I had not seen nor spoken to my grandfather in twenty years. I had occasionally written letters corresponding with him during my childhood, but we gradually lost touch during my teenage years. While the rest of my extended family in Viet Nam had prescribed to the Western advances in communications technology, connecting via various smartphone apps and instant messaging, my grandfather still stuck to his trusty house phone, calling cards and snail mail. He lived alone with his dog, walked to the market every day, maintaining his balance with a long bamboo cane, and asked the family to call at the house for dinner instead of having shouting matches through the phone. The only change in the last twenty years was that the river and the canoe we had taken to reach my grandfather’s house was now replaced by a paved road and a four-wheeler – the canoe had sunk in one of the back rivers ten years ago.
After the usual pleasantries and small talk in the front hall of his house that twenty years of absence warrants, my grandfather and I sat down next to each other at the dinner table. My attention was fixated on the insistent buzzing of the flies around the buckets of cooked chicken on the table. My grandfather abruptly broke the silence.
“So, grandchild, tell me, do people in Canada buy their burial plots in advance? Are they expensive?”
I was taken aback. Had I heard him correctly? Surely he meant buying a plot of land for building a house. I had not heard these words being used since my grandmother’s death – nobody I knew spoke about burial plots, tombstones or coffins in casual conversation. I looked around the table at my uncles, aunts and cousins for clarification.
My cousin cleared her throat and repeated, “He was asking you if people in Canada buy their burial plots in advance.” I told her I understood his question but was making sure I had not misheard him.
“Grandfather, I don’t know. I imagine that they aren’t too expensive though,” I answered. He gave me a pensive look and pressed further, “Yes, but I thought that only people who can afford to be buried will buy land to be buried in, while those who can’t afford it probably get cremated, right?” I mumbled a half response and he nodded in agreement, picking up a piece of dragon fruit.
In Viet Nam, tombs and graves are situated near the home where those who had died are buried, often in the front garden or in the rice paddies. Altars in the house are filled with black and white portraits of deceased loved ones, their half smiles almost coming alive in the flickering light of burning incense, hiding behind porcelain bowls of fresh fruit and rice placed in front of them every memorial day. Chairs at the table are left empty for them to fill at their leisure if they choose to join the feast during holidays such as the Lunar New Year.
After dinner, my grandfather directed the entire family outside to take a family photo among the dragon fruit trees. He showed us the work that was being done on the front of the house. Then he proudly pointed towards a large bandstand-like structure in front of the house. Again, as if we were two friends meeting over coffee to discuss politics and the weather, he turned to me and explained that it is the tomb that he and our grandmother are going to be buried in when they die.