical space for them after they had passed was a way for our grieving families, who didn鈥檛 really have the language to talk about their feelings around death, to extend our loved ones鈥 lives. By doing so, we gave ourselves the emotional space to hold onto them until we were finally ready to let go.

Leaving a physical space and speaking to our departed loved ones is not unique to my family, of course. I was born and raised in Mexico City, where every end of October and early November, we celebrate D铆a de los Muertos. It鈥檚 believed that the spirits of the dead ancestors come back to visit us on this holiday. This celebration originated from the Aztec belief that after death, our spirits take several years of travel to find a final resting place, and on our way there, we obviously get a little hungry. That鈥檚 why besides framed pictures of the dead on altars, you鈥檒l also find offerings like pan de muerto, a sweet pastry to help sweeten our ancestors navigate post-death life.

A Mexican couple sits in front of an altar of the dead (Altar de Muertos), a religious site honoring the deceased, during the Day of the Dead (D铆a de los Muertos) celebrations on Nov. 1, 2021, in Metlat贸noc, Mexico. Based on the belief that the souls of the departed may come back to this world on that day, people gather to pray, eat, drink or play music, to remember friends or family members who have died and to support their souls on the spiritual journey.
A Mexican couple sits in front of an altar of the dead (Altar de Muertos), a religious site honoring the deceased, during the Day of the Dead (D铆a de los Muertos) celebrations on Nov. 1, 2021, in Metlat贸noc, Mexico. Based on the belief that the souls of the departed may come back to this world on that day, people gather to pray, eat, drink or play music, to remember friends or family members who have died and to support their souls on the spiritual journey.
Jan Sochor via Getty Images

Similarly, if you鈥檝e ever visited a cemetery in China, which I do every few years to pay my respects to Laoye, you鈥檒l see oranges, packs of cigarettes and burning paper money laid out in front of tombstones. When the fake paper money is burned, it鈥檚 supposed to reach the ancestors so that they have enough currency to make it in the afterlife. Not dissimilar to the Aztec belief, it鈥檚 a way for the living to continue sharing resources with the dead. A few days after a loved one鈥檚 death, you鈥檙e supposed to make their favorite meal and put out some of their favorite books so they are lured to come back for a final goodbye.

My family has never spoken openly about death. In fact, they hid both of my grandfathers鈥 deaths for days or weeks after they happened. When Laoye died, I鈥檇 catch my mom crying uncontrollably and ask her what was wrong. She鈥檇 lie and try to compose herself. She didn鈥檛 have the courage to tell me that Laoye was dead, until she had to go to the airport to fly to the funeral.

I speculate that my immigrant parents don鈥檛 like to talk about death for the same reason that they don鈥檛 like to talk about anything that is bad 鈥 they鈥檝e spent so much of their lives trying to imagine a better life that I think they鈥檙e still suspended in an imagined future. When death happens, it forces us to confront the present. There is no planning involved. For so much of their lives, my parents couldn鈥檛 control anything: the places where they were born and raised, or, for a really long time, our immigration status.

In some ways, leaving food out for the spirits and talking to our dead relatives was a way to gain back control over one aspect of their lives. It gave us more time to prepare for, and to process a deep loss. Whether or not the people in my family truly believe in visiting spirits (I am not fully sure that they do), we are choosing to perform that belief for ourselves and others who are grieving with us. It鈥檚 a way to hold on to someone鈥檚 memory for just a little longer before we transition into full grief. In the performance itself, we find comfort because at the very least, we are pretending together.

My two grandfathers never met each other. If they had, they wouldn鈥檛 have been able to communicate, anyway鈥 one spoke only Spanish and the other only Mandarin. Still, I suspect they would have gotten along. They both had deep, thunderous laughs. Both of their love languages were gift giving. They both found vices that allowed them to forget things.

Now, I鈥檝e lived so much more of my life without my grandpas than I did with them. But as I鈥檝e grown older, I realize how much I鈥檝e inherited. My grandpas both experienced anxiety and depression, which is what may have led to their excessive lifestyles. I wonder if they鈥檇 had the language and the resources that I do, like therapy and Lexapro, they would have stopped themselves from hurting their bodies beyond repair. There are definitely times when I wish I could ask them what they felt so I could try and find solace in our similarities.

When my family made physical space for my grandfathers after their deaths, I didn鈥檛 fully understand why they did it. Now, I鈥檓 grateful that this is the way they taught me to grieve 鈥 it makes me feel like I can access those who have passed whenever I need. All I have to do is leave an empty seat at the table, or set aside some form of physical space for them. In America, we are taught to think of ourselves as isolated individuals, but feeling connected to my ancestors has made me feel less alone. I am part of a lineage hundreds of years in the making, a lineage of people who sacrificed a lot so that I could live the manifestation of not only my dreams, but theirs, too.

If there is some form of afterlife, as the Aztecs and Chinese believe, maybe I鈥檒l meet my grandfathers again and can ask them all the questions I have. In the meantime, I鈥檒l keep talking to the framed pictures we have of them, even if it turns out the only person listening is me.

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