I learned about the curse on my father shortly after he died. It was a rainy evening in mid-September and I sat cross-legged between my brothers and sisters on the couch in my parents’ basement. We formed an uneven semi-circle around our mom as we brainstormed ideas for the funeral. It was the first time we were all together in the same room since an arbitrary Christmas almost a decade earlier, and the electric fireplace radiated staticky warmth behind us. Our father passed away at the age of seventy-five but had left behind few instructions about what to do in the event of his death; he had expected, after all, to live to be at least a hundred.
As we were discussing final disposition options – cremation, burial, cremation-and-burial, etc. – our mother cleared her throat and told us about the curse. Many generations ago, there had been an epic clash between two clans on my father’s side of the family. The details were sparse, but it appeared that there had been a bitter disagreement between the Lees and the Hongs over the dowry and wedding arrangements for their betrothed children. The Lees offered a truce which the Hongs were forced to accept: their children’s offspring would live as Hongs during their ephemeral lives on Earth, but upon death their family names would convert to Lee in the afterlife. An eternal curse would befall the descendants of any Hong who didn’t uphold the agreement.
Although my dad had never specified his burial preferences, he had been clear with my mother about one thing: he would not become a Lee in the afterlife. He saw the curse as a silly superstition that had lasted for too many generations in his family and simply didn’t want to perpetuate it further. My father would be the first to break the truce and remain a Hong for eternity.
So, my mother asked us, could we please refrain from posting any pictures of his grave on social media, so that our relatives in Taiwan wouldn’t discover that my father had let his family become cursed?
I fidgeted on the couch, fuming. It was typical of my father to turn his back on his family so flippantly, as if the undoing of tradition should be his decision alone. And yet if the curse was real, his children and their descendants would be the ones to bear its burden – not him! One of my brothers mumbled something about his Ancestry.com results being potentially incomplete. But the rest of my family only sat in silence, absorbing.
We decided on a cremation-and-burial for my father, and his gravestone in the U.S. lists his last name as “Hong” next to the years of his birth and death. But my mom revealed a secret to me during a recent FaceTime call, almost a decade later: her sister had set up a small, makeshift memorial for my father back in Taiwan. After the funeral my aunt felt my father’s spirit accompany her as she traveled home, where he finally spoke to her and requested the company of my maternal grandmother who had passed a couple of years before him. My aunt had a simple tablet for him carved out of wood and placed it next to my grandmother’s grave in the countryside, where she worships them together at least once a year during Qingming Jie (the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival which takes place every April in Taiwan). My aunt was worried that his ancestors wouldn’t be able to find and reunite with him if his last name on the tablet was Hong. So on that remote hill in the outskirts of Hsinchu, Taiwan, my father’s name is Lee.
My mom says she asked her sister why my father speaks only to her from the afterlife, instead of to his own wife.
“It’s because you don’t believe he’s real,” my aunt told her. “The dead will only speak to true believers.”