If you ask Huang Chung-mou (黃忠謀) what his profession is, he will tell you that he is in the cleaning business, sort of, a cleaning job that people usually stay away from. Bone-washing or bone-cleaning is an ancient practice which dates back to the Qin dynasty (秦朝) 2,200 years ago. In Taiwan today, where cremations are widespread, some people still exhume an ancestor's bones, cleaning them and reburying them. Huang is one of the few in the business.
"It is a sign of the greatest respect to the ancestors," said Huang about the purpose of bone-cleaning. "I see my profession as a profession of virtue and also a way to accumulate benevolent actions for my next life and for my descendants," he added.
Bone-washing is usually a family business, handed down from generation to generation. In the Huang family, there were three generations who conducted the business in China. Since migrating to Taiwan, four generations of the family have continued the profession. Huang Chung-mou, aged 60, is the sixth generation and his two sons Huang Yung-ping (黃詠斌) and Huang Ya-chung (黃雅鐘) are the seventh generation.
Women in the family, however, are not taught the skills of bone-washing. Huang said it is believed that it would blaspheme the dead if the bone-washer did the work when she was menstruating.
"Because you are dealing with dead bodies, there are rules and taboos that we have to follow," Huang said, stressing that his family is the only family in Taiwan strictly following the ancient rules.
The first step of bone-cleaning practice is to have the feng-shui master to pick a good day for the ceremony, based upon the birth dates and eight characters of the deceased. The family of the deceased need to prepare fruits, cookies (or a kind of dry food), flowers, incense and paper money for the dead, before the exhumation begins.
The hardest part of the job is when opening the coffin, Huang said. A strong smell assails the workers and families standing by the tomb. "It is hard, but you get used to it," he said.
According to the rituals, the daughters or granddaughters of the deceased have to hold open a black-colored umbrella when the coffin is opened.
"The use of the black umbrella is to hold together the spirit of the dead, preventing it from falling apart," Huang said. Another meaning of this ritual, according to Huang, is that the daughters-in-law of the family pay respect to the ancestors.
After collecting the bones from the coffin, Huang wraps the bones in a yellow-colored cloth and takes them back to his work studio for the cleaning procedure.
Normally, it takes 10 to 12 years for a body to completely disintegrate, depending on the texture of the soil and the size of the coffin. Often, Huang finds damp bodies after exhumation. "In the case of damp bodies, I spray two dozen bottles of rice wine onto the body and then pad the coffin a bit to provide better ventilation. This is to let the body decay naturally. Then we rebury the coffin and wait for another two years for another exhumation," Huang said.
Unlike other bone-cleaners, the Huang family said they never use chemicals or any unnatural method to separate the body and the bones.
"This is because it would be a violation of the rules of the nature," Huang said.
If we separate the body with unnatural forces, it would be as if the deceased was facing a second- death experience. It is very immoral," Huang said.