Saying goodbye to Timmy
A few days before I headed back to the UK in late August, I received the sad news that a friend in Taipei had taken his own life.
I met Timmy 黃陞霆 during my two-month stay here last summer. I can’t remember exactly the first time I met him. He was one of those friends that slowly diffuses into your memories, until it is strange to think you ever though of them with absolute clarity. He had an extraordinary smile. When I met him in summer 2018, he was about to start his masters at the Taipei National University of the Arts in the autumn.
When I came back this summer, he was one of the first people I saw. We had dinner in Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市) where he showed me some of his recent drawings and we talked about the possibility of him coming back to the UK (he studied for a year in Sunderland, which, if you knew him, is quite a hilarious thought) to feature some of his work in a friend’s exhibition. The next day he was going to Taipei Zoo because they had just received some capybaras. He told me he liked “unusual animals” (怪怪的動物).
The last time I saw him was just over a week before he died. We bumped into each other in Ximen station – no mean feat in a city the size of Taipei – where he told me he recently had a two-day interview for a job, but had just found out that he got it and would be starting really soon.
I found out he had passed two days before I was due to go back to the UK for a friend’s wedding. When in the UK, I was told that his funeral would be taking place on the day I was due to fly back to Taipei. I managed to change my ticket so I could get back in time.
I hadn’t attended a Taiwanese funeral before. On the way to the funeral home, or binyiguan 殯儀館, my apprehension of violating a custom was oddly allayed by a reminder of Taiwan’s brilliance: the bus is free for all those that are travelling to the funeral home. I internally bemoaned the extortionate cost of parking in NHS hospitals back home.
From the outside, the binyiguan resembled something akin to a large shopping centre, about four storeys tall, and painted an inoffensive beige. It was right next to the major arterial road that leads out to the south-east of the city, so there was a constant low din of traffic. Each floor of the building had three or four halls where services were taking place. The whole operation clearly ran like clockwork; attendants working at the services, wearing black suits and white gloves, bustled through the corridors, and vans were constantly driving in and out of the car park, offloading the huge arrangements of flowers that would sit on the altars.
Timmy’s took place on the ground floor. As we walked in, the attendants handed us a rose and ushered us inside. The first thing everyone saw as they walked in was his face; someone had made a vast cut out of him, complete with a typically beaming smile, and placed it just behind the row of flowers on the altar. At the back of the hall, there was a small exhibition of his drawings and prints.
In one of those small exhibitions mounted on the wall, I was really happy to see a small rainbow flag. Speaking to another of his friends afterwards, she mentioned that the difficulty of being gay in Taiwan was something he noted in the letter left behind. Another of his friends, during the ceremony, said that Timmy had taught him how to, “表現愛”, “to express love”. The elder of his two younger brothers said that he admired Timmy for how brave he was to be himself, and that he wished he could be a bit more like him.
Timmy was interested in the male form (to put it lightly), and its relationship with nature. Naked male bodies featured heavily in his recent work, and normally focused on the (erect) penis, sometimes suggestively supplanted by a beautifully ornate cactus. Whilst away from Taiwan in the past year, I would often chuckle each time I saw a new one posted on his dedicated Instagram account, and then admire the amazing skill required to produce them.
At one point during the service, the attendants moved the easels up from the back of the hall, so that those gathered could see the drawings during the service. During the speeches, some of his friends had also arranged for the slow piano music to be replaced by the quite heavy techno music that Timmy loved. The resulting effect, being embraced by drawings of erect penises whilst listening to techno music, was inescapably comical given the circumstances, but definitely something that Timmy would have found amusing too.
These often humorous, often strange, juxtapositions are commonplace at rituals that recognise death. The usually mundane, sometimes business-like, venues where funerals take place always seem to pale in comparison to the reverence we have for death. And the totality we ascribe to it makes anything in the services clearly marked by human fallibility seem completely farcical. Why is the microphone not working properly? Why have you left the cursor smack bang in the middle of the screen displaying pictures of him? Why is your phone repeatedly ringing now?
After the speeches, everyone processed around his body for the final time. He was in a wooden casket in a small room directly behind the altar. His family members surrounded him as everyone walked past. As we walked, we placed the rose given to us at the foot of the coffin which, at first sight, looked too small to house him.
Nothing prepares you for the literalness of a dead body, especially that of a friend. A corpse is totally expressionless, motionless; nothing that can be described in the active or positive. The embalming process made his skin look candied.
At dinner later that evening, a friend remarked that seeing his body in the coffin will not be what he remembers of Timmy, but him smiling and dancing. I completely agreed. But in my mind, in the moment that I saw him, I still wanted to reach out and gently curve each side of his mouth, so that he would at least be cremated wearing the angelic smile everyone knew him for.
In the final part, his friends lined each side of the passageway that ended at the crematorium. Two flute players played as they led the procession of his coffin, followed by his family, to the crematorium. As the procession passed those lining the corridor, the person on each side peeled off and joined the back, slowly walking until we had all arrived.
The cremation struck me, and I think some others too, as one of the hardest moments of the whole service. Until that point, there was still something substantial we could all point to and say, however fallacious, “that is Timmy”. After the cremation, what Timmy is became irrevocably immaterial; the words of those that describe him, and the memories people have of him. Being reminded of this, however briefly, can feel overwhelming but also liberating. Appearing in the thoughts and words of people we care about is all we are ever reducible to.
It is a difficult to find a nodule of consolation in the death of someone so young and joyous. Even still, I, and all of the many many people who came to say goodbye, would probably just agree we were glad to be able to share a little time with him.