Taiwanese call for souls to come home

Mourners kneel and pray to the dead as they face the devastated valley of Shiao Lin.
"I believe a lot of souls are still in Shiao Lin village," says Yeh Rong Nan.

Last weekend the mountain community was erased from the landscape as Typhoon Morakot swept across Taiwan killing at least 120 people. Nothing is left of the village except mud, rocks, debris and two homes, barely standing. At the edge of a road overlooking the valley where Shiao Lin used to sit, grieving relatives were Saturday placing traditional gifts for the souls of the dead to use in the afterlife. Paper money, fruit, toothbrushes, slippers, toys for children. A man dressed in a yellow shirt wiped tears from his eyes as he gently threw paper money into a small fire. He called out to his dead family members: “Grandma, big brother… I give you these treasures. Take them with you and use them. Be careful. Travel safely.” Mourning ceremonies on the seventh day after death are a part of Taiwanese folk tradition, according to Yeh Rong Nan, from the nearby town of Jia Shian. Watch mourners call home souls of dead » The “first seventh” is a day when families call out to the spirits of the dead to calm them and bring them home. Taiwanese believe when a person dies, they are unaware of their death and their soul wanders. It is the responsibility of the living families to guide the departed and if the souls don’t come home by the seventh day, they become ghosts. On a road near what was left of Shiao Lin, several families gathered Saturday to perform this duty, burning incense as a way to open communication with the dead. Generations bowed, kneeled, and prayed. “Mother, little brother, grandchildren… When you walk across the bridge, hold steady,” wailed one woman, referring to a bridge that souls are believed cross into the afterlife. Tsai Sung Yu, who grew up in Shiao Lin village but now lives and works in Taipei, lost his mother, brother, sister-in-law and their 7-year old daughter in the mudslides. Pointing to the mud plain below where his house used to stand, he said with tears in his eyes: “It would have been beneath those rocks there. All you can see is mud and rocks now. My school, my family, my house…. they’re gone.” He revealed his 3-year-old nephew escaped death because he was visiting an aunt nearby. But, he says, the boy is now asking for his mother and father.

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Tsai says quietly: “We tell him the road home is still cut off because of the storm. My sister will now adopt him.” In the nearby town of Jia Shian a public memorial was also being held Saturday, with grieving families placing photos of each dead relative on tables. The Lin family, who lost three relatives to Morakotm bowed to their photos, and called out to their souls: “Change your muddy clothes. We are here. Don’t be scared. Come home.” An elderly woman, Yu Chin Chih, stood in front of a table of 10 photos, pointing to each one. “That one’s gone. He’s gone. This one is also gone and all these grandchildren are gone,” she said.

“We went to Shiao Lin village for the first time yesterday to look for their bodies. But then I realized there’s nothing we could do. We couldn’t find them.” It’s unlikely the victims will be found anytime soon. The village is buried under five stories of mud. Looking into the valley, one mourner called to the souls of his loved ones. He said, “Be careful. Travel safely.”