A Chinese Funeral, Good Luck, and the Powerball

2015 ended sadly with the death of my grandmother, but I’ve processed much of it over the past couple of weeks, and I’m finally beginning to feel lighter. I know this because I can write about my recent trip with some levity.

On New Year’s Day, I traveled to New York City for my grandmother’s funeral. I haven’t been with that much family under one roof in a long time. The last occasion was probably for my grandfather’s funeral, and that was eighteen years ago. My memory of it has faded. I was not as close to my grandfather as I was to my grandmother, so I was probably less interested in the customs then. This time, I paid attention because I knew it would be the last time my family followed this tradition so closely. My grandmother was my last surviving grandparent. All five of her children (my mom is the oldest) planned her funeral together. Along with losing a generation, it’s inevitable many of its customs will also be lost. Even though my beliefs about death are different, I find value in following rituals. It helps ease the pain of loss.

The ceremony consisted of a two-day service and numerous tasks in between. Much of the time at the funeral home involved burning spirit money that resembles legal tender. The money is available in outrageous denominations from 10,000 to 1,000,000 dollars and is used to purchase services or buy things in the afterlife.

heaven notes

Joss paper, thin sheets of coarse bamboo decorated in gold or silver foil is also burned. The assumption is the offerings consumed by fire will reappear as actual items in the spirit world, making them available for departed loved ones. My grandmother enjoyed life, so we didn’t stop burning once the fire started. Mourners who came to pay their respects were encouraged to participate as well.

joss paper

When I wasn’t burning something, I sat in my designated seat in a section with the other grandchildren. We folded stacks and stacks of Joss paper into oblong-shaped ingots in preparation for their burning. Folding the paper is an important part of the burning ceremony as it distinguishes Joss paper from actual money. As the paper is treated with the respect of real money, it cannot be casually tossed in the fire. Instead, it is placed carefully in a loose bundle. I guesstimate I folded more than two thousand sheets over the two days.

folded joss paper

The combination of a freezing room (expected for an open casket viewing), and a raging fire only a few feet from my grandmother’s body seemed absurd at times. I dressed warmly for the day, but when I got cold, I stoked the fire or burned a bag of money to warm up.

The immediate family was also tasked with burning papier-mâché items, representing articles my grandmother might need in the afterlife. This included an elaborate paper folding of a mansion (seen below), SUV, mahjong table, foot massager, and other necessities. When it came time to burn these, each family member chose an item(s) and headed outside the room where my grandmother lay.

We needed a bigger fireplace.

joss paper house

I grabbed the cut-out representations of a male and female butler, along with a pair of slippers. Considering my grandmother did not drive and a car was part of her offering, I thought she would need someone to chauffeur her around, and who couldn’t use a little help putting on their slippers?

The Chinese are strong believers in good fortune and luck. In a traditional Chinese funeral, as was my grandmother’s, all mourners received a white envelope filled with candy and money before they left the funeral home. The candy is to sweeten the bitter taste of death, and the money is for luck. The candy must be eaten immediately, and the money must be spent. My family pooled our money (there was a nickel in each envelope) and bought a lottery ticket called the Powerball.


If you’re not familiar with the Powerball, it’s a multi-state lottery held in the U.S. Shortly after I arrived in New York, I heard the buzz about the jackpot at 300 million dollars. After a drawing that produced no winner, it jumped to 600 million. As of this writing, the jackpot sits at $1.4 billion (that’s billion with a BIG FAT B) and is likely to surge higher by Wednesday’s drawing. It could become the world’s richest grand prize awarded to one ticket holder.

So here’s the second part of the story … and I must meander a bit, so I hope you stay with me.

I had a 12:05 PM flight to return to Canada from New Jersey’s Newark airport on Sunday. I was staying in Long Island. Normally, my uncle would’ve driven me to the airport, but he had to take my family to the cemetery for another post burial ritual. Given that, I awoke at 6:45 AM to give myself plenty of time to get to the airport since I had to co-ordinate multiple railway systems. Connection times were tight, with only five minutes in between disembarking and boarding.


Add to this, the weather conditions.

There had been flood warnings the night before, and sure enough, heavy rain and winds hit early Sunday morning. When I stood on the platform of the local railroad, the puddles crested the tops of my boots. I didn’t see much more of the weather after I entered the railway. I squeaked into my connection train at Penn Station seconds before the doors closed and got to the airport in record time! When the agent at the check-in counter offered me an earlier flight of 10:05 AM, I did a fist pump and gladly accepted. I sat in the lounge with a cup of coffee, stoked I had to wait a mere thirty minutes instead of ninety before boarding. How lucky was I?

airline map


Not long after though, things went downhill.

An announcement of mechanical failure for the 10:05 flight resulted in its cancellation. The airline had to reschedule a planeload of passengers. I was disappointed but figured I could get on the next flight at 11:05. Worst case, I’d fly back at my original departure time of 12:05, or so I thought. When I went to update my boarding pass, I was informed the 11:05 was full. I was re-booked on a 1:05 PM flight and now on standby for the 12:05.

Shit! I shouldn’t have changed my flight in the first place! 

I’m sure other expletives bounced around in my head, but I stayed calm. When the airline announced the 12:05 flight, I watched the long line-up of passengers dwindle as they boarded the plane. I stayed close to the gate but was not hopeful there would be a seat left for me. A frustrated passenger started yelling at the ticket agent for giving away a seat she thought belonged to her. All the screaming did nothing to improve the situation. As I was about to walk away, an airport employee approached the counter and handed a boarding pass to the clerk. I overheard her say, “This is for the final passenger on this flight.”

Then the agent called my name. I felt like I had won the lottery!

It was only supposed to be an hour flight, but the weather continued to worsen as we flew. When we approached Western New York, the captain informed us the visibility in Toronto was so bad he was unable to land. He circled the plane, waiting for weather conditions to improve. After more than thirty minutes of an aerial view of Buffalo, the pilot announced the fog had lifted enough for him to try and land.


I must say his words did not instill confidence in me. The woman beside me had already been white-knuckling it the entire journey. Even as a normally good flyer, the constant turbulence unsettled me. Clouds had obstructed the view outside the window for most of the flight, so there were no visual cues to make me feel better. I tightened my seat belt and closed my eyes.

airplane seat belt

Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so lucky anymore.

When the plane pitched forward and sped up, I knew we were closing in on the airport. I opened my eyes just as the plane penetrated the fog and saw the runway appear too quickly for my liking. I braced myself for a rough landing.

As the 70-person propeller plane came to a halt, a round of applause and cheers broke the tension. It’s a short runway, and the pilot did an excellent job. The proof is I’m here to write about it.

The caveat to this airplane story is the earlier flight at 11:05 was diverted back to New Jersey due to weather. If I had made it on that plane, I would not have landed in Toronto until much later.

After a long day, which fortunately ended well, I couldn’t help but think my grandmother had been looking out for me. It’s metaphorical, of course, but I felt extremely lucky, so much so that that when I arrived home safely, I called my aunt and uncle in New York and gave them numbers to play the Powerball. I’m not lucky with lotteries and I rarely play them, but there’s no way my grandma would have missed the opportunity to buy a ticket. Since she’s no longer here, I’m buying one for her.

If I win, there’s going to be one hell of a fire in her honour. 

grandma at her birthday


91 thoughts on “A Chinese Funeral, Good Luck, and the Powerball

  1. I loved this post! Having lived in and traversed both NY and NJ I could picture the craziness of your travel, especially the zoo that Newark Airport can be. I appreciate your sharing of the rituals at your grandmother’s funeral. I’m always fascinated by how different cultures celebrate and mourn. If I win the Powerball I’ll thank our grandmothers 😉.

    1. Jeanette, thank you for your comment. xox Being an early Sunday morning, Newark was actually not so bad, but I know what you mean. I’ve been there when the lineup through immigration has been 20 deep. Not fun! I really appreciate your reading.

      And I agree our grandmothers would be proud if we won 😉 There’s more than enough for everyone!

  2. I always enjoy your posts, Eden. My most sincerest condolences on the passing of your grandmother. And thank you for sharing your experiences, as always.


  3. More expletives please.
    I’d love to read more about these rituals. I’m not a religious person but I’ve found comfort in them as well. Thanks for giving us a peek into a private part of your life. If you win the powerball you should hire a film crew to film your mission to NYC and the celebration with your relatives. I imagine there would be alcohol involved. I see a reality tv show in your future. The Madding Canasian

    1. Ha Joe, you know expletives and I go way back and I’m an atheist, so religion and ritual are mutually exclusive as far as I’m concerned. I felt pain for my mom and her siblings, so the comfort is in seeing them get through it, and if it involves burning items, then so be it.
      As for the rest of your comment … you’re nuts. I think the Powerball win is a dream, but for $2, why not?

  4. Sorry about your grandmom, Eden. The loss of one loved truly is a loss never lessened, but our grief is the reminder of how much we still love them and that they are still part of who we are today. Peace.


  5. Touching story. I really enjoy learning about cultural customs… Guess that’s one of the reasons I enjoy Toby Neal’s Lei Crime Series (and most of the novellas, your Snake in Paradise), so much! If you win, I hope you will keep writing, though!

    1. Bonnie, thank you for commenting. If I win, I will certainly continue to write. It’s my passion and what else would I do anyway? I’d just be able to write in more exotic places 😀 xo

  6. The rituals you explained are touching. Your Grandmother must have been watching out for you as you traveled.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to win the Power Ball? We don’t usually play the lottery, but have this time. Take care my friend.

    1. Thanks MaryAnn, rituals are really comforting, and their meaning is symbolic and touching as you say. Good luck with the Powerball. Whoever wins, I hope they are able to spend it wisely xo

  7. What a memory you have created for all of us to share. Thank you so much for sharing this most intimate and tender moment of your life.

  8. Sorry for your lost, Eden. I’ve seen Chinese burial plots in Thailand. Only Christians and Chinese have true cemeteries. I like the idea of an entire family being buried in a group plot. Thais are cremated and the ashes are put in large cone shaped monoliths known as Jetties, or in the wall around a temple. I have picked out a very large monolith shaped rock I always sit on to view our farm to be my Jettie. While my wife was back in Thailand her (my) family raised the rock up into position and landscaped the area for me. I don’t expect to use it for some time but I was touched at all the work they did for a christian family member.

    I flew out of Houston the other day and was in the security line from hell, but finally did get on the plane.

    1. How interesting regarding the Thai burials, Dannie. Thanks for sharing it. As you say, I hope you don’t have to use it for a very long time, but it is good to have it in place. Glad you’re back safe and sound xox

  9. What a lovely story, Eden! I’m sure your grandmother is chuckling and grateful for the butler. I think the customs are wonderful and fascinating. Blessings and good luck to you! <3

  10. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading this and learning about Chinese customs. I’m sorry for the loss of your grandmother. I’d say good luck on the Powerball, but we’ll have to share the luck since I bought a ticket too. 🙂

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Kaonashinoface. I really appreciate your kindness. No matter who wins the Powerball … (you or me, hehe), I hope we enjoy it to the hilt. xo

  11. Thanks Eden for sharing the Chinese rituals which will gradually be eroded with the passing of time. Even with a Chinese majority population, the changes in tradition though are increasing, there are certain norms that had to be kept.
    An example would be that the period of mourning must add up to odd number of days. It is also mandatory to have the children watching round the clock to ensure that no animal, especially cats become visitors as it would awaken the dead. To send the soul to Heaven, monks accompanied by their chanters ( of sutras) have to recite to guild the journey forward. The soul have to pass the seven gates and it needed 7 weeks to leave the human world, i.e. after 49 days before the soul ascend.

    The wake here

    1. Hi Arliie, thanks very much for your comment and providing more about some of the Chinese funeral rites. I know there are differences based on whether the deceased followed Buddhist, Taoist, or other beliefs. For me, the important thing is to respect the beliefs of the immediate family.

      I appreciate your comment and thank you again.

  12. This moved me. The last funeral I went to was my grandfather. A Chinese funeral as well. And also I knew it was the last time I would see something like this.

    1. Hi Everyday Voices,

      My condolences to you on the passing of your grandfather. It is never easy, but hopefully the passage of time diminishes the pain. Rituals speak a lot to the cultural values of a people, and I believe they help in the grieving process.

      Many thanks for your comment here, it’s much appreciated,

  13. Fascinating cultural traditions, ways in which humans deal with the mystery of death. These seem marvellously wise and comforting: on one hand the religious-beliefs of relief in believing we’ll meet up again. But also the purely psychological wisdom of creating all these soothing family and community activites that help in putting away or at least diminishing the immediate pain of loss. I love the paper articles burning, with all the details, including mahjong! And the good luck to move into the future 🙂

    1. Well said Bea, and I completely agree that ritual in itself is comforting. It wouldn’t have mattered what we were doing — burning, folding, chanting or something else, it gave us something to do in the room where my grandmother lay, and we were all doing it for her.

      The hope is she has lots of money where she is now for mahjong, and she’s winning! 😉

      Thanks for commenting, appreciate it,

      1. Thanks for following! I’ll be visiting yours too, my mother was very much into mahjong with her pals in her last decade of life 🙂

  14. I like to think that when grandmothers leave us they circle our lives for a few days until we’re ready. Or they’re ready. And maybe they can fly planes because grandmothers are pretty amazing all round. Loved this post.

  15. Loved reading this post ,and what wonderful funeral traditions , all we do here is gurn in northern Ireland and send them on there merry way down the cemetery with a few prayers and hymns how boring is that and everyone gets pissed afterwards and probably in a punch up. Oh and love the word guesstimate xx

    1. Hi Coping2016,
      You made me laugh, and I think that’s a good thing no matter what! It does fascinate me how different cultures deal with death. I consider the Irish to have a great sense of humour, so it does not surprise me they have a ‘party’ in celebration of someone’s life, even though that person is gone.

      The Chinese are not known for humour, but we do love to eat, so all our occasions, including funerals are punctuated with food. We go out with the family and mourners to a restaurant and eat a huge meal.

      Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  16. Sorry for your lost Eden. I have also experienced something similar a few years back. My grandmother passed away a week after Chinese New Year and we were devastated. The whole family gathered and planned the funeral. The ritual is similar and in Malaysia the Chinese communities still stick strongly to these beliefs and customs. The only significant difference is that while your family gave out white envelopes to mourners, we here give out red envelopes to mourners which in my point of view is to lighten the gloomy mood from the wake. Love to know more on how other Chinese living in overseas still kept to the traditions and customs passed down by our ancestors.

    1. Hi Lucy all the way from Malaysia, 😉

      Thank you so much for commenting. There are many variations of the Chinese funeral customs. As a first-generation Canadian, I know little about the practices except for what has been passed down from my grandparents and my mom and her siblings. White is the color associated with death normally, so red is not used until after the 2-day service is over. That may be why the envelopes are not red — to distinguish them from the traditional red envelopes we give out during Chinese New Year.

      I will follow your bog and hope we can connect on social media to talk more. It’s really nice to meet you xo

  17. I’m sorry for your loss. I remember my aunt’s funeral in Hong Kong was also in a very cold room. The funeral home was in a large multi story building and unlike the funeral parlours here, it was simple (tiled walls).

    I found your blog on WordPress Discover last night.

    1. Hi NocturnalTwins,

      Thank you for finding me, and I appreciate your sharing. I like the simplicity you describe in the funeral homes in Hong Kong. I think those are best. xo

  18. The tale is awesome to say the least. Interesting how things usually fall into place in our lives over the course of time.

    1. Thank you Jobleyy, life and death are both mysteries, sometimes wonderful, sometimes sad, but mysterious nonetheless.

      Thanks for commenting,

    1. Hi Sarah, no! I didn’t win, but it was fun dreaming about it for a day. Thanks very much for reading and leaving a comment, kind of you. xo

  19. Hi Eden, I’m Jennifer. I enjoyed your post. I found the part about burning the money very interesting. I’ve never heard of that. My condolences are with you and your family on your grandmother’s passing. It’s amazing how many stories I’ve heard relating the powerball to elder family members. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Hi Jennifer, lovely to meet you and thanks for the comment, much appreciated. I didn’t win the Powerball but I’m rich in many things.
      Each day, I feel thankful for what I have, which is a reminder of all the things money can’t buy. 😉

  20. When I worked in Sumatra, decades ago, there was a big Chinese cemetery on the sea bluffs overlooking my city. There were large,elaborate gravestones and alters, and I spent many Sunday afternoons wandering among them trying to understand the beliefs and traditions they encompassed. But mostly I just enjoyed the respect they showed for the family generations, and the care with which most of the sites were maintained.

    1. Hi Karl, I like cemeteries too. It’s a peaceful place with so much history. I cannot think of a better place for anyone who needs downtime to feel one’s own mortality. Life happens too quickly everywhere else.

      I visit my grandfather’s and father’s gravesites and all my ancestors annually in Montreal’s Mount Royal where they are all buried. There is definitely something to be said for honouring the dead. It keeps their memories alive.

      I appreciate your comment and thank you,

  21. Eden, I enjoyed you’re story…well, enjoyed might not be the right word. That’s kind of like clicking the “LIKE” button on Facebook when somebody says their parent just died. How about this, I feel like I understand the Chinese ceremony around one’s passing better now than before. And I can easily visualize your participation over those days along with your flights and airport foibles. What I don’t understand is your having boarded a freaking prop plane in the North East to Canada in the winter! I was right there with you until you mentioned that. Loved the graphics along with the story. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Ian, thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it. I love prop planes and the small airline of Porter is one of the few fleets that fly them. It’s not meant for long hauls, so I wouldn’t be taking it to Europe (it doesn’t fly there anyway). Also, the weather wasn’t all that bad when we took off, but of course, weather changes in the air …

      Hopefully you get a chance to fly with them in the future. They have great service and free wine and beer on board 😉

  22. I find psychology so interesting, and it’s fascinating how grief can unite people, and how people who previously don’t get along are willing to put things aside in the light of grief. The way people respect others customs in grief gives me hope for humanity, and you write about it beautifully xx

  23. Hey,
    I’m new to wordpress, and had a chance to read many blogposts to learn more about different styles and different ways people express themselves.

    This post was one of the better ones I’ve had the pleasure to read.

    My condolences for the passing of your grandmother.

    Hope you have a chance to check out my blog and give me your insights.


    1. Hi Ram, thanks for reading and your comment. I’ve followed your blog and hope you enjoy writing for it. I’ve been blogging since 2010, and it is definitely rewarding. You get what you put into it and meet some wonderful writers in the process. Have fun with it!

  24. Hi Eden,
    My sincerest condolences on the loss of your Grandmother. Your blog is so beautifully written. I liked how it changed tack like a Trentin Tarantino movie and I don’t mean to be disrespectful. It was the perfect way to honour your Grandmother. She would be so proud.

    Thank you very much for reading and liking my blog. I only started writing 3 weeks ago, so it is very new to me. Once you start it seems the creative juices start flowing. I have so many more stories, memories and ideas. I’m excited, which might seem weird!

    Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to your next blog.

    Fe xo

    1. Hi Fe, so lovely to meet you, and thanks for your kind words. You have have an engaging writing style and your enthusiasm shines through your words. From experience, this goes a long way to attracting readers. Wishing you the very best in your blogging journey,


    1. Thank you very much for your comment. A celebration of someone’s life is a wonderful thing after the mourning. 🙂

  25. I knew I couldn’t go wrong reading your post, Eden. I’d read your “young Donald” short story, so now I had a chance to enjoy a memoir-esque offering. You didn’t disappoint. Your humor was top drawer and in the best of taste.

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