Sat, Jan 05, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Taiwan’s bone-pickers

Shih Ho-chin, a “bone-picking” master in Changhua County, says that he treats the bones of his client as he would his own family.

Photo: Liu Hsiao-hsin, Liberty Times

Wu Tsai-li is all business as he leans over a pile of human bones that he’s just dumped on top of a grave, and begins to arrange them back into a vaguely skeletal form.

Wu is in the process of performing a rite of ancestor worship called “picking up the bones.” A part of a ritual generally known as double or second burial, the bones are placed in an urn with the skull at the top. The urn is then re-interred in the ancestral tomb.

Common in Taiwan for over two centuries, the custom has its origins in China’s Fujian Province. When farmers and merchants began migrating to Taiwan in the 17th century, they brought with them their custom of second burial. Over time, the tradition began to spread in Taiwan as it was an inexpensive way of sending the bones back to Fujian for burial in the ancestral tomb.

However, as their roots sank deeper into the nation’s soil and people from Fujian began to regard Taiwan as their home, the process of returning the urns to China ceased as family plots were established in Taiwan.

The process, which has changed very little over the centuries, begins with the first burial taking place almost immediately after death. Regarded as a temporary grave, the body remains underground for at least seven years.

The length of time allows the flesh to decompose, making it easier for Wu, a “bone-picking” master, to clean the remaining flesh so that all that is left are the bones. After the flesh is removed, the bones are set out under the sun for three days to dry. They are then “picked up” and placed into the urn, and returned to the family gravesite.

If it happens that the flesh hasn’t achieved a level of decomposition suitable for cleaning, Wu sprinkles rice wine over the corpse and dresses it with the leaves of six heads of cabbage. The body is then re-interred. The concoction is enough to ensure sufficient decomposition after an additional three months.

The reason for such an elaborate procedure, Wu says, is that the soul adheres to the bones and not the flesh. This is why the flesh is dispensed with and the bones are re-buried after cleaning.

(Noah Buchan, Taipei Times)










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