Sunday, December 12, 2010

High Rise – A New Cultural Creation

Southwest of Taiwan. The so called “Culture Capital” of Taiwan where all the famous and bustling shopping districts, railway stations, universities, and various Taiwanese cultural heritages are located. This is Tainan, the oldest and one of the earliest developed cities in Taiwan, teeming with crowds that never seem to stop. At night, skyrocketing skyscrapers overwhelm the panoramic view of the city with dazzling lights providing vividness to the whole picture - this is Tainan.

But as we back away from Tainan’s most bustling area towards the city’s rather unpopular peripheries, we see different pictures. The busy crowd, honking cars, crammed streets, overflowing train stations and soaring skyscrapers gradually disappear. The landscape is sparse and people are much more leisurely, much more humane. This is also Tainan – the same Tainan, but one much quieter than the other.

The highest among the very few high-rise skyscrapers in Tainan’s suburb is, as a matter of fact, a columbarium – a very tall building with a clean and sleek exterior. From the outside, the columbarium looks merely like a hotel. But inside, we see thousands of identical cubicles neatly and quietly packed against the wall, side by side. Each cubicle is prepared for keeping funeral ashes. When someone is cremated, the remains are stored in a jar, which is then put into one of the cubicles. Once a while, the bereaved families visit the columbarium and run conventional memorial services with the remains inside the charnel house.

This new funeral style, involving a large charnel house, is completely different from the traditional Taiwanese style. In a traditional Taiwanese way, people are buried underground after death. This process sounds similar to any other funeral style, but the magnitude of a Taiwanese tomb is no match for that of any other graveyard. Taiwanese graveyards are very large – so large that some even take up space as much as a soccer field. Especially in a central city like Tainan which is growing, the conventional method can no longer be accepted as readily as it had been before because of population problems.

This is where the new high-rise columbarium takes part – it is a modern approach adapting the conventional funeral services to the land scarcity problem. By accommodating thousands of funeral ashes in a single skyscraper, the bereaved families can easily visit their dead kin and execute traditional memorial services inside the columbarium. This effectively prevents unnecessary waste of land.

Yes, indeed, this high-rise columbarium is something that is totally different from what we consider “normal” urban facilities. What most people encounter everyday are thousands of buildings that were built for strictly urban or residential purposes bearing sleek, metropolitan appearances. An elevated apartment accommodating hundreds or even thousands of residents at the same time in the same place, or tall luxurious business buildings decorated with splendid illumination – these are, again, urban skyscrapers, the direct product of modern mechanization.

Many people believe such mechanization ultimately destroyed traditional values by relying more on machines than on humans. Of course, it is undeniable that machines, more or less, affected traditions; cars, planes, computers, televisions – they are all not just utilities, but more necessities. Also, mechanizations contributed to reducing diversity within humans – all skyscrapers, cars, even people look pretty much the same now. However, mechanization did not “destroy” cultures. Instead, it created new civilizations within itself. That is, it contributed to standardization on the surface, but eventually contributed to diversification inside.

The “charnel-skyscraper” is, then, another form of new modern culture developed with the help of modern mechanization. In fact, as land scarcity problem became crucially confronted by most countries in the world, the movement toward cremation became natural, eventually leading to the construction of high-rise columbarium. This type of columbarium is, again, a new type of modern culture, blending the traditional funeral services with new modern land scarcity problems. A new type of funeral culture has developed.

Our family also takes part in this modern funeral style, although we don’t involve a lofty columbarium. All members of our family (comprising three generations led by my paternal grandfather who is paralyzed and takes medical therapy in a hospital) decided to collect our funeral ashes in a single graveyard located in Yangpyeong cemetery. This decision was made after several months of contemplation, after which my grandmother requested to be cremated and placed where the whole family can reunite after several more years without unnecessarily wasting land. If there had been any columbarium near where we lived, we would also have facilitated such a novel product of mechanization.

Back to the “bustling” Tainan. Honking cars and pedestrians fill the streets, surrounded by lofty business buildings that block the sunlight. Stoic people, all in similar business suits, walk into and out from undistinguishable buildings mechanically. This is, in fact, a “bustling-but-gray Tainan”– gray concrete, gray suits, gray building walls, gray cars – all, gray. But, again, backing away from this gray Tainan toward the suburb, we see a contrastingly quiet Tainan, quiet but busy. As a matter of fact, it is so quiet that nothing seems to be busy. There are farms, roads covered with dirt, little supermarkets, and not much more. There is, however, a very high columbarium, so high that it is visible from miles away.

Now inside this columbarium skyscraper is the “busy” part. Although invisible, this is where a novel lifestyle is taking shape, one that fuses modern and traditional culture. Similar in shape but completely diverse in its function, skyscrapers are not just high, gray buildings without any difference within; they are, in fact, spots of cultural creation, one that maintains conventional lifestyle and simultaneously accommodates modern needs.

- John Kim -

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