Not once during the three-hour funeral did the voice of the master of ceremonies depart from his meticulously calibrated tone, soothingly providing comfort to the grieving while announcing the delegations of people who had come to pay their respects. But every now and then, he would say something that stung like a stun gun.
We were in Taoyuan on Friday attending the funeral of a young Taiwanese woman who decided to end her life last month. Her father, who spent about five years in jail following the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, a protest by pro-democracy activists, is a former legislator for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who now faces a 10-year prison term for corruption. While local media reported that the young woman decided to end her life due to pressures associated with her studies, it is difficult to imagine that her father’s travails did not also weigh heavily upon her.
The woman — a beautiful and wonderfully talented artist who had gone to school in New York — also studied law so that she could help with her father’s defense, reviewing interrogation tapes and turning to well-known international lawyers for assistance. Much of her art reflected the deeply held political views of her family, which emphasize a Taiwanese identity separate from China. Some of her creations had been used, or were to be used, by the Formosan Association for Public Affairs’ Young Professionals Group, an assemblage of young US-based Taiwanese who support Taiwanese self-determination. The beautiful booklet, DVD and postcards handed to those who attended the service also had an undeniably pro-Taiwan slant.
Yet, the MC repeatedly used the phrase “we Chinese” (我們中國人), which stopped us in our tracks. How could the man not have been aware of the political views of the grieving family and those of the woman whose life and death we had gathered to remember? How insensitive would the man have had to be not to realize that her father, a well-known DPP politician with a reputation for singing and wearing costumes, had served five years of his life behind bars because he and others had stood up to the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the White Terror of the Martial Law era? How could he not take her work, her life, into consideration, knowing full well that in life she fought for and took pride in her Taiwanese identity and would always refer to herself as “Taiwanese” (台灣人)?
To me, the affront again confirmed that organized religion has little patience for individuality and limits itself to general platitudes. I have seen this occur time and again at weddings and funerals — regardless of the belief system. That is why priests or monks will movingly talk of “loving husbands” when describing a deceased man who spent his married life inflicting physical and emotional pain on his wife and members of his family.
I do not think the MC meant any slight or sought to impose his political views on the family; he was simply following the script (this could also be indicative of the extent to which the KMT sinicization of Taiwan also left its mark on religion).
By focusing on the masses, organized religion — and the same could be said of another system of control, politics — fails to bring itself to the level of those it claims to represent. How simple it would have been for the temple to change the wording so that it actually meant something for the grieving family and reflected their desires, wishes and beliefs during that one last moment.
There is no reason why priests and monks and rabbis should not have to do their homework on the people whom they purport to serve as celestial intermediaries. But then again, when have religious figures ever been servants of mankind?
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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