Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 2 News List

Crocodile tears common at Taiwan's funerals

WEEPERS FOR HIRE For families struggling to come to terms with the death of a loved one, professional mourners are on hand to put on a show at the funeral


In the gentle morning light, 22-year-old Liu Chun-lin brushes her 2cm eyelashes, fastens her flowing raven hair, and sets off for another day of crying her heart out for someone else's dead relatives.

Liu and her five-member "Filial Daughters Band" are part of a thriving funeral mourning business, professional entertainers paid by grieving families to wail, scream and create the kind of anguished sorrow befitting a proper funeral.

Complex, lavish and drawn-out, the performances are as much a status symbol for the living as a show of respect for the dead.

Taiwanese death rites regularly feature processions of elaborate floats displaying folklore figures in vividly colorful costumes, bands of drummers and trumpet players and even strippers and scantily clad singing women.

Even a scaled down event -- something without processions and floats -- can cost families in excess of NT$200,000 (US$6,000), mortuary operators say.

Grieving relatives are often too weary or too numb to shed the requisite amount of tears, so rather than leave a void, they hire groups like the "Filial Daughters Band" to perform their mournful stuff.

On a recent weekday morning, Liu and the group arrived at a municipal funeral home in the rural outskirts of Taipei for a typical exercise in empathy.

Mounting an outdoor stage, Liu danced, posed, and clicked bamboo sticks to the tune of a well-known mourning song, before launching into her signature high-pitched, heart-wrenching wailing while pounding the floor and crawling on her knees to express grief for a dead stranger.

After finishing the song, she shed her rainbow-colored costume in favor of the white satin mourning dress with matching white linen head cloth required for the main ritual.

With brother Liu Wen-chi on an electronic piano, she returned to the stage, recalling the harsh life of the dearly departed, a woman who had sacrificed everything to raise her dutiful children.

"Mama," she chanted into a hand-held microphone. "From now on we go our separate ways. We look around everywhere but see no traces of you."

The woman's two adult sons and daughter quickly took up the beat and let their tears flow freely.

But it was Liu who set the pace, Liu whose emotion was greatest.

For 40 minutes she chanted, danced and wailed, touching the hearts of the audience.

Back in the band's van, Liu changed into a pink shirt and jeans, and considered the challenge of playing necrologic cheerleader for total strangers.

"I just imagine that I am part of the family and I fuse myself into the occasion," she said.

As tradition clashes with modernity, some Taiwanese young people -- particularly in big cities -- are reconsidering the need for expensive, elaborate funerals, opting for simpler, more restrained rites instead.

Touting the virtues of using the Internet to post pictures of dead relatives and dispense with or shorten formal rites, authorities are pressing grieving families to drop ceremonies considered too lavish or superstitious.

But old customs die hard for the many Taiwanese, who still insist on traditional procedures, including hiring monks and nuns to chant Buddhist scriptures to help spirits seeking the path to reincarnation.

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