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How “The Farewell” Brings Diverse Death Traditions To Life

by Abygai Peña


Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is also the second version of the story that Wang deems as “based on a true lie.” The plotline of The Farewell brings Wang’s real life to the silver screen where she is faced with keeping quiet about her grandmother Nai Nai’s terminal illness diagnosis. Wang initially told this story on NPR’s “This American Life” podcast, the episode was titled “What You Don’t Know” where Wang and her family members help narrate and share their feelings about the lie. However, in the film, The Farewell we are looking at the situation primarily through Billi (played by Awkwafina) who is just torn about having to keep fatal information away from her beloved Nai Nai as she struggles to compartmentalize her Western upbringing and Eastern heritage.

In the film, Billi’s family decide to hide her Grandmother’s terminal illness from her in efforts to shield her from the stress of her diagnosis. Billi’s mother, Jian explains that in China they believe that “it’s not the cancer that kills the ill, it’s the fear.” Brian X. Chen from the New York Times wrote a response to The Farewell where he highlights stories from his peers that give insight into their experiences in Asian family dynamics. Chen helps us understand this cultural facet through his own personal reconciliation about his parents hidden divorce, he writes, “The notion of saving face — maintaining dignity and control over one’s emotions — is largely derived from collectivism, an Eastern concept that no person is an island; we are each part of a shared consciousness and represent a group.” Chen is writing about an Eastern ideology of familiar structures that must exist in a sort of holistic harmony. This explains the family’s decision to spare Nai Nai’s feelings about her cancer diagnosis. They decided as a family to hold the burden of her fear so that she can enjoy her remaining years.

Billi finds concealing her grief more difficult than her elder family members. That makes sense, Billi has been raised in New York City as an Asian American with exposure to Western concepts of grief. The most fascinating difference between Eastern and Western expressions of grief were illustrated in The Farewell. In the film, we are introduced to an Asian funeral tradition where care for your deceased loved one is correlated to the tears shed at the ceremony. In the West, we show our care through how much we spend on a funeral. According to Mortician Caitlin Doughty who said in her episode of “The Mental Illness Happy Hour” podcast, “The American funeral industry really started in the early 20th century, but it was after WWII when we had all that money, when the funeral industry became the fancy casket, flowers, wakes, suits, herses- the excess industry that it’s come to be defined by.” This is juxtaposed for Billi who is witnessing more theatrical grieving traditions. There’s actually a market in various regions of Asia for hiring professional mourners who are paid to attend the funerals of strangers to add a flair of theatrical wailing. This was hilariously depicted in the film with melodramatic close-ups of women who are possessed in fits of sobbing, this scene is starkly shown in between a plot exposition introducing a new gravesite location where Billi’s family is visiting her deceased grandfather. 

Watching Billi’s family huddle around the tomb of her deceased grandfather brought me so much nostalgia of summers in Mexico with my family visiting the gravesite of my grandmother and bringing her favorite foods and flowers. We spoke to her and asked for additional protection at her resting place. Mexican traditions tend to include a light-hearted and celebratory grieving ritual. Many of us have heard of Días de los Muertos, which is a tradition that has gone in and out of fashion in Mexico. I actually learned in Caitlin Doughty’s book From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, that the huge Días de los Muertos parade Mexico City was created after the James Bond film Spectre (2016) so that Mexico wouldn’t disappoint tourists. Doughty’s non-fiction novel includes a chapter on Mexico that tells a history of how the holiday was once viewed “as out-moded folklore, practiced by people at the outskirts of civilized society” to a day, “to represent popular culture, tourist culture, and protest culture throughout Mexico.” My family never celebrated Días de los Muertos in the United States. Only in Mexico have I seen skeleton masks or men on stilts among crowds and crowds of people celebrating the dead with food and drink.

thefarewellmourning 41be1The Farewell (2019)

Speaking of drinking, in The Farewell, we saw tons and tons of drinking. Seems similar to what I saw at any of my family junctures. In The Farewell, Wang creates dimensional characters who experience a grief duality as they reconcile with keeping Nai Nai’s terminal diagnosis from her while they see her for the last time. The family decides to bring the entire extended family to China together for a mock wedding, just in case this is the last time they can all unite. Nai Nai is none the wiser, joyously celebrating the return of her family to China, pouring drinks and cooking for the first meal together in almost a decade. This causes the scenes to be fraught with awkwardness that actually helps us watch the family grieve. As the audience we understand that Nai Nai is projected to die soon and so we watch with tension as family members hold back tears through the welcome party where they are being poured glass by Nai Nai for what is probably the last time. Similarly, Latin families drink at births, wakes, funerals, weddings, Wednesdays-you’ll find celebratory drinking at almost any gathering. I distinctly remember the first funeral I attended at age 17. I was there supporting a close family friend whose grandmother had just died of lung cancer and even though most of the people in the room were crying, they were toasting too. There was a toast going around to celebrate the life of my friend’s grandmother. This snapshot of Latin culture reminds me of a quote from Mexican poet Octavio Paz who said of Mexicans and death, “the Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love.” Mexicans tend to prefer fiestas over funerals which is an alternative we choose to celebrate life and honor death. The Farewell reveals a diverse culture of  grief alternatives unknown in the West of carrying grief together.


top photo: still from The Farewell via A24


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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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