May 6, 2015
With the older folks in my family dying off, I’m going to a lot of funerals. They’ve become affectionate occasions to catch up with relatives. The latest gathering surprised me because I found diversity in the most unexpected location.
When people from Chinatown and Queens choose cremation, their survivors make the 90-minute drive north to Chuang Yen Monastery in the town of Kent. It’s a beautiful place to take in a little piece of Asia, enjoy a vegetarian meal and shop for Chinese trinkets. There’s a towering Buddha in the temple, with Chinese-style buildings built around a central courtyard.
This 125-acre site, located 60 miles north of New York City, is in Putnam County. The population is mostly white. But every weekend, Chinese city folks converge on the monastery, which is also home to the Buddhist Association of the United States.
On a recent Sunday morning, we were among some 60 families that had come to inter the ashes of loved ones in their final resting place. Their remains were sealed in individual marble urns that looked like heavy stone cookie jars. Chanting monks in long brown robes led the way as we fell into line behind them.
The urns were carried to two sweeping outdoor walls filled. The square openings in the walls reminded me of bank safety deposit boxes. Everyone watched as the urns were placed one-by-one into designated slots that were enclosed with brass name plates.
A table of ceremonial food offerings included, of all things, bags of Cheetos and organic corn chips, along with packages of Chinese cookies. Apparently, the need to snack goes on forever.
At these Buddhist ceremonies, mourners often burn decorative paper versions of other supplies for the dead. We didn’t think anything extra was needed for the after-life. But other people burned pretend money and boxes containing little paper cutouts of stuff that could range from furniture to cars.
Not being Buddhist, everything I saw was new to me. Well, almost everything. The gift shop had trinkets that reminded me of Chinatown. And the vegetarian meal, while not spectacular, was good enough. Plus, no one got sick on it — in May 2012, the monastery made headlines when 160 visitors were rushed to the hospital with food poisoning.
I enjoyed catching up with my relatives as we reminisced about our dearly departed auntie. The memories brought on a cozy wave of nostalgia. After a brutal winter, 70+ degree weather felt spectacular. Finding more diversity in the Hudson Valley delighted me. All in all, the experience reminded me to appreciate all that I have. Take nothing for granted!
If you ever want to visit the monastery, this map gives a sense of the layout. The grounds are well maintained, very clean. You can bring your own food too (no meat, please because Buddhists are vegetarian), and eat at picnic tables. Admission is free but donations are welcome.