This account documents the author’s challenges getting her father-in-law’s body released from the hospital after dying from COVID and being accepted by a funeral home during the current COVID surge. Written by a Beijing-based blogger and translated by filmmaker Yan Cui.

A few years past the first recorded cases of COVID-19, it seems as though we are still in the eye of the storm. This forum features attempts to process how we understand this unfolding crisis that, like the virus itself, continues to mutate and transform.

Goodbye, Old Chen Chen

By J. J.

Translated by Yan Cui

December 28, 2022

I woke up in the morning, and said to myself, “This is the first morning in the whole world without Old Chen Chen.” I then quickly realized that this must be how Lizi (my husband) was missing his dad now. At this time yesterday, we were all stuck outside the ICU at a hospital, trying hard to figure out what the doctor meant when he said, “No more medication is recommended.”

He seemed to be a very respectful doctor. “We have been treating him with various medications, but now his vital signs are very weak, and his heart rate is basically flat… with some occasional pulses. So, I suggest we stop the drugs…they’re no longer effective.”

His voice sounded so careful and gentle; I could barely hear it. My husband and his sister didn’t get it at all.

“You asked us to come here today to declare that, after all the necessary life-saving efforts, the old man is already dead; am I right?” I didn’t want to accept this.

“Well, well, I guess you can say that,” said the doctor, who became suddenly shy and looked away. “That is… since you signed in the do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order, no additional life-saving measures will be administered, so we have to declare his death.”

DNR meant that methods such as intubation and defibrillation would not be used on my husband’s 88-year-old father, who had been suffering heart failure for quite some time. Due to his Covid infection, his organs started to shut down. He was rushed and transferred from the Fuwai local hospital emergency unit to the ICU of a much better and bigger military hospital.

The next day, dad was moved out again from the ICU, which was jammed with other screaming patients, as if they were crowded in a railway station during the Chinese New Year holiday. But dad only lived for one more day in a cardiology intensive care room. Then he was gone.

The doctor quickly disappeared into the ICU after informing Old Chen Chen’s family members of his death. It seemed like the hardest part for the doctor was now over.

He then hid back in the ICU, waiting for dad to die thoroughly, so he could print out a long electrocardiogram displaying a completely flat line and issue us dad’s death certificate.

We didn’t realize what really happened to dad until this moment…

We went into scramble mode, given that funeral homes and crematoriums in Beijing were more difficult these days to get into than scoring opening ceremony tickets for the 2008 Olympic Games. After all the fights over ambulances and hospital beds, we now had to struggle to make sure our dead loved one would be moved into a morgue and crematorium so that Old Chen Chen would be given the dignity he deserved at the end of his life.

We were told that the ashes of someone who died last week would not be ready for pickup until 25 days later. Meanwhile, I observed doctors busy contacting the hotline of the Civil Affairs Bureau, begging that they would send hearses over ASAP and pick up dead bodies stacked up in the morgues of major hospitals.

I saw an old woman’s dead body from the night before not yet removed; there were several others left out with my dad in the intensive care unit. Several red-faced doctors and nurses, who tested positive with runny noses and coughs behind masks, were running around in desperation, trying to rescue those severe patients who were still alive.

My sister-in-law had been in contact with the veterans’ funeral office, hoping that dad’s body would be picked up by a government agency due to his service as a medical doctor in the Korean War. But there was no chance. So, we turned to our friends who could call all the funeral homes in Beijing’s suburbs such as Daxing, Miyun, Shijingshan, and Mentougou. But we were told either there were no vehicles available, or no staff available to carry and help dress a corpse even though they could send a car with a driver to the hospital gate; so, the only question was, how could we carry the body out of the ICU to the gate?

 It was a mission impossible, period. The ICU ruled that only staff from licensed funeral home were allowed to come in and carry the body. But all the funeral homes in Beijing could only provide a driver and a makeshift hearse to the hospital gate. Even though they were able to carry the body into the car, they wouldn’t necessarily send it to a crematorium, but to some place where the body could be kept frozen, while waiting for a cremation slot to open up. And during this “special time,’” there would be no funeral or ceremony to say goodbye. Nothing.

I thought about my mother-in-law. Poor mom, her fever had just gone down. She hadn’t seen her husband since he was rushed to the hospital two days ago. How could we tell her that the love of her life had become nothing but ashes in a small box? No way… We had to let her see him one last time.

We made calls to all the relatives in front of the ICU, notifying them of the heartbreaking news that Old Chen Chen had passed away. I saw the children of that old woman, who died last night, rush in, ringing the bell nonstop. They demanded that the doctor “release their mother” so they could see her and take her body with them… but their efforts were in vain.

Looking at the scene unfold before me; I didn’t know what to think…The hospital would neither release a body to a family member nor allow a family go in to see their dead loved one and dress him or her for the last time. What the hell was going on here?

Couldn’t blame the doctors, as they seemed helpless, desperately trying to explain the hospital’s rules in a lower voice and soft tone. First, officially licensed funeral agencies or agents took advantage of the current Covid situation and raised the prices sky-high, charging ¥40,000-50,000 RMB (about $6,000-7,500 USD) per head for cremation. This situation was intolerable and needed to be stopped. Secondly, there was a huge concern, what if some unlicensed funeral companies sold the body parts of the dead patients illegally? Too big a risk for the hospital to deal with.

The children of the old woman were no youngsters, and they didn’t want to back down just yet. So desperate were that they eventually persuaded an unlicensed agency to pretend to be an “authorized post-mortem transport company;” they wore uniforms from an official funeral home to smuggle their mother out of the hospital.  

We finally found a friend of a friend of my husband, who worked at the Babaoshan Cemetery (the most well-known national cemetery in China, reserved for high-status officials). He promised that he could help us, but there were two conditions: He would have to drive his own black Buick to carry the body and store it at Babaoshan since the cemetery had no cars available. And he could only do it tonight…and it would be up to us to find a way to move dad’s body out to the hospital gate to his car, where he would be waiting.

We had no time to waste. Our oldest aunt rushed back home to prepare the clothes for dad, while updating mom and other relatives. My cousin drove all the way from Tangshan with his wife to see dad off. But they had to leave their car outside the Third Ring (cars without Beijing licenses are not allowed to enter Beijing within the Third Ring) before they arrived at the hospital. Meanwhile, I was running all over the place, going through all the required hospital procedures before they would give us the green light to issue a death certificate for dad.

I saw that old woman’s body finally carried out by her children and the “fake” funeral agent after a big scene they made at the hospital. A cleaning lady from the ICU carried a bundle of old woman’s clothes and dropped them next to the garbage bin near the elevator’s door. I stared at those clothes, and kept thinking that they were more than just her clothes but…

 “This is the most devastating scene I’ve ever seen all month.” The cleaning lady said.

I suddenly looked up at her. “Hasn’t anyone made it out of here alive this month? Anyone gotten better and transferred from ICU to the general ward?”

“None! Not even one!” She looked back at me. “Some of them were able to eat by themselves when they arrived. But a day or two later when they found themselves unable to eat, they all ended up having nasogastric tubes inserted for feeding. Once the nasal feeding no longer worked, they died. There were not enough nurses to feed them anyway.”

I didn’t know how to react to this.

“There were no operations this month, all stopped, because they didn’t want the wounds to be infected by the virus. All they did was to put everyone on an IV. I saw a 33-year-old woman who came here, very much alive; she talked and ate, she was fine, but then she died in a week.” The cleaning lady lowered her head.  

“No one was given any medical treatment for Covid just an IV.” I imagined that someone like dad didn’t get anything before he died. Who would help him eat here when he was even having trouble swallowing pills?

I thought that we had to change the clothes for dad and carry him to the hospital gate where “our friend” said he would wait for us in his Buick; but also, we had to figure out how to let a grieving wife and mother see her husband for the very last time.  

We ran home to fetch dad’s clothes and brought mom back with us to the hospital. We knocked on the ICU’s door and were met by the head nurse as the morning doctors were all done for the day. We asked her again if we could go in and get dad dressed. The head nurse said no. She was unwavering.

“Okay then, if you don’t let us do it, we’ll have to just leave the body here. We’ll cancel the hearse that the funeral home is sending and leave the body here for you to deal with. You can contact the Civil Affairs Bureau to handle it; but we’re not coming back to collect the body. It’s hot in here. You’ll have figure out how you can keep a body here. We’ll just leave it to the government to deal with it.” We were finished.

A look of hesitation flashed across the head nurse’s face. She went inside and consulted with the doctor on duty. A few minutes later, she came out. “We can only allow one of you in. The son will be okay.”

We argued again. There was no way one person could do it, let alone an old man.  The cleaning lady tried to help us, questioning how one person could possibly lift the body and dress him at the same time. The head nurse gritted her teeth behind her mask. “Okay. Two of you then.”

Lizi and I ducked into the ICU. After putting all the protective shields on, we were ushered into the glass compartment where bodies were kept separately. The room was a lot bigger and quieter than I expected.

Thank God, I had laid out dad’s shroud, underwear, and the traditional Chinese suit all together while waiting in the corridor. I also brought a pair of pants for him. We also brought in a bottle of hard liquor, Erguotou, ready for scrubbing and cleansing dad’s body (when my father passed away, a staff at the funeral home taught me how to cleanse the body this way; she said it was better than the medical alcohol.)

We stood in front of dad’s body, covered with a white sheet. We lifted the sheet slowly, and what we didn’t want to see appeared before our eyes. Dad was naked, cold, hard-shelled, and his face had turned dark green. It had been ten hours since the doctor declared him dead that morning. My husband couldn’t hold it in any longer and started sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly opened the bottle of Erguotou, cleansing dad’s body with it, while mumbling to him, “Dad, we came to take you home. Mom, sister, Dandan and the cousin from Tangshan, are all waiting for you outside. Don’t be afraid…”

Fearing that dad would be embarrassed by my presence, I wiped his upper body and Lizi joined me and wiped the lower part. Time was very tight. We did it carefully and gently while chatting to him. I remembered what a senior fellow from a Buddhist group told me that his mother came back in his dream and asked him if he wiped her private parts clean after she died. So, I told my husband to make sure to wipe dad’s private parts clean. Poor dad, he hadn’t eaten anything for three days, as there was no poop, no urine, and no vomit. He certainly left this world exceptionally clean.

When we started dressing him, we failed right away as his arm was too stiff to bend. Of course, we would never want to break his bones. Suddenly, the cleaning lady showed up after finishing her shift. She instructed Lizi lift dad’s body to let his arms drop naturally, then, starting from the sleeves, she and I pulled the jacket up from his hands, just like how a tailor would size an unfinished suit on his customer.

Since we moved dad’s body, his nose began to run, a light red discharge came out. I knew right away that this must be a great sign for dad as my Buddhist master and his senior fellows helped dad release his soul well from suffering. I was extremely grateful.

I placed his hat on his head, tied his silk scarf around his neck, covered him with a big red Dolani quilt, and sprinkled golden emery on top of his body (a Buddhist rite to help him on his journey). Dad looked solemn and serene. I chanted Buddhist sutras and then grabbed Lizi with me, kneeling in front of dad together and kowtowing three times.

We then wondered if we should wheel dad out and let mom and our relatives say goodbye to him now or wait until the Buick arrived. The timing was extremely critical – if we let dad out too late, the relatives would not be happy waiting for so long outside; but if we let him out too soon, it might be too much for mom to bear; she might cry her heart out and faint… then we would have to save her.

The Buick finally arrived at the west gate of the hospital; our friend called in. Lizi ran out to talk to the driver, leaving me alone with dad. I asked the nurse if I could push the gurney dad was on out to the gate. I couldn’t manage it by myself. The nurse looked at the doctor’s empty office and gave in, determinedly. “Let’s go, I’ll help you. But make sure you bring the gurney back.”

The nurse quickly removed a pile of tubes and wires away from the bed and helped me push the gurney to the ICU door. She swiped a card as the double doors opened and we smuggled our dad out like human trafficking criminals. As soon as mom saw dad, she rushed over and cried uncontrollably. Thankfully, our relatives were there by her side.

We then wheeled the big bed into the elevator, out of the cardiology building, and across the hospital campus followed by an emaciated and sobbing mom and our relatives. Dad’s godson helped push the end of the gurney, while my sister-in-law and I steered. It was difficult to push the four wheels over the uneven road and the loud squeaky sound made all the pedestrians we walked past turn their heads. Dad’s bed was fighting with all its worth to move to the gate as if it were a tiny boat floating in the sea… we finally reached the other side where Lizi was pleading with the Security Guard to let the Buick wait there a few more minutes.

Mom lagged behind. She sent me a message via her granddaughter, “Please, no need to hurry; I want to spend more time with dad.” But I could not afford to slow down for a minute because if I did, I was afraid that the satin quilt, jacket, and hat we dressed dad in would all be stripped away due to the size of the body bag when we moved his body to the car. I didn’t want mom to see as skinny dad being thrown into a small plastic bag on this horrible winter night. She couldn’t bear it. But when the driver opened the trunk, to our surprise we found a paper-brocade coffin sitting inside like a gift box that was ten times better than the body bag. I was relieved.

Now we had four men available, Lizi, my godson, my cousin, and the driver who could easily carry the coffin out, place dad’s body inside, and place the coffin back in the Buick. Mom still made a big scene there, crying like a baby that caused passersby’s heads to turn, dumbfounded. We asked my sister-in-law to accompany mom home, while Lizi and I jumped into the Buick and headed to Babaoshan Cemetery.

It was dark now. Even though it was a short distance, it took us an hour to get there from the hospital. The traffic was horrendous all the way to Babaoshan, where many policemen guarded the front gate. I could never imagine in a million years that our driver who was a senior staff working there could not even get us in. It was completely jammed inside with many cars lined up, delivering dead bodies from all over the city. Finally, our driver managed to find a security guard who helped usher us in to the office area. As soon as we unloaded dad’s body from his car, our driver sped off to help another family who had just lost their loved one.

We went through all the paperwork. Another hour passed by. The office was crowded with many anxious and frustrated families like ours. But what could we do once we saw all the officers with swollen eyes, too tired to talk? Finally, thanks to the fact that we had some government connections, we scored gold and got dad a slot for cremation the next morning. But we were informed that only four immediate family members would be allowed to be present for the cremation.

I was told repeatedly, “Four only, no more, and there won’t be any farewell ceremony.” Okay I got it. All we were allowed to do was to take a last look at dad once he was pulled out of the refrigerator. A confirmation of his identity? We were too exhausted to argue anymore. We needed to go home right away and see if mom was okay, and we had to come back soon to complete all the paperwork required for the cremation in the morning.

I slept fully dressed for a couple of hours that night. I was so calm that some weird thought came to my mind: Hey Junjun, you were such an amazing daughter-in-law; you treated your in-laws better than a lot of daughters treat their own parents. My whole body began to ache and I could feel myself slipping. I myself had been “positive” for five days, and I wasn’t feeling well at all.

When I fell back to sleep in a daze, I heard Lizi’s sobbing, it came from the bathroom. He cried for a long time in there behind the closing door; he cried so hard he began to vomit.  I didn’t feel like stopping him. I pretended to hear nothing. Well, let him cry, let him release his sadness and anger; otherwise he’ll end up being forced to bottle it up later when he is with his mother and other relatives.

Another thought, it was better that I persuaded him to go home and tell his mom the truth the day before his dad passed away. Only on that day when they all realized that dad might not make it after all this time. They cried together that whole afternoon. It’s good they were able to get those emotions out ahead of time, otherwise, his mom would be too sad to bear it once she got the sad news that morning. Each family has had to endure their own “death education.” We started discussing death in my family once my parents were over seventy; While in Lizi’s family, they never talked about, even after his parents reached their nineties.

As the next morning came, everything in the cemetery went very smoothly and quickly. I started wondering if dad’s cremation went too fast. But later, when dad’s body and even his facial expression appeared in my mind, I felt relieved and made sure that his soul had left his body completely. After dad was gone, we realized that many friends died of Covid, like my mom’s friend, the elderly fellows in my mother-in-law’s nursing home, and our elderly neighbors…… many of them were still waiting in line to be cremated.

After everything was settled, Lizi and I both agreed we should go back to the ICU and thank the cleaning lady who helped us dress dad during that awful night. Lizi put some money in a red envelope for her before we rang the ICU’s doorbell. We told them that we were looking for the cleaning lady. She finally showed up, peeking from behind the door, hesitantly. “Are you looking for me?”

Lizi said yes and thanked her with the red envelope. She repeatedly waved her hands in an attempt to refuse the gift, claiming that was nothing, really.

“Sister, what you did that night was not how most people would have behaved. You really went above and beyond.” Lizi insisted she take the envelope.

She was in shock. Tears running down her face. “I don’t even know what I was doing here in Beijing for the last month.” She said with a deep sigh.

I guessed that she had seen all the dead people in her whole life here. We later learned that she worked in Anshan Steel Factory in Liaoning and came to find a minimal paying job in Beijing after she retired.

She made us reflect on what means to be a truly kind and goodhearted person. She didn’t need to help us at all that night; she had already finished work and was on her way home. But she came back to help us. She even went so far as to pretend she was also from Tangshan; thinking we’d be more open to accepting her help if we were from the same hometown. 

The next morning, I woke up, I remembered dad, Old Chen Chen, his smile, his white beard and eyebrows, and that favorite bakery he brought us to every weekend……but now he was no longer here. This made my heart ache and empty. But he left us with his kindness and happiness. Born on the auspicious holiday celebrating the God of Wealth on the fifth day of the first month of the lunar year, he died on Christmas Day. Old Chen Chen, you have God’s blessing and Christmas joy. But do not come back, Old Chen Chen! Not many things change here on earth. Find another planet to live, at least for a while.

Yan Cui moved from Beijing to Canada, to pursue film studies at Ryerson University and eventually served as Director Residence in the Canadian Film Centre. She also won a fellowship at the PGA Producers Workshop in Los Angeles. Yan has written, directed, and produced five features and many shorts that have won awards internationally, including the Int’l Confederation of Art Cinemas Award at Berlin Film Festival and Best Director at Palm Springs Film Festival for her feature debut, Chinese Chocolate, which has been an official selection by more than 40 film festivals worldwide. Her 2nd film, Yellow Wedding, a co-production between Canada, China, and Singapore, was officially selected by the World Film Festival of Montreal, IFFM New York, Asian Pacific Film Festival, etc. Her Chinese language films are When Africa Meets You, released in China nationwide in 2018; and Love, Simply released in China in 2015. She finished her new feature Pandemic Trilogy recently in loving memory of those who lost their lives to Covid-19.

first looks

A few years past the first recorded cases of COVID-19, it seems as though we are still in the eye of the storm. This forum features attempts to process how we understand this unfolding crisis that, like the virus itself, continues to mutate and transform.