Imagine going to the cemetery and digging up the remains of a dead relative. Sounds creepy? Not for the families in Taiwan who practice the ancient tradition of the second burial, also know as “picking up the bones”.
The people of China and Taiwan have an innate respect for those who have passed on. This respect stems from the belief that the spirits of the dead have a hold on the living. The dead can bring good luck and prosperity or they can bring great calamity. Honoring these spirits assures that the spirit will bring only good fortune and happiness.
The dead are said to visit the surviving relative in dreams if they are lacking a necessity in the afterlife. In order to provide for the spirit, fake money, toys resembling cars and houses, and even cell phones are burnt so the spirit may receive them. Food and drink are also provided for the spirit. A special holiday called Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping Day) is dedicated exclusively to providing for the dead. This holiday takes place on April 4.
The process of resuming and relocating is costly and many families must save up for years. By the time a family has the money and the resources to rebury the loved one, the remains are reduced to bone fragments. To sheild the bones from light of which it has not been exposed to in years, umbrellas are set up around the grave. The coffin and the remains of the loved one are dug up and the dirt around the remains is sifted carefully. If any fragment of bone is left behind, the spirit will not rest.
Once all of the bone fragments are collected, the body is carefully wrapped and transported to a special storage building where the body will be treated. All remaining dirt and skin particles are removed from the bones. Remaining teeth are also removed from the skull. According to legend, if the teeth are left in the body, the spirit will consume the offspring. Once the bones are cleaned, they are laid in precise order to recreate the living body.
A mixture of red paint and wine is applied to the bones. This mixture represents blood. After, the bones are covered in tan paper and red string is tied around the bones, to give the appearance of veins. The skull is painted red and a translucent tan material is wrapped around the skull. The red paint is visible through the material; having the appearance of a pink, bright complexion. Good complexion is a symbol of prosperity in Taiwanese culture. Eventually, the bones are placed into an urn picked out by the family and stored until the family comes to retrieve them.
The remaining process is long and a great celebration follows. We’ll explore the rest of this amazing ritual in part two of this article.