Article - Autumn 2013

The Number One Funeral Home

The memorial service for my father, the doctor who attended to Chiang Kai-shek, was no ordinary affair

By Pauline Yu | September 5, 2013
Courtesy Pauline Yu
Courtesy Pauline Yu


For more than 40 years, my family owned a cottage on Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. My parents purchased the house in the early 1960s, though it strained the household budget at the time. Having left China at the end of the Second World War, when rampant inflation made even wheelbarrows of currency valueless, they had learned to trust only in real estate. And they knew that waterfront property would never go out of style—even our less-than-spectacular house, which had been built on the cheap during the Depression; the plywood walls had been joined every four feet or so with laths, and the plumbing was at best inadequate. A botched kitchen renovation caused the floor to buckle slowly over the years, and the two upstairs bedrooms were crammed with beds—a situation relieved only by the conversion of a small workroom off the front breezeway into sleeping space. The house’s flaws mattered little to us, however. From the upstairs bedrooms, we could peer out to the lake and fall asleep to the lapping waves. Every summer my parents, my three sisters, and I would crowd inside, along with assorted family friends, for the two precious weeks when we didn’t rent the cottage out, for the only vacation my parents would ever allow themselves.

They were both physicians who had met at medical school in Shanghai, served in the war in Chungking, married, and received postdoctoral fellowships to study abroad. Awarded a grant from the British Council, funded through the Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship Program, my father went to London to study tropical medicine but then switched to cardiology. My mother won a Chinese national fellowship that allowed her to spend a year doing research at Duke University. He traveled directly to Great Britain; she flew to Bombay, took the train to Calcutta, boarded a ship that took two months to reach Los Angeles, and then traveled by train for two weeks across the continent to North Carolina. After her year there, she moved north to another position at a hospital in New York City, and then upstate to Rochester, where she secured a residency in pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. While there, she helped get my father a job reading electrocardiograms one summer—the only vacation he was allowed under the terms of his two-year fellowship.

They had intended to return to China after their time abroad, but my mother’s father advised them not to do so, given the country’s uncertain political fate. Upon comparing notes on their current locations, they concluded that the war’s devastation in Europe made America the better choice. So when his fellowship ended, my father boarded the Queen Elizabeth and sailed to the States, where he rejoined my mother. Also awarded a residency at the University of Rochester Medical Center, he became, over the next decades, a chaired professor of medicine and head of the cardiology department. He transformed it from an obscure basement “chest lab” filled with tanks of oxygen and helium and a huge, ancient, motor-driven treadmill—where we played as children when it was his turn to babysit—to a state-of-the-art unit treating patients from all over the country. Dubbed by his students “the man with the golden stethoscope” because of his outstanding clinical skills, he was elected president of the American Heart Association in 1972. The outpatient facility at the hospital now bears his name, the Paul N. Yu Heart Center.

Living with five females must have demanded enormous stores of patience from the lone male in the household. On more than one occasion, my father had to wait at the foot of the stairs, hat in hand, while we dithered over earth-shattering sartorial decisions. He drove us to school on his way to work every morning, and when his time was really short, he would go out to the car, turn on the engine, and wait there, never complaining when we finally emerged from the house. Every Sunday he would take us to the Baptist church across town, where he served a term as deacon. Other weekly rituals when we were young were his responsibility as well, like when we’d climb up one after the other and lie on the kitchen counter so that he could shampoo our hair in the sink. He also served as the family barber, marching us out to the garage to chop off what was always to him hair that was too long. Each time we would plead with him to allow us to have bangs, and each time that plea would fail. His eye was not always the truest, and my best friend’s mother once felt obliged to even out his work when she noticed that one side of my hair was an inch shorter than the other. Neither were his notions of style always shared, and on more than one occasion he had to stanch the resulting tears with an ice cream cone from Howard Johnson’s, muttering that he didn’t know why the barber had to pay the customer—wasn’t it usually the other way around?

Summer vacations were short and precious, and for him they were largely notional: the cottage was close enough to the hospital for him to drive into work if needed. He often did, but when he returned, he would plunge into the lake in his faded blue-flowered bathing trunks, churning through the water with exuberance, then stay up late after dinner playing bridge or poker with equal abandon, with some of the many friends who would come to stay with us. Winning mattered little to him; in the case of bridge, his aim was simply to bid as aggressively as possible and either make the contract or go down two. He never had any trouble sleeping at night.

My mother, my sisters, and I buried the beige marble urn filled with his ashes at the cottage in November 1991. On top of it we planted a white rhododendron. My father had died in Taiwan the month before, having suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, many more years, certainly, than he’d acknowledged. He had been sharp enough, of course, to recognize the symptoms when they first appeared and had concealed them far longer than he should have. Not as long as he thought, however, for as he became increasingly inarticulate, his colleagues at the hospital began to send another physician in with him—often one of his former students—when he saw patients. His motor skills began to deteriorate. It was he who had taught my sisters and me how to drive, and if he thought we had learned imperfectly, we never knew. No recriminations ensued when I backed the car into the lamppost across the street on my first foray out with a new license, or when a sister scraped the side of the garage pulling in. But mysterious dents began appearing on every fender and bumper of his car, scars from the battle he kept losing with the fence while trying to negotiate the entrance into the hospital parking lot. Only when he couldn’t manage a left turn one day in front of oncoming traffic, with me sitting inches away from the car that broadsided us, did he finally stop driving.

The retirement symposium and dinner followed shortly afterward, but my father refused to take the hint. He and my mother moved to Taiwan, where a biomedical institute he had helped establish offered him an office, where he could “do paperwork” all day, with a car and driver to take him there. As he descended into a Parkinsonian nightmare of dementia, muscular degeneration, and hallucinations, this charade was soon abandoned, and we four daughters in the States knew the call would come soon. When it did, as the oldest and the one who could speak some Chinese, I flew over first.

I arrived at my parents’ apartment in Taipei around midnight. It was a large, modern four-bedroom located in a high-rise in a posh, newly developed part of town—a reward for almost 20 years of uncompensated service that my father had rendered to the government. He had been summoned to Chiang Kai-shek’s bedside in 1972. The president had suffered a heart attack, and the country’s assembled contingent of internists and cardiologists could not agree on the appropriate treatment. Members of a delegation sent to the United States hoped that my Chinese-born father might be responsive to a call from the head of state. They hadn’t expected that he would be so difficult to reach; only my mother’s intervention succeeded in getting the most senior of his six secretaries to arrange a meeting. Nor had they expected to find him unwilling to make a trip to Taiwan without first consulting my mother and insisting that she be allowed to join him. Doctors in Taiwan did not make house calls with their wives.

When my father arrived, he administered a treatment that he had made standard practice in the States, which staved off the inevitable (the president’s will had already been drawn up, and funeral arrangements made). He spent much of the next three years making almost monthly trips in secret to Taiwan to treat Chiang, whom he referred to as The Patient, and then after the generalissimo’s death, even more frequent trips attending his successor and other highly placed politicians, ministering to their every medical need, from heart failure to earaches. He never uttered a word of complaint about the strenuous travel schedule or the work, to which, I think, he simply felt called. Realizing what the diagnostic paralysis had revealed about the state of scientific education and health care in the country, and encouraged by government leaders, he resolved to do something about the situation. Thanks to his efforts, a fellowship exchange program and an institute for biomedical sciences were established that drew on the talents of Chinese-American researchers and clinicians from the States to improve medical training in Taiwan.

The room was dark when I walked in that night. Candles burned on either side of a small shrine, with a large photo of my father in the middle of it. The living room was filled with easels on which messages of condolence had been mounted, draped with wreaths of flowers. My mother was seated on the couch next to a man I did not recognize. I’d barely dropped my luggage to embrace her when he asked, “Where’s your husband?”

My husband? He was teaching a lecture course to 800 university students that could not be rescheduled, so he wasn’t going to be able to attend the funeral.

“What about your sons?”

They were seven and nine years old; why did he care?

He was, I learned, the executive director of my father’s funeral, which the government had decreed would be a state ceremony. The only possible venue, of course, was the Number One Funeral Home, which would not be available for two weeks. A long time to wait, I thought, but as it turned out, we needed the time. Because it was a state funeral, the ceremony would follow traditional Confucian ritual, hence the concern about my husband’s absence. With a widow and four daughters, there would be plenty of females available, but the ceremony required males for balance—more yang for the manifest excess of yin. There was talk of trying to contact my father’s brothers or nephews in China, though in 1991, getting them out in two weeks’ time was chimerical at best. This was serious business. So I called my husband and told him he had to figure out a way to videotape one lecture and fly over with the boys and their older sister for the funeral. As an American who had spent his career studying Chinese literature and history, my husband knew better than to argue with the dictates of family and tradition.

Grief claimed no place in the schedule that lay ahead. A state funeral was an honor, but equally a burden. My mother spent the next few days assembling a funeral committee, consisting of a chair (the president of the academy housing the biomedical institute established by my father that would “sponsor” the event), 28 vice chairs, and 140 members. But how to list all those names in the program that would also contain my father’s extensive obituary, already commissioned? There were competing priorities: close family friends on the one hand, and high-ranking government officials on the other. How should they be ordered? The faxes flew as my mother and the organizer wrestled with these decisions, and in the end they settled on the least-fraught principle of stroke order, the Chinese equivalent of alphabetization. The members’ names would be followed by those of the executive director of the funeral and his four assistant directors. More faxes came in with drafts of the biography, which included information about each of his daughters, too. We all went to prestigious colleges, thankfully, but not all of us had positions to match. Two lawyers and a professor—excellent—but was there something we could do to embellish the title of my sister the weaver? To simply say that she lived in Connecticut may not have sufficed. Since she was also working at the time for a company that produced a magazine for schoolchildren, it was decided that she would be “in publishing.”

Sometime during the next week, the undertaker of the Number One Funeral Home stopped by. Rail-thin, with a cadaverous face, a wispy goatee, and bony fingers (ostentatiously long nails flourishing from his pinkies), he described with unctuous seriousness the preparations for the ceremony, and what we would need to do. As he spoke, I couldn’t take my eyes off the huge mole on the left side of his neck, out of which sprouted two hairs that bobbed with every word. We gave him the clothes and shoes in which my father would be dressed for the funeral.

Visitors came to the apartment every day to offer condolences. I knew almost none of them, except a couple from Rochester who happened to be in Taiwan at the time. About the incense-heavy atmosphere and plans they refrained from comment, remarking only, “Your father was a Christian, wasn’t he?” His mother had indeed been converted by missionaries in China and had always referred to him by his Christian name, and he had ensured that his daughters shared that part of his upbringing. He might have preferred a different, religious ceremony, but I think he would have done what was expected of him, and in any case, no one asked.

My mother and I were summoned to a special convocation of the academy sponsoring the funeral. We sat mutely and wept while eulogies to my father were read, after which the principal issue at hand was raised. Should his coffin be draped with the national flag of the Republic of China? Though he had been a U.S. citizen for 40 years, after extensive and lively discussion, it was decided, finally, that there would be a flag.

We arrived at the funeral home at dawn on the morning of the ceremony. The director led my mother, my sisters, and me to a back room for a final viewing of my father’s body. His face was ghoulish, pale gray, with a garish fuchsia lipstick hastily applied to his mouth. Crude black stitches, carelessly trimmed, pocked his neck and wrists, evidence of the preparation of his body. The funeral director held out a pair of my father’s shoes—for some reason he had two pairs—but when it became clear that we had no idea what to do with them, he threw them into the coffin, then slammed it shut. We were all then given heavy black hemp robes to don.

Then we were told that it was time for the ritual offerings. We moved from the small back room out to the main hall, where a blown-up photograph of my father had been hung. Masses of white flowers decked a table before the portrait, along with cups and plates of fruit, with a yellow wreath set up in front. We were all given sticks of incense to burn. As the oldest child, I presented the wine and food to the portrait in a sacrificial offering, which I struggled to do while crawling on the ground toward it, as instructed by the director. My sisters, husband, and children followed behind me in two rows, knocking their heads to the ground in ritual kowtows, while the director chanted his script. My mother sat silently as witness to the ceremony. Then we all took our places in front of folding chairs facing the hall, the females lining up in a row stage left, males stage right. The guests began to arrive.

For the next four hours, the executive director conducted the ceremony, pausing to announce the guests’ names as they came forward to bow to the family. We stood for each one, although my mother was allowed to remain seated. The premier was there, along with assorted ministers, scientists, politicians, and friends. The University of Rochester had sent a representative, who read a tribute in English. As the director’s chanting proceeded in classical Chinese, two workmen in white sleeveless undershirts, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, chattered away along the sidelines while posters with eulogistic messages in Chinese calligraphy were delivered. The workmen had to hang the posters on the walls, which necessitated much scrambling up and down ladders, as messages sent by less prominent figures were moved to the back of the hall to make room for those from greater luminaries. One of the workers farted loudly at one point, and my sons struggled to keep straight faces. Shortly after that, one of the boys swayed, his knees buckling from standing for so long in the heavy robe. Then one of my sisters, faint, had to sit down, too. Finally the last mourner was announced.

After the guests departed, the coffin was placed in the hearse, a rickety minivan covered with white and yellow paper flowers, for the trip to the crematorium, located in the hills outside Taipei. We followed in black limousines. The facility’s huge chimneys belched black smoke into the steel-gray sky. The front hall of the vast cement-floored building was filled with rows of flower-decked easels and portraits of those who had made their last journey that day. Our driver managed to cut to the front of the long line of bereaved families waiting their turn, and we watched as T-shirted workmen placed the coffin on the belt leading into the oven. Then we drove back to the apartment.

Later that afternoon, the driver—a young man who had become my confidant and main source of information over the past several days—told me I had to go back to the crematorium with him. He did not say why, though he suggested that I might want my husband to accompany us. Smoke was still spewing from the furnace chimneys as we walked up the hill. The driver took some paper money and told me to burn it in a small fireplace outside the building. Then we walked inside.

In the cavernous room, I saw only the soft mound of cream-colored ash and surprisingly intact bones on the conveyor belt from the oven. A woman handed me a pair of huge chopsticks, but I had no idea why. The driver gently explained that I had to use them to place the first bone into the beige marble urn on the belt, which I did, my hands trembling almost uncontrollably. Part of my father’s pelvis, perhaps. Then the rest was spooned into the urn.

We went to the airport for the flight home the next day. My sister the weaver volunteered to take the urn, which we’d decided would be buried at my father’s beloved lakefront cottage. The driver issued his final instructions about the photograph attached to the outside: “Make sure your Daddy is facing forward, so that he can always see where he’s going.”

My sister carried the urn in her arms through security in Taipei and Seoul—everyone there knew what was inside—but on her second plane change in Detroit the agents wanted her to put it on the belt to be examined by the x-ray machine.

“That’s my father!” she cried.

“A dog went through just fine,” one replied.

She held her ground and insisted on talking to a supervisor, who relented and let her walk through carrying the urn, which faced straight ahead all the way home.

After we buried my father, the cottage became the default family homestead, but it was increasingly difficult to maintain. My mother relocated from Taiwan to Northern California, and the dispersion of the daughters across the country meant that our reunions on the lake became more infrequent. Over the years, the neglected building acquired more reliable tenants, like raccoons, and we finally conceded defeat to the squatters and sold the property to our neighbors. We daughters made a final pilgrimage to bid farewell, take pictures, and sweep the closets for any overlooked treasures. At my mother’s request, my weaver sister had already, a few years before, managed to find the urn after a considerable amount of digging beneath the rhododendron, which was by then a quite substantial bush, and had driven it back with her to Connecticut.

Now well into her 90s, my mother never forgot that my father was still in transit. It was finally time to take the urn to Northern California and lay it to rest in a family plot she had purchased some years before. The Skylawn cemetery is located on a windswept hill overlooking the Pacific. Though not on the waterfront, it does offer an ocean view, thus justifying its high price, according to the agent who sold it, though one might wonder who was expected to enjoy it.

Transporting someone’s ashes across the country is even more difficult now than it was 20 years ago, but my sister succeeded in finding a funeral director who would certify the urn’s contents as presenting no terrorist threat. This time, there could be no argument about putting it through the scanner, even though it was impenetrable to the machine’s x-rays. Gathered together on the morning of the reburial, Christmas Eve, we family members had but one decision to make—would my father be on the right or left side of the plot—and sat on folding chairs buffeted by the wind as two workmen silently finished their digging. The cemetery official asked if we wanted to say something, and my mother pushed her walker up the grassy slope with determination. She leaned over the crypt to tell my father what had happened in the past two decades and how proud he would have been of his children and grandchildren gathered there. One sister and I joined her to say some words as well. And so my father was finally laid to rest. We made sure that the picture of him on the urn faced forward, so that he could enjoy the view over the Pacific, back to Asia.

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