Wed, Dec 04, 2013 - Page 4 News List

Collector of bones keeps custom alive

TRADITIONAL PRACTICE:Photographs of skulls and bones drying out in the sun caused a stir online, but for bone collector Huang Ming-hsien, it is all in a day’s work

By Chang Tsung-chiu, Chang Jui-chen and Jason Pan  /  Staff reporters, with staff writer

Plastic crates containing human skulls and other bones put on a rooftop to dry by bone collector Huang Ming-hsien in Lugang Township, Changhua County, are pictured in a photograph posted on Facebook.

Photo retaken by Chang Jui-chen, Taipei Times

Photographs of human skulls and bones laid out on a sunny rooftop in Lugang Township (鹿港), Changhua County, perplexed some netizens and frightened others as they were circulated on social media sites recently.

A Greater Taichung resident surnamed Lee (李) saw the skulls and bones sitting in plastic crates on the roof of a house when he visited Lugang last week. Intrigued by the sight, he photographed the bones and posted the pictures online, generating a tidal wave of commentary.

“This is just awesome. Human skulls are sunbathing on the roof,” one netizen wrote, while others said it was “unbelievable” that skeletal remains were on public display on a street.

Lee later found out that the crates belonged to bone collector (撿骨師) Huang Ming-hsien (黃名顯), who lives across the street.

Exhuming ancestral remains to clean, dry and rebury the skulls and bones is a tradition known as khioh-kut (撿骨) in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese).

Huang said the custom enables the spirits of the deceased to rest in peace by helping the “fallen leaves return to the roots” (落葉歸根).

“In the past, the remains had to be dried out under the sun in the courtyard of the place where the deceased used to live. However, this is now done at a site chosen by the bone collector,” he said.

“Some collectors perform the ritual at graveyards, or in open fields. I do it on the roof of a relative’s house,” Huang added.

“Foreign tourists often come to take photographs of the bones,” he said, adding that his family had a billboard reading “Bone Aftercare” in English made to explain the practice to visitors.

“Tour guides also bring Japanese visitors here to have a look. We are quite used to the curiosity of outsiders,” he added.

Huang, 45, is part of the fourth generation of his family to make a career out of collecting bones.

Huang learned the trade by accompanying his father to work when he was young.

“I was a bit scared in the beginning, but I gradually built up courage until I was able to do it by myself,” he said.

“Bone collecting is an important service and its practitioners are helping others. As long as we remain morally righteous, maintain a good character and don’t do anything unethical, then we have nothing to fear from ghosts and evil spirits,” Huang said.

“Bones are just human skeletons. Everyone has a set, so what is there to be scared of?” he said.

Local residents say they are accustomed to the sight.

“It is just like drying clothing in the sun, no need to be alarmed,” a neighbor surnamed Chen (陳) said.

Some netizens agree, saying that as long as the practice does not jeopardize drivers’ or pedestrians’ safety, people should respect it.

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