Sunday, July 25, 2004

Mummy don't go
I hadn't even hit the Shenzhen border late Friday morning when I got word that Peter-the-Shenzhen-Fixer's mother had died  As deaths go, it wasn't exactly unexpected. She had had Alzheimer's and was bed-ridden. I had only seen her once, as a maid had wheeled her out of her apartment for some sun one May afternoon. Still, I felt for Peter who has been a good friend, an invaluable helpmate and a reliable source of entertainment during my time, trials and travails in Shenzhen.
I called a mutual friend who had been living with the mother and Peter's daughter to ask how he was doing and found that funeral arrangements were handled just a little differently in China - or at least in Peter's flat.
"He's keeping the body until Saturday," she told me. "He didn't want to pay for the refrigerator." By that, she meant Peter didn't want to pay for cold storage until his mother could be cremated on Saturday morning. I laughed a little. Peter is always looking to save a yuan, though keeping a corpse in an apartment during a 90-some degree day and 80-some degree night seemed to, er, a little extreme.
"I hope he's not skimping on air conditioning," I replied. Further investigation revealed that death can be dirt cheap in China, at least compared to the US. Total cost for transporting Peter's mom to the funeral home and cremating her (minus cold storage) plus the budget urn? About 500 yuan or about $60. Cost of making sick jokes to the mutual friend about spending the night with a dead woman? Priceless.
Another friend, James, put it in perspective for me. "They have to keep it cheap in a third world country like this. Otherwise people would be burying them themselves, throwing them in rivers or the ocean or just burning them themselves."
Later he also gave me a little more insight into Peter. I had contacted Peter myself on Friday to offer condolences and to talk a little and he'd been a little resigned and matter-of-fact and not a little relieved that she was dead. It had occurred to me to offer to pay the cold storage cost as a sort of sympathy gesture, but I kept mum and just let him talk.
James told me he'd spoken to Peter on Saturday morning and that they'd had a deeper heart-to-heart in which Peter had told him he'd spent most of the night and early morning beside his mother's body, occasionally touching it and hoping that somehow she'd come back to life. Then he'd gotten a stomach ache which he thought had been caused by touching the body and eating something. So he'd finally called the funeral home at 5 a.m. to have her taken and cremated,
"That's the 'real Peter' underneath,'" James said. "The Peter who was sitting by her body and wishing she'd come back to life. Of course the urge to save money no matter what - that's him too."

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