The vast majority of the 239 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were Chinese or ethnic Chinese, and for them, in a culture that treasures ancestors and the rituals surrounding the passage of life into death, the possibility that no bodies may be found is excruciating.
“It’s horrible, just horrible,” said Joy Chen, cultural icon and author of the popular Chinese-language book, “Do Not Marry Before 30,” who commutes between Los Angeles and her “second home” in Beijing.
“In Chinese culture, the living and dead are part of the same family,” said Chen, 44. “There is such a strong sense of family. You are separated from your ancestor, but they are still a part of you.”
International authorities still don't know exactly what happened to the Boeing 777, which disappeared on March 8, local time, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Conspiracy theories -– from terrorism to a potential hijacking or even pilot suicide –- have fueled the rumors as families wait for news.
Malaysia Airlines has said at least 152 of the passengers were Chinese. And their families are faced with the likelihood that centuries-old cultural traditions of funeral and burial will be disrupted.
Chen, who is Chinese-American, said that the holiday Qing Ming –- returning to “sweep the grave” of a family member -- is an important ritual that would be next to impossible without the presence of a body.
When Chen’s family moved from Maryland, they embarked on a complicated effort to disinter and move her decade-old deceased grandmother to the West Coast. They also moved her grandfather’s body from Taipei.
“My generation of the family thought, ‘Leave her alone,’ but my parents had joined me in the West and it was more difficult for them to do the sweeping of the grave,” she said. The family legally fought the State of Maryland, which claimed it was a public health hazard, and eventually had her grandmother cremated and flown to California. “She belonged to us, God rest her soul. It was pretty amazing.”
Not knowing where the plane is –- if it has landed in some remote location and passengers may have survived –- is equally disturbing in East and West.
“The hardest thing for human beings to deal with is the unknown,” said Ann Rosen Spector, a clinical psychologist from Philadelphia who specializes in grief. “If you look at science, religion or logic, it’s about explaining the unknown. We always want to complete the circle. It’s like a scab is ripped off every time another piece of information takes away the hope.”
“They don’t have any place to put their anger or pain and keep getting the hope that something else will happen, a miracle to undead the person," Spector said.
For Chinese families, the prospect of funerals without bodies is incomprehensible, according to Chen.
“When person first dies it’s incredibly important to have a body,” she said. “You have a wake for a whole day or more. The body is cleaned and dressed up in their best clothes and all the friends and relatives come around to pay respects. Then after that, there is a funeral procession and everyone goes to the grave site.”
In China, grieving families even hire professional wailers to join in the funeral procession. At the grave, families burn paper money so their dead family member has money to spend in the afterlife.
“That’s why it is so horrible,” she said of not having a body to bury. “Because in Chinese tradition, death is not just the end of a person’s life, they are going to another world and the family continues to maintain our relations with our ancestors. We live among them all the time and even seek their help.”
The Malaysia Airlines incident increases a sense of disruption and insecurity. “There is no sense of certainty,” said Chen. “You haven’t had the opportunity to pay respects from the passing of this world to the world of the dead. You don’t get to acknowledge and respect their passage into the afterlife.”