The day after my paternal grandmother died, I went to a funeral home with my uncles Jim and Paul to pick out a casket.
The director of the funeral home met us at the entrance and said he was sorry for our loss. We followed him to a brightly lit room, where around a half-dozen caskets were on display.
“This is one of our basic models,” the funeral director said, pointing to a casket with an oak finish. If we wanted to go with something “a little more expensive,” he suggested a coffin with a shiny white exterior that resembled marble.
Not even the most basic casket seemed appropriate for my grandmother. Aesthetically speaking, she was a woman of simple tastes.
“$2,000 for a casket? Are you crazy?” I could imagine her saying. “Bury me in a cardboard box, and use the money to buy Jimmy a new coat for winter!”
I thought of that trip to the funeral home over the weekend, when my girlfriend and I visited the National Museum of China. We were short on time (halfway to the museum, I realized I had left my passport at home; foreigners need to show one to get a ticket), so we decided to tour the “Ancient China” exhibit and call it a day.
The exhibit begins in prehistoric times and weaves through thousands of years of Chinese history, ending in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It includes artifacts unearthed from tombs and farms, such as intricately carved bronze wine containers, life-sized clay warriors and ancient scrolls.
The piece that caught my attention was a jade burial suit. I’d never seen anything like it. The suit was sewn with gold thread during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) and contained more than 4,000 pieces of jade, including a special “pouch” for the male genitals.
The suits were used exclusively for the highest-ranking nobles, according to a report on ancient Chinese civilization from the University of Washington. “Jade was believed to possess magical properties that would protect the body from decay and ward off evil spirits,” it said. “Attempts to preserve the body reflect the belief that the earthly aspect of the soul continues to dwell in the body after death.”
The suits took up to 10 years to make. My grandmother would have been appalled.