A Feminist Eulogy? By Grace Yia-Hei Kao


My grandmother, my last living grandparent, recently died. She was 84 years old. Because I’ve just come back from Taiwan where I participated in all of her funerary rites and delivered a eulogy therein, I’ve been thinking a lot about memorializing the dead.  Is there such a thing as a “feminist”  or feminist Christian way to remember the dead? What, if any, are the components of a feminist eulogy?

My grandmother saw incredible change in her life: she was born under Japanese rule, lived through the decades-long imposition of martial law (after Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists fled the mainland in defeat from the Communists in 1949), and witnessed firsthand the “Taiwan miracle” of rapid industrialization and growth in the latter part of the 20th century.

I knew her best, however, in the context of family: as a woman who worked alongside of my grandfather who was a doctor in southern Taiwan, who served as something like a home caretaker/nurse for him after he became semi-paralyzed mid-life from a  stroke, and who capably raised four kids and then came to cherish her ten grandchildren from them.

I reproduce below a slightly redacted version of the eulogy I delivered, which my mom then translated into Taiwanese. I confess that as I was writing (and even delivering) it, the feminist in me was worried that I would be reinforcing–as opposed to interrogating–the idea that “good” women should serve others selflessly. (And that was a particular concern of mine because I knew a good portion of those assembled believed that).

Ama

A-ma was a constant presence in my life, even though she triangulated between our house, my auntie and uncle’s house in San Marino, and her own and other relatives’ homes in Taiwan. My earliest memories of A-ma was of her cooking, cleaning, taking care of A-gong [grandfather], and reading the Bible. I can’t recall one episode when I heard her complain; she accepted her caretaking responsibilities with grace.

Even with our language barrier, she did whatever she could to help my brother and me. When I was in elementary school, A-ma would generously send a large package of new clothes every summer for my brother and me to wear – this was in the late 1970s and 1980s, before clothes became inexpensive in the U.S.

I also remember that in fifth grade, A-ma sewed me a beautiful pink dress and pink hat for “Civil War Day” and I won first prize for my costume. She was very proud.

My fondest memory of A-ma when I was little girl, however, was when we used to go digging for clams. We would roll up our pants and the sleeves of our shirts and feel for clams with our toes. A-ma always managed to find the largest ones. After soaking and rinsing them, she would steam them for our whole family to enjoy. These were some of the best meals of my life.

Apart from the birth of my two children in the last five years, Ama was present at every major milestone in my life: from my college graduation, to graduate school graduation, to my wedding day.

I will also never forget the fun times we had when we were on vacation. I especially remember the look of glee on her face when she helped to reel in a 150 lb. marlin in Cabo San Lucas and then began practically lecturing the person cleaning and filleting the fish not to waste any of it and to keep the eggs.

The only memory I have of A-ma upset about anything was on our trip to Alaska. When we were walking around town one afternoon, we came across a fishery that was giving away two 15-20 lb. salmon to each adult for free. This kind of giveaway was relatively common for fisheries in Alaska to control the prices when the supply was great, but it was probably a novel experience for her.

She could barely believe that without doing any work or paying any money, our family could bring home approximately 75-100 lbs. of fresh salmon. We literally had to drag her away from the scene; and every time we thought we had convinced her to leave (because we didn’t have any way to transport the fish all the way home to California), she would double-back and beg us to find a way to bring the fish home. We were all laughing and almost crying from laughter at the same time. 

The story that I will end with is what I learned most from A-ma. It was nothing that she explicitly taught me, but something I learned nevertheless from her example.

Many years ago when I was in junior high, I watched her once sweep the kitchen floor with a broom. She then got out a dust pan and brushed all the dirty stuff into it. In the dust pan was what you’d expect to find: bits of paper, hair, bread crumbs, and grains of rice. What she did then totally shocked me. She carefully separated out the grains of rice from the rest of the trash. She then washed the rice, patted each grain dry, then put the rice grains back in the place where my mom stores her rice.

As a young teenager I marveled at how she went through that much trouble to save, say, 10 grains of rice. But as I matured I came to reflect on what she vividly demonstrated for me:

Food is precious and should never be wasted.

Some things in life are meant to be thrown away; some things are meant to be preserved.

It is worth the time and effort to save the things of value.

We should cherish what we have and not take anything for granted, as all our blessings come from God.

Thank you Ama for being in my life and for modeling for me service, hard work, and love. You will be sorely missed.

While I had eulogized my grandmother for her work ethic and thrift– virtues that generally raise no in-principle objections from feminists, I had also highlighted her selfless devotion to family–and readers of this blog know that feminists have long interrogated the trope of the endlessly self-sacrificial woman. I know that critique to be warranted and I also really did experience my A-ma’s gentle and dutiful care of others as a virtue (not a tragedy) and a mark of character.

I remain, then, with some (feminist) cognitive dissonance. At a minimum, I was grateful that the eulogies offered by the pastor as well as my brother and two cousins in absentia not only highlighted some of the themes that I had, but also lifted up unique aspects of who she was.  How she could often get my grandfather’s patients to comply with “doctor’s orders” when he couldn’t. How she loved roller coasters even as a senior.  Or how she had opened up a noodle shop in her 70s in Taiwan “for fun.”

What do you think? Ought feminists to memorialize the dead “differently”? How so?

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology  and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two co-edited book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives. You can learn more about her life and work on her personal website.



Categories: Aging, Ancestors, Christianity, Death and Dying, Family, Taiwanese American

Tags: , , ,

24 replies

  1. Blessed be the memories of your Ama and all our Grandmas.

    I don’t think it wrong to appreciate women who seemed to “find themselves” in traditional roles of giving to others. As feminists many of us have not chosen those roles for ourselves. Yet in many ways we remain the beneficiaries of the women including mothers, grandmothers, and aunties who gave generously to us. I started to write self-lessly and therein is the rub. Generosity of spirit is something many of us have lost in the modern world and in our struggles to prove ourselves equal to men. How to find the spirit of great generosity within ourselves without losing ourselves in the process is something few of us have been able to do.

    My hero Charles Hartshorne said that “to love your neighbor as yourself” implies loving yourself too. This is true.

    We also need to recognize that not all women have been happy in traditional roles that were thrust upon them. But this should not make us feel somehow wrong for celebrating the goodness in women who found meaning in them.

    Blessed be Ama and Grandma.

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  2. Lovely. I, too, was devoted to my grandmother, also my grandfather. Like our grandmother, they lived long lives and saw enormous change. Bright blessings to all our grandparents.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this post and your memories! I feel inspired to write about the speech (eulogy?!) I gave at my own grandmother’s memorial service in May of this year. I definitely have some ideas about how it connects to feminism!

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  4. Grace —

    I understand your dilemma, but in thinking ahead to what I might say about my 90-year-old mother when she dies, it seems that I would want to celebrate her life more or less in the terms that she framed it, and for her family was at the top of the list of her priorities. She ran my father’s business, but in a sense that was incidental to what she valued. She still values family above all else, and that’s why she’s going to move to Madison, where I live, since more of her family lives here than anywhere else. I would have lived her life differently, but SHE lived it, not me.

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    • Nancy – I loved the point you just made; it echoes that Carol said above. Yes, we women make different choices; and honoring women for their course of action does seem to be the right thing to do so. My concern was in part contextual — so many folks in the room share the view of “a woman’s place is in…” and so I was worried then (and am, I suppose, less worried now) that I reaffirmed their view in my eulogy.

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    • Carol – again, I appreciate your wisdom and your helping me to see and think about things that I just couldn’t! :)

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  5. I think the most important thing that matters to me as a feminist is a person’s character. For me, it does not matter the path or vocation a woman, or male, chooses but how one acts, thinks and move in this world. Grace, the most moving part of this reflection, to me, are the lessons you learned from your grandmother and her care of rice. Am I wrong to say that in Asian cultures, more so, that rice is a staple food. I wonder if her care for rice also reflected her value and care for a stable and grounded family. Like you, my sisters and I call the matriarch on my dad’s side of the family, “Ama.” In Spanish it means love. For us, she embodies love. I find it interesting that you also call her “A-ma.” May she rest in peace.

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    • Wow, Theresa – didn’t know the Spanish-Taiwanese correlates! Yes, rice is the staple food in many East Asian cultures. In Taiwanese, the phrase “have you eaten yet?” is literally “have you eaten rice yet?” There are some Asian American theologians who talk about “ricing the community” — ways of spreading hospitality through rice. But yes, I would agree with you that character matters way more than vocation. Thank you for taking the time to read my reflections and for sharing yours!

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      • Interesting, “have you eaten yet?” is literally “have you eaten rice yet?” It seems to me Grace that there are layers of profound significance in your grandmother’s sensitivity to the sacrality of rice. So beautiful. Peace.

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  6. One of my Malaysian colleagues once reflected that for Christians in his country, “Christ is the *rice* of life”–literally their lifeline, present at every meal, something they touched daily. I like the idea of your A-ma “salvaging” those precious grains as a way of participating in the “sodzoic” (Gk) work of Christ.

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    • Duane – thanks for offering me this reflection. All of these comments are encouraging me to think even more deeply about what my A-ma did. Perhaps some version of these reflections will make it into our co-edited book on Asian American Christian Ethics!

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  7. Interesting, Duane. “Christ as the rice of life.” My only thought is, in some ways, it is a colonial image. Still, it is an interesting metaphor to me.

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  8. Yes, Teresa. He argued that “rice of life” was less colonial than “bread of life” or “lamb of God” in the Malaysian context. (He thought it should be “Jesus is the Piglet of God” instead!)

    Interesting, Grace; “to eat” in Thai is also literally “eat rice.”

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  9. That was so beautiful. Thank you. I get the contextual issue. As a Muslim, we have the same gendered expectations of women and the same problematic praise for those who fulfill them. So I too feel discomfort at times praising women’s strength in traditional gender roles because I fear that it feeds the old regime and keeps it alive. But I felt like your praise of her was not for fulfilling her gendered role well, but for being a beautiful human being in the gendered world in which she lived. It also made me think of all the women in my life who have served, and who continue to serve others, in whatever their situations are, because that is what human beings do for one another. Sometimes that service is resistance. Sometimes that service is care. (and both and more all at once!) The fact of the matter is that her care contributed to your ability to serve through resistance. To me, you offering up your memories of her inspiring presence in your life is a testament to that fact.

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    • Laury – thank you for reading my blog, your affirming words, and your own thoughtful reflection about the issues I raise in your own context. The work of memorialization is indeed important, albeit difficult, stuff!

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      • Hi Laury and Grace —

        I just watched “The Butler” last night, and in a more social (rather than personal or family) context, it raises the same questions raised here. In the film, Cecil Gaines’ service for the President of the U.S. and those around him was seen as demeaning by Gaines’ son, who went off and protested the treatment of African-Americans as a member of the Freedom Riders, with Martin Luther King, and then, for a short time, with the Black Panthers. Being a “house negro” in the White House reproduced for the son the same disparities that existed on the plantation. And as the film demonstrates those disparities existed in pay differentials (until Ronald Reagan’s term) between black and white staff doing the same work. But Cecil never felt that his work was demeaning, but saw it instead as important and necessary work. And the film also shows that he’s right (and that so is his son — more is needed to create change than just doing your work well). Interesting parallels, I think.

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