On the last day of Grandma’s funeral, we gathered at the crematorium. The entire extended family, a few dozen of us, filed slowly into a two-story air-conditioned viewing gallery with a floor-to-ceiling glass pane at one end. We entered above and made our way downward, just like in a stadium or amphitheater, except there were no seats. The gallery looked onto a room, sealed-off, warmly lit, empty save for the parallel rails, like train tracks, that were set into the floor.

In Singapore, space constraints mean that burial is a luxury. Old cemeteries have had to be relocated, their graves exhumed, to make space for the living. Most people, like Ah Ma, are cremated, their ashes placed in vast columbaria in rows upon rows of niches like tiny apartments.

Once we had all gathered, a hole opened in the wall, and Ah Ma’s coffin slid slowly out. The coffin was being guided by an automated cart on the tracks, and it appeared to move of its own accord. There was no sound, only motion.

After reaching the middle of the room, it paused. I don’t remember how long it stopped, but at some point, the coffin started to move again, and when it reached the other side, it paused one final time, facing the wall. A second opening revealed itself, and the coffin slid through it into the beyond. The opening shut silently. That was the last we saw of Ah Ma.

A day later, a crematorium assistant handed us a small box. Inside, a few palm-sized fragments of bone in a fine pale powder—Ah Ma’s ashes. In the heat of the cremation chamber, temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit completely vaporize flesh and bodily fluids and leave only pieces of bone, which are later compacted into powder. Cremation accomplishes in a matter of hours what burial takes months or even years to do.

This milky-gray powder was all that was left of Ah Ma (and Gong Gong, too, just a few years earlier). The powder looked completely innocuous, yet I couldn’t bear touching it. I watched as other family members picked through the remains and chose the fragments they’d like to have placed in the urn.

In the biblical creation account, God forms us out “of dust from the ground” by breathing life into it (Gen. 2:7 ESV). We come from dust and, in the fire of cremation, return to it.

God could have formed us ex nihilo, out of nothing, just as God had made light, the heavens, and the earth, by simply calling them into existence. God could have said, “Let there be humankind.” But instead, we were created when God imbued dust, of all things, with life. Or to put it another way, without divine intervention, we are nothing but dust.

Nothing but dust. If you think about it, that’s a misnomer. Dust, or clay or soil in some biblical translations, is rich with time. It holds what remains when the seasons have had their way—inorganic mineral sediment left over from the slow weathering and erosion of rocks and the organic remnants of plants, animals, and human beings that have long passed on. The smallest fleck of dust, lying unobtrusively in the corner of the room, might carry some minuscule part of everything that has ever existed.

Dust was also a prominent feature in the landscape of the Old and New Testaments. To be sure, there were lush valleys in the Southern Levant in the time of ancient Israel and Judah, but the rocky, dusty wilderness—the Negeb, the Transjordan, and the Sinai regions—was the backdrop to so much of the biblical narrative.[1] God was revealed to the Hebrews as they wandered for decades in this barren expanse; David fled from Saul, scrambling over dry rocks, seeking refuge in caves; Jesus was tempted in the parched wilderness.

And in that arid region, dust was a fact of daily life: It got in your eyes, caught in your sandals, clung to the soles of your feet. It blanketed the ground thick enough that Jesus could stoop to write in it. But it was not just in the landscape; it was in the culture, too. You sprinkled it on your head as a sign of mourning; you shook it off your feet as a serious rebuff.[2]

Some authors think that biblical pictures of heaven and the afterlife run rich with images of lush, abundant growth—“a land flowing with milk and honey”—because these were the very things that a barren desert landscape could not sustain.[3] 

But no, this would be missing the point. That arid, barren region was precisely the land that God chose to inhabit, the land chosen for the story of redemption. And these flecks of filthy, unassuming dirt were exactly what God intended to use in fashioning something of eternal value.

On Ash Wednesday, when celebrants mark their foreheads with ash, the minister proclaiming, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return, we don’t acknowledge only the fragility of human life but also the value and significance of something as tiny and fleeting as a stray mote of dust, twisting in the wind.

The night before Ah Ma was cremated, Taoist priests built a huge bonfire in a cage in an open field. Like many Chinese immigrants to Singapore, Ah Ma held a blend of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian values. The souls of the deceased, according to the Taoists, need to find peace before they can depart for their new home in the underworld, so for a few nights after she passed, there was chanting, music, and processions as the priests ushered her soul safely into the afterlife.[4]

It is also common for mourning families to offer up items like money, furniture, electronic goods, mansions, and even servants for the deceased to enjoy in the afterlife.[5] Families do this by purchasing joss-paper replicas of these items and incinerating them. During the funeral, I watched as my relatives, mainly the older women, sat and folded stacks of joss-paper money to resemble boat-shaped sycees, a type of ingot. When cast into the bonfire, these would be made available to the dead, revealing their true value as the heat reduced them to dust.

In the dark, we watched as the fire got going, the flames building rapidly as they consumed the joss-paper money—so much smoke and grit in the air, and an orange glow on everyone’s faces. I remember Pa once told me that Ah Ma used to work the granite quarries on the island after the war. Miners would use dynamite to dislodge chunks of rock and then process them into raw material for construction projects. The work must’ve been punishing in the tropical heat, their sweat mixing with quarry dust and dripping off their faces onto the sandy ground. I wonder what Ah Ma thought of all that dust.

Early the next morning, dawn broke over the open field, revealing a largely empty cage, its metal cold to the touch. All that was left of the replicas and reams of joss-paper money was a pile of ashes.

[1] See Holman Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Wilderness,” https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/w/wilderness.html.

[2] See ATS Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Dust,” https://biblehub.com/topical/d/dust.htm.

[3] See, for instance, Lisa Miller, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010).

[4] See Khoo Boo Eng, A Simple Approach to Taoism: Festivals, Worship, and Rituals (Singapore: Partridge, 2014).

[5] Many of these replicas are intricately designed, bearing a striking resemblance to sought-after commodities in this life, such as designer European cars and the latest mobile phones. Some have traced these practices back a couple of millennia to the Chinese practice of burying miniature houses and treasured items together with the deceased, as a means of expressing the Confucian virtue of filial piety. Over time, this practice melded with Buddhist and Taoist beliefs in an afterlife. See, for instance, Richard Lee, an academic at the National University of Singapore, in “Burning Down the House,” in Home on the Dot, written and produced by Tang Hui Jun, Chan Weng Kin, and Chris McMorran, August 18, 2018, https://blog.nus.edu.sg/homeonthedot/2018/08/18/burning-down-the-house-transcript/.