We had to sacrifice a duck, once.
My uncle passed away on the same day my grand uncle–his uncle–was buried. Two relatives from the same side of the family gone in one week. Surely, a third one would follow. This should not be allowed to go on.
Humans are hardwired to look for patterns; in a world of uncertainty, they are something substantial to cling to, as if our noticing them allows us mastery over them. The Chinese believe that things come in threes. A string of deaths in particular, no matter how random their causes may be, must surely be cosmically linked. The word ‘curse’ never gets thrown around, except in people’s minds. Death left unchecked, much like a virus, could be spread. Fortunately, there were ways to break the cycle, to prevent death from claiming a third.
Before we go back to the duck, I have to explain that this isn’t the first time we’d had to break a string of deaths in the family. The first time was when my grandfather died in ’83 from lung cancer, barely three weeks after his brother passed away. The remedy, they said, was to chop a wooden plank just as the hearse left the funeral parlor. It had to be a clean chop, they said, to cleanly break the curse. My aunt remembered the employee tasked to do it (it can’t be done by a family member), how he nervously practiced on different pieces of wood beforehand. Needless to say, he did a stellar job, and no one followed.
Who ‘they’ are, exactly, and how ‘they’ determine what should be done to break family curses, remains a mystery to this day. Any Chinese funeral tradition expert in the Philippines (there are always one or two on the funeral circuit, ready to assist grieving families who have no idea what the dead require in the afterlife, mainly because to actively dwell on these things during times of good fortune was thought to invite bad luck, unless you’re making money off it, of course) will tell you that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese funeral practices, and what should be done will depend on family consensus. Their job, they say, is simply to lay out the options. I don’t know who the family consulted with when my grandfather passed away, but I was there when we consulted with Uncle Tony, a freelance Filipino-Chinese funeral expert, when my dad passed away, and with a guy I only ever knew as Jason, connected with Sanctuarium, the hotel-like funeral parlor and columbarium along Araneta Avenue (different from another columbarium on the same road named The Columbarium), when my uncle died, ten years later. They both said the same thing: That all they can offer are options; in the end, it’s what the family decides on that counts.
Uncle Tony said that this is because the Chinese in the Philippines, most of whom left the Mainland before it became what it is today (family lore says our Tan ancestor arrived during the Spanish era), brought a hodgepodge of traditions with them that, over time, many of their descendants forgot how to use, though they remembered that they had to observe them at some point. Though many Chinese Filipinos are still connected to the old ways, observing Chinese religious festivals and going to temple, our family, starting from my grandparents on both sides (and my great-grandmother on my mother’s side), were Christians, so we had to rely on experts in Chinese tradition when unfortunate events like deaths arose, because even the most Westernized Chinese person will suddenly look to tradition if it means breaking a string of bad luck. And what could be more unlucky than the end of a life?
The second time we had to break a death curse was when my father died. This time, the curse had been stretched out, so no one saw the pattern until my father had passed, and by then, he was already the third victim. My eldest uncle–my mom’s eldest sister’s husband–had passed away two years before, and my second eldest uncle–my mom’s second eldest sister’s husband–passed away a year before. When my father passed away–the third husband in three years–everyone started to worry. There were five girls in my mother’s family, all of them married, so even though my father was already the third victim (things come in threes, remember?) we had to break the curse anyway, just to be on the safe side. This time, an employee had to break a palayok (clay pot) filled with water that was tied to the back of the hearse before it left for the cemetery. A small argument broke out on who had to do it, because even the non-Chinese were afraid of being contaminated by what everyone now believed was death contagious. It was only after being convinced that it wouldn’t get passed on to them as long as they weren’t family members that a brave soul, I think it was my dad’s foreman Mang Lando, came forward and smashed the pot. It’s simple sympathetic magic–spill water as you break something made from earth, and you break the curse. I am happy to say that the remaining husbands are alive to this day.
Which brings us, finally, to the duck.
My dad’s uncle had passed away early this year due to old age (extreme old age, by the way, is the only time the Chinese may ‘celebrate’ a death. Basically, a life lived past 90–again, the age will depend on the family–is a life well-lived). My mom attended the funeral, but us kids didn’t because we had work.
I was at work when I got a call from my aunt, looking for my mom, who wasn’t picking up her phone.
“She’s at your second uncle’s funeral,” I said (familial relationships are so much easier to explain in Chinese).
“Please contact her and tell her your uncle D. passed away,” she said. “We need her help.”
My uncle, my dad’s younger brother, had been bedridden for years after suffering a series of strokes. He passed away around the time his uncle was being buried. Clearly, this was a bad sign.
One last segue before we get to the duck: My mother works as a real estate agent, and as a funeral services agent, the latter an absurdly perfect calling for the mother of a horror writer. She had to take a job after my father passed away, something that she lamented at first, but later grew to love as working gave her confidence, self-respect, and most importantly, cash. This segue is also here because I’m going to get reprimanded if I don’t mention her work. She’s really good at her job so if you need a house for yourself or funeral arrangements for a loved one, please look her up and tell her I sent you. She’ll give you a discount.
My uncle had bought a funeral plan from my mom years before he died, so as the agent assigned to him (as well as being his sister-in-law), she had to make sure that everything was in place. That we found a beautiful coffin, that the room was well-maintained, and that long-forgotten traditions were followed. That a curse had to be broken was clear from the start; two blood relatives had passed away just a week or so from each other. Something had to be done so that a third would not follow. At some point, a duck was mentioned. Nobody said no to that.
There’s a reason why it has to specifically be a duck. A duck is ‘a’ in Hokkien (pronounced kind of like the tail end of a quack). It also sounds like the word ‘a,’ which means ‘to send off.’ So by sacrificing a duck, a family is effectively sending it off. A life in exchange for a life. There you go, Mr. Death. Please leave us alone. Jason the funeral practices guy okayed it.
A bun was placed on my uncle’s coffin the night before he was cremated, though no one could explain why. When you grow up Christian (and by this I man Catholic and Protestant alike), you forget why you have to do things, you just do them because someone says so, and you want to cover all bases, not because you don’t have faith in your God, but because you want to show people that you did everything you could to keep bad luck at bay. Then it was time for the burning.
There are, apparently, people who specialize in this sort of thing. A funeral duck costs about Php2000, but that’s because it comes with a handler, a guy who will hold it patiently while the funeral goes on, and later, place it, all tied up, next to the body on the cremation table. Our duck was quiet throughout the funeral ceremonies, only making a fuss towards the end, when the handler brought it towards the metal slab. It sounds, I remember thinking, remarkably like a frightened puppy. And then the oven was turned on, and we tried to forget about everything.
Animal sacrifice in Chinese-Filipino funerals aren’t uncommon. My maternal great-grandmother had a live chicken buried in the crypt with her, and a friend of mine said that her maternal great-grandmother was buried with a live turtle, while ceremonies were performed on a duck, which was then set loose in the Manila Chinese Cemetery. She asked if the duck was in danger of being eaten by the people–usually caretakers–who lived near and within the cemetery, and was answered that the ducks were left alone because the one time someone caught and slaughtered one such duck, the family that ate it all got stomach aches that lasted for days. It’s all the same principle: a life for a life. Mr. Death; please leave us alone.
Of course everyone felt sorry for the poor duck. But better a random animal bred for the purpose than another person, right? Right? The big question, the one on everyone’s mind, was how to tell the duck’s ashes from my uncle’s. Don’t worry about it, Jason said. And indeed we shouldn’t have. Because after the cremation was completed, there was a small mound of ash next to my uncle’s scattered ash and bone. I’m not sure what they did with the duck’s remains, only that they were separated from my uncle’s, which were put through a bone grinder before being sealed in a plastic bag and placed in a velvet one, which then went into his urn. And yes, no one followed after.
This essay first appeared in Esquire Philippines.