FUNERALS IN CHINA
Ashes of the deceased Funerary customs can be quite complex, vary greatly from region and region and incorporate elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, local folk religions, ancient ancestor worship traditions and Communist ideology. Often no stone is left unturned in an effort to address and eliminate all potentials for harm.
The Chinese have traditionally regarded it critical for the dead to be buried. Among the Chinese there is no higher good deed than burying stray bones or covering an uncovered coffins. Confucius said that immediate disposal of the dead was a sign of virtue, submission, love and respect towards one’s elders and superiors.
The Communists dismissed traditional ideas about death and burial. In the Mao era, cremation was made the norm and funerals were discouraged and looked upon as superstitious acts associated with feudalism. Graves were regarded as a waste of good farm land; coffins a waste of wood. In some cities burying bodies was made a crime and the bodies of foreigners were disinterred so the land could be put more constructive uses. The government still discourages body burials and elaborate funerals but these directives are widely ignored.
There are about 8.7 million deaths a year in China. It is a lot of work dealing with all these bodies. The crematoria in Shanghai, which cremate more than 100,000 corpses a year, have neem compared with assembly lines. The average cost of a funeral is $50.
In China, 53 percent of people are cremated, compared to 30 percent in the United States and 99.4 percent in Japan. About a decade ago about two thirds of people were buried rather than cremated. Most people in urban areas are cremated. In rural areas, many are still buried.
Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; China Funeral bearspage.info ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista : Links in this Website: IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN FUNERALS Factsanddetails.com/China
Preparations After Death in China
funeral clothing of close family When it becomes clear that death is near a dying person is moved onto a special bed in the main ceremonial room of the house. This is done because dying in a room where people hang out is unlucky. The ceremonial room contains the “soul tablets” of other relatives that have died.
If possible family members gather around the dead person when he or she dies. After the last breath relatives begin wailing and moaning. The wailing of a daughter is regarded as particularly useful in removing obstacles in the early stages of the journey to afterlife.
The death is announced by hanging blue and white lanterns at the front door. White strips of paper on the left side signify a male has died. White strips on the right side indicate the deceased is a female. Often white banners are hung with red strips of paper with auspicious characters on them. Formal notices printed on white or yellow paper with a strip of blue are handed out. They contain a short biography of the dead and information about the funeral and the family of the deceased. Sometimes formal notices are given to local deities.
Mourners wear plain clothes and don’t wear adornments and in some cases don’t wash. If the death occurred on a “double death day”—a day in which it is thought one death will bring another—special rites are held to prevent death from spreading. A feng shui master is brought in to determine the time and direction the soul will leave the body, the best time to remove the coffin from the room and the best place for burial. At the moment the soul leaves the body everyone is supposed to be out of the room.
Preparations Before a Funeral in China
Funeral bedding of dead is burned In many cases the body is delivered from the hospital to the home and placed in a coffin. Once at home food is given to it every morning and evening and Buddhist sutras are read by family members. On the day of the funeral family members gather around the coffin and tell stories of the deceased.
As soon as possible, the body is ritually washed with warm water. In Taiwan this is done three times. On the mainland the front of the body is washed seven times; the back, eight times. Afterwards the body is dressed in special garment called longevity clothes, which is made of silk if a family can afford it and cotton if they can not. Jade (associated with immortality), pearls, jewelry and coins are generally placed in the mouth and around the body. The face is covered with cloth or paper. Shoes and socks are placed on the feet, which are tied together so the body doesn’t move if it is possessed by evil spirits.
At an auspicious time, the body is placed in a coffin. Wealthy families line the coffin with silk and throw coins on top. Coffins can weigh up to 300 pounds. They are usually painted black or black and red and are filled with pillows, quilts and clothing so the body doesn’t slide around inside. Before the coffin is closed at a moment selected by the fortuneteller of feng shui master the eyes of the deceased are wiped with cotton floss by the wife or eldest son and cakes are placed inside to distract the viscous dogs that wait for the dead in the Underworld.
After the coffin is sealed a series of important rituals are conducted that vary somewhat from place to place, and are known as the “third-day reception” in northern China and “calling back the souls” in most other places. During this period, Taoists hang a picture of the gods near the coffin and pray for admission into the Western Paradise. Buddhists hire monks to “do the sevens”—chants done seven days a week for seven weeks to drive out bad karma and attract merit.
One of the most important elements of a Chinese funeral and Chinese religion in general is the preparation of a soul tablet with the name of the deceased. Before the funeral veneration is directed at a temporary soul tablet. The completed soul tablet is venerated only after the burial is complete. From then on it is the focal point of veneration to the deceased as an ancestor by his or her relatives and is used in all rituals that honor him or her.
Coffins and Embalming in China
An effort is made to make sure the coffin is air tight. This is done by not only securing the lid with nails but also by using caulking material to seal it. If Chinese are present when the coffin is sealed they often make an effort to make sure their back is turned because it believed that of the soul of person who sees a coffin being closed will be trapped in the coffin with the dead. Sometimes dutiful sons give their parents coffins as gifts while they are still alive and these coffins are displayed in the family house with pride.
The Chinese have traditionally been good at embalming and preserving bodies of the dead. In the 1970s, the body of Litsang, the wife of the Marquis of Tai, an official in Hunan Province, who died in 167 B.C., was dug by archeologists and found to be in relatively good condition. The body had been immersed in a liquid preservative and placed in an airtight coffin, which in turn was nested into other boxes, which in turn were surrounded by five tons of charcoal and clay and buried under 60 feet of earth, When the body was found it still weighed 76 pounds; the flesh was moist and firm; the hair was firmly affixed to the scalp; and the joints were flexible. All be the organs except for the brain had shrunk but were still in good condition.
Marco Polo described a Chinese method of preserving bodies with camphor and spices. He said the method preserved the bodies for three years at which time, when auspicious signs were present, the body was buried. The body of the first Manchu Emperor Shun-chih (1644-1661) was mummified and lacquered in gold. The body is still on display at the monastery of Tien Taisu where he spent the last years of his life.
Even though Mao had wanted his body to be cremated it was decided that his corpse would be embalmed and put on display in a glass case like the bodies of Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh. Not knowing exactly how to preserve a body Mao's doctor Li Zhisui sent a researcher to a medical library. Later Li wrote, "She had found a preservation procedure: a large dose of formaldehyde. We duly injected 22 liters, 6 more than formula called for, just to be sure. When we finished at 10:00am, Mao's face was a round as a ball and his neck was the width of his head. His ears stuck out at right angles. Formaldehyde oozed from his pores."
Preparing xi bo
Offerings to the Dead in China
Before the funeral guests come by and bring gifts and offerings which are displayed in a courtyard outside the home. The bodies of wealthy Chinese are sometimes stored for several years in "hotels of the dead" so that friends and relatives can pay homage to them before they are officially buried.
Guests bow three times before a coffin, light incense sticks, suck on pieces of candy to "wash away the bitterness,” and offer condolences to the family of the dead. Offerings of food are presented to the dead and then eaten by the living. Offerings of paper are then burned outside the home, usually at Buddhist temple.
Paper houses—sometimes with paper servants and paper furniture—paper televisions, paper Rolexes, paper cell phones, paper condoms, paper Audis, paper Mercedes Benzes, paper ATMs, paper luxury villas and even paper cows for people that loves cows are all burned as offerings, often in Buddhist temples while monks chant and play flutes and cymbals. Wads of “hell money” are often placed in the paper house before it set on fire The paper effigies represent material goods that the departed can take with him or her to the afterlife. Some of the “hell money” is expected to be used to bribe guards and officials in the underworld. Burring objects has a long history. In the 13th century Marco Polo described Chinese funerals in which "male and female servants, horse, camels" were “burned for use in the next world."
Xi bo is burned at a temple
Some funeral shops sell tickets on Hell airlines, Hell passports, credit cards from the eastern bank of Hades, and cardboard motorcycles, refrigerators and luxury cars that are burning during funerals or on holidays when tributes are made to deceased ancestors. In recent years people have been burring paper Viagra and “Supergirls” dolls--inspired by the Chinese version of American Idol--to show off wealth as mcuh as to express filial piety.
On the funeral for his grandmother Ah-Ma in Taiwan Ron Lin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘At an old melon field not far from Ah-Ma’s home, we gathered to burn a 5-foot-tall paper house, With a red roof and high ceilings, it had everything she would need in the next life and more: a DVD player— even a Mercedes-Benz, though in life she had not owned a car and didn’t know how to drive...Dropped on the lawn were hundreds of yellow lotus flowers also made of paper. They were indented to help my grandmother rise past the 108 demons that might try to stop her from reaching her next life...On a windy, overcast afternoon, we all held a red rubbn that encircled the burning paper house, and watched the back smoke flutter to the sky.’ [Source: Ron Lin, Los Angeles Times]
In August 2006, the Chinese government said enough was enough and banned the burning of models of certain things such as condoms, luxury villas, sedan cars, mistresses, and karaoke hostesses. One official told the Los Angeles Times, “burning these messy things, not only is it mired in feudal superstition but it just appears low and vulgar.” Violators faced fines.
One private company who makes paper and cardboard offerings—the Funeral Services Administration of the Civil Affairs Bureau—told the Los Angeles Times business was booming despite efforts by the government to curtail the practice. The company's motto is “Our profession is to satisfy people in this world and the next.”
Chinese Funeral Feast and Clothes
In some parts of China, relatives have a large lunch in a room with the coffin—a last meal with the dead—before the funeral procession. It can be a relatively joyous affair with everyone enjoying good food and drink. A bowl of rice and other food are placed by a grandson at the foot of the coffin.
Describing the clothes worn during the funeral procession, the scholar Arthur Wolf wrote: “The mourners wear long robelike gowns, some of rough, dirty brown sackcloth, others of gray flax or grass cloth, and still others of unbleached white linen or muslin, scattered among these are blue gowns, red gowns, and, on the rare occasion, a yellow gown. Female mourners cover their heads with a hood that almost hides the face and hangs down the back of the waist; men wear a hempen “helmet” over a short hood or one of two kinds of baglike hats of unbleached or dyed muslin...A funeral procession of fifty mourners usually includes twenty or more different combinations of textiles and colors.” In some places mourners have white cloth glued to the toes of their shoes.
funeral procession the 1920s
Chinese Funeral Procession
On a day and time selected by the feng shui master or a diviner the coffin is carried to a cemetery or burial place in an elaborate funeral procession. The route is lined with lanterns to ensure the deceased doesn’t get lost. Sometimes the coffin is a carried in a hearse decorated with dragons, an ancient symbol of good luck. Other times it is carried by pallbearers on a bamboo litter, preceded by an empty chair for the deceased to sit so he can join the procession.
Funeral processions are associated mostly with funerals in northern China. Some are quite involved, featuring men throwing around spirit money, displaying written testimonials to the deceased, carrying plaques with teh deceased's titles and official posts, and bringing items for grave side sacrifices. Behind them are musicians, monks, priests, the chief mourners, pallbearers carrying the coffin, women and children.
The procession is often led by family members of the deceased who carry incense and portraits of the deceased and often are dressed in a precise manner which defines their closeness to the deceased. A traditional brass band and professional mourners often accompany them. The procession usually moves slowly and stops at roadside alters to allow offerings to be made and at the birthplace, home and other places associated with the deceased. In some places memorial arches are erected across a street to commemorate fulfilled and loyal deeds and remind passers by to revere morality and values.
Describing a procession John Pomfret wrote in the New York Times: The “casket was slid into a colorful canopy, festooned on each side with the images of four Taoist saints...Twelve laborers, hired for the task, lifted the contraption onto their shoulders. Two men with bags of firecrackers began tossing packets of their bombs, designed to scare off harmful ghosts. Before our final ascent to the burial site, we halted at an intersection. We made a circle around the casket and kowtowed, one by one, placing straw, knotted expertly by an elderly neighbor, under our knees. Three times were circled the casket: three times we kowtowed.”
Chinese Funeral Entertainment
Traveling folk opera troupes often perform comedy skits and sing arias at funerals. The head of one such group, that performed on the flat bed of an old jury-rigged trucks with loudspeakers, told National Geographic that 80 percent of his business was at funerals. He said, “Of course I’m sorry for the family but this is my living.”
The troupe leader’s business card read: “Zhang Baolong/ Feng Shui Master/Red and White Events: Services of the Entire Length of the Dragon, From Beginning to the End.” Among the 27 services listed on the back of the card were “choosing grave sites,” “choosing a marriage partner,” “house construction,” “towing trucks,” and “evaluating locations for mining.” [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic]
Funeral music is designed to soothe the spirit of the deceased and usually is in the form of high pitch piping from an oboe-like instrument played by a paid musician and percussion from cymbals, drums and gongs played by priests and monks. Music often accompanies key parts of the funeral. Under the Communists, brass bands and military uniforms were added to funerals.
In Taiwan there are women who strip off their clothes at funerals as a form of entertainment. Taiwan's funeral strippers work on Electric Flower Cars (EFC) which are trucks that have been converted to moving stages so that women can perform as the vehicles follow along with funerals or religious processions. EFC came to Taiwan's public attention in 1980 when newspapers began covering the phenomenon of stripping at funerals. [Source: Krista Van Fleit Hang]
There is a great deal of debate about whether this should be allowed to continue. In Taipei, Taiwan's capital, one often hears middle and upper class men complain about the harmful effects of this rural practice on public morality. In contrast, people in the industry see themselves as talented performers and fans of the practice say that it makes events more exciting.
Dancing for the Dead: Funeral Strippers in Taiwan directed by Marc L. Moskowitz is a 38-minute film about the custom in Chinese and English with English subtitles. The film follows this story, providing interviews with Taiwan's academics, government officials, and people working in the EFC industry to try to make sense of this phenomenon. The film includes footage from nine different cities across Taiwan, including EFC performances, a funeral, and several religious events. Moskowitz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina.
Funeral stripping is also practiced on the mainland. In August 2006, police in Jiangsu Province arrested five women from a “dance troupe” who danced naked and did a striptease in a send off for dead farmer. The entertainment might have served to help attract a crowd. Traditionally, rural people, especially, believed that the more people that showed up at a funeral the more honor was bestowed on the deceased.
High Costs of Funerals in China
On paper, low-cost burials have been national policy since at least 1997, when State Decree 225 ordered cemetery land conserved and “thrifty funeral arrangements” promoted. But in reality flashy, expensive tombs and funerals are often the norm among those who can afford them. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]
Rising prices have cast China’s whole funeral industry in an unflattering light. Zheng Fengtian, a professor of rural development at Beijing’s Renmin University, told the New York Times local governments were partly to blame for the inflation because they limited competition. [Ibid]
Most cemeteries are directly government-controlled, he said; the rest depend on permits from the government, which owns the land. The state Ministry of Civil Affairs said last year that the government was managing 1,209 cemeteries, 853 funeral management “work units” and about 7,000 workers. “They control all of it, either by rejecting new projects or approving very, very few of them,” Mr. Zheng said. [Ibid]
Extravagant Funerals in China
Confucius urged people to have low key funeral rituals. Before the Communist era, elaborate funerals were common and were regarded as a respectful way to send off the dead. Lin Yutnag, a 20th century scholar, wrote: “There is no reason to be solemn. Even today, I can’t tell the difference between the rituals of a funeral and a wedding until I see a coffin or a bridal sedan chair.”
After Mao came to power extravagant funerals were considered a collasal waste of money and resources and were discouraged and condemned as superstitious and a results ill-gotten gains.
In recent years, ostentatious funerals have made a comeback. As incomes have increased so too have spending on funerals. These days it is not unusual for a family to spend the equivalent of several years income on a lavish funeral. The funeral industry is now regarded as one of the 10 most profitable businesses in China.
The New York Times described one spectacular funeral in March 2011 in Wenling, a coastal city south of Shanghai. Five brothers commandeered the grounds of a high school to bid their mother goodbye with pomp befitting a state funeral. Thousands of onlookers watched a ceremony that featured nine flower-decked limousines, a uniformed band and a 16-gun salute. One brother told reporters that his mother wanted to be buried with “face.”[Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]
Funerals have traditionally served as way to pay bribes and influence people. In the old days it was common to give envelopes stuffed with cash and gold models of the birth animal of the deceased to the deceased's family. A law passed in the mid 2000s banned officials from inviting all but their closest relatives to funerals to reduce corruption by cracking down on the practice of passing cash-filled envelopes as bribes.
Burial sites are often in wooded areas or some other natural setting picked out by a fengu shui master. Sometimes a long hike is required to get them. After the funeral procession arrives, the coffin is slowly lowered into the grave with a pulley system by family members while music is played, priests chant and mourners wail. The mourners throw handfuls of dirt on the coffin, a gesture that harks back to the days when relatives carried earth to the grave. Sometimes the mourners are professionals who cry and wail at a funeral for a fee.
Describing a funeral for a descendant of Confucius, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: “A group of women cried and kowtowed before a mound of fresh earth...The tomb offerings were simple: oranges, apples, a boiled chicken...The men stood nearby, watching, and one of them offered me a cigarette...The wailing continued for ten minutes more, and then stopped abruptly...A man crank-started the tractors and they putted off in the mist...They had left the chicken, but packed up the oranges.”
Sometimes more paper spirit money and objects are burned and tomb stones are raised that have the names of descendants and living relatives. Describing another burial he witnessed Hessler wrote in National Geographic: “The family members took turns prostrating themselves before the tomb...First the men kowtowed, burning paper money and moaning softly...the women kowtowed, their wails echoing across the valley.”
In an important ceremony, called “dotting the chu,” the final character on the soul tablet is completed with special vermillion ink or even blood. After the burial is over the mourners follow the procession route in reverse. A bonfire is built and the members of the procession leap through it and sprinkle themselves with water to cleanse themselves The soul tablet is taken back to the home and placed in the ceremonial room with the tablets of other family members.
In some parts of southern China, a body is buried for seven to ten years and then exhumed by a bone specialist, who reconstructs the skeletons, coloring the large bones with red dye (signifying blood) and wrapping the smaller bones in red paper. The skeleton is then bent into a fetal position and all the bones are placed in a large pot, which is reburied in a permanent tomb.
Profession mourners are no longer much in demand. One told the writer Laio Yiwu, “People are not what they used to be. They didn’t even pretend to be sorrowful.”
Chinese Tombs and Graves
Village tombs are often nothing more than mounds of earth. They are commonly arranged in neat rows, according to generation, with the tomb of the family’s common ancestor in the back. Often villagers don’t even know this ancestor’s name. They simply call him “Old Ancestor.”
Most graves are unmarked. Up until he Song dynasty, common people were not allowed to have markers on their graves. Only rulers and members of the bureaucratic class were allowed to erect shrines because only they were entitled to the political power endowed by heaven that such a shrine represented.
In ancient times tombs were often guarded by images of fierce warriors—regarded as powerful enough to crush oxen with their feet—and mythical animals, with the wings of birds, the ears of elephants, the faces of people, the bodies of lions and the legs of a horses and deer. Some of these figures were thought to represent Turbo, the Lord of the Underworld, who was summoned to get rid off demons.
By one estimate 70 percent of China's dead in rural areas are buried. In the Yunnan province some people are buried in beehive tombs. In Xingjiang many people are buried in neat Muslim-style tombs.
There are laws banning the placement of tombs on arable land and park land. Burial sites are so scare, that mounds have been placed next to railroad tracks. Deeds for burial places are common. The trading of tomb futures—speculating on the business of selling graves—bankrupted many investors and has been outlawed by the government. Some inventors were lured into scams in which they sunk considerable sums for nonexistent graves.
Extravagant Tombs in China
A large tomb and grave site have traditionally been seen as an indication of honor for the deceased and a means of earning respect for future generations. The custom was discouraged under Communists. In the 1990s and 2000s, large tombs once again became fashionable. These days rich Chinese are spending big money on posh mausoleums, in some cases spending more on their mausoleums than they have on their own homes. Tomb builders advertise deluxe models with thatched gazebos and staircases. Models shaped like couches, as was the custom in the Song Dynasty, are very popular.
For $12,000 today one can buy a tomb, covering 700 square feet, with stone lions and lighting. More elaborate ones are adorned with stone balustrades and have four levels built of white marble and cover 3,000 square feet. Some even have karaokes and board meeting rooms. A 10,000-square -foot plot with a semicircular tomb adorned with a pagoda, stone dragons and massive upended boulder cost around $125,000.
Chinese emperors often selected their own burial sites and began building their tombs with a mausoleum inside while they were still alive. The positioning of tombs was thought to have an impact on the entire dynasty and often disputes over exact position occurred long after an emperor had died. Even after death a hierarchy was maintained. In the Ming dynasty, princes were allowed a tomb that was 100 paces in circumference, 20 foot high, with a 10-foot wall surrounding it. It was accompanied by four human statues, and ten statues each of horses, tigers and sheep. Noblemen of the ninth rank were only allowed tombs 20 paces in circumference and less than six feet high, with no surrounding wall or statues.
Around Beijing the tombs of some of famous Ming officials have been watched over by guards for several hundred years. The tomb of Gen. Yian Chinghuan, defense minister of the last Ming Emperor, was watched over for 372 years by16 generations of one family until they were forced to move after the government decided to make the tomb into a tourist attraction.
In 2010 in southern Hunan Province, the authorities began investigating a private cemetery with 67 steps leading to a pagoda built by the family of a former government official after the news media likened it to an imperial tomb. In 2009, officials ordered the razing of a tomb in a village outside Chongqing in central China, after a local newspaper compared its size to that of a basketball court. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]
In the “artistic section” of The Pine Tree of Longevity, Chengdu’s largest cemetery, overlooking hills of flowering peace trees, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times “are row after row of huge tombstones are decked out with rearing stone stallions, giant open books and granite tables and stools.” [Ibid]
Discouraging Fancy Tombs in China
The government is trying to crackdown on ostentatious tombs, many of which belong to corrupt officials. Some tombs have squatters living in them, who say they are better than their real homes. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times that in Chengdu now “modest burial sites are in. Fancy tombs are out. And in some places, so are fancy funerals. Plots for ashes are limited to 1.5 square meters, about 4 feet by 4 feet. Tombstones are supposed to be no higher than 100 centimeters, or 39 inches, although it is not clear that limit will be enforced. Sellers of oversize plots have been warned of severe fines, as much as 300 times the plot’s price. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]
“Ordinary people who walk by and see these lavish tombs might not be able to keep their emotions in balance,” Zheng Wenzhong told the New York Times, as he visited the relatively modest resting place of a relative at The Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery. That is apparently exactly what many officials fear. After a quarter of a century in which the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened, the wretched excesses of the affluent are increasingly a Chinese government concern.
Mr. Li said that measures governing luxury advertisements or tombs might “to a certain extent alleviate the general hatred toward rich people” but were essentially stopgaps. Still, Chen Changwen, director of the sociology department at Sichuan University, said he saw their merit in averting social conflict.
A few month before the funeral in Wenling described above Wenling passed a regulation against funeral “extravagance and waste.” It limited the number of cars and wreaths and prohibited processions past schools and hospitals. The high school principal, the assistant principal and the government’s head of funeral practices were all fired, according to media reports, and the family was fined about $450.
Resentment over Fancy Tombs in China
Chen Changwen, director of the sociology department at Sichuan University, told tthe New York Times: “Of course, if we cannot change the fact of the disparity between the rich and poor, the least we can do is lessen the impact of it on society and lessen the advertising of it...A lot of people cannot handle the extravagant ways of this first generation of the wealthy. It really grates on the public.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, April 22, 2011]
Ostentatious tombs are particularly irksome, he said, because many Chinese find even a simple grave marker beyond their means. In a coinage that captures the widespread frustration, someone struggling to afford burial costs is called a “grave slave.” “There are many examples of how the rich can afford to bury the dead, but not the common people,” said Zheng Fengtian, a professor of rural development at Beijing’s Renmin University. “This makes many people very angry.” [Ibid]
Most Chengdu mourners interviewed by the New York Times expressed skepticism about the tomb limits. At Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery, Kuang Lan, 42, said: “My personal opinion is if you have the money to make a bigger tomb, make a bigger one. If not, make a smaller one.” [Ibid]
But Yang Bin, 48, who earns roughly $150 a month chiseling tombstones at Zhenwu Shan cemetery, quietly criticized the excesses of “capitalists” who “are everywhere now.” “This is how the Chinese are,” he told the New York Times after trudging down the cemetery’s steep hill in his thin cloth shoes. “If they have money, they want to show off their face. If you don’t have money, you have to work.” [Ibid]
Feng shui and Graves
According to the principals of feng shui a good grave site should be protected from evil winds and exposed to good winds, have a good view, be near water and be in harmony with its surrounding. An ideal place is on a slope with a view of water on a mountain shaped like a dragon, tiger or horse (all symbols of good luck). Tombs in graveyard sometimes face in different directions as the needs of individuals are different.
A feng shui master using a compass and an edition of the I Ching to determine the proper place for a grave told National Geographic: "The prevailing winds and the location of running water are of primary importance for proper burials. So are the presence of nearby hills, the contour of the land and its direction. Important because the price of an improper burial site is very high—nothing less than misfortune visited upon sons and their sons. A proper burial keeps the spirit at rest, and beneficent influences eminate from it like rays from the sun."*
The selection of a grave site also depends on the person's Chinese astrological sign. A person who is born in the year of the ox, for example, is most in harmony with the monkey and the rooster. A good burial site is one that has landmarks nearby that look like these animals. Asians can spot these landmarks easily but Westerners usually have a harder time making them out.
Feng shui masters are often present at funerals. They are regarded by some as so important they take on the role of a religious figure in the funerary rites. But sometimes, relatives complain, the master say that things aren’t right at key moments as a way of getting some extra money.
Burial Versus Cremation in China
Before the Communist era, cremation was only practiced to a large degree in the cities, where the Chinese government encouraged people to cremate their deceased loved ones instead of burying them to save valuable land. Under the Communist government rules were passed that said if ashes stored in facilities adjacent to cemeteries and crematoriums were not retrieved by relatives within five years they would be thrown out.
By the 1970s, cremation was nearly universal in the large cities but practiced in only 13 percent of the cases in small cities, towns and villages. In 1985 a law was passed that required cremations in all densely populated areas. Failure to comply would result in a loss of burial subsidies and other penalties meted out through an individual’s work unit.
About 3.3 million hectares of the China's 80 million hectares of arable land is occupied by ancestral graves. In 1990s, every year an estimated 185,000 acres of land was consumed by burial plots and three million cubic meters of wood, the total annual production of Fujian province, was used for coffins.
Cremation is not necessarily a solution the land shortage problem. Some people build elaborate tombs to house the urn with the ashes.
"It's a basic problem that people in the countryside hold onto their old beliefs," a cemetery owner told AFP, "even if it means they don't have enough land for crops." In urban area, cemeteries are rare because they are considered a waste of space and most people can't afford a funeral, burial and tomb for their loved ones anyway.
Fire started at crematoria
Cremation in China
The ashes of the dead are often put on the family shelf along with a vase of plastic flowers, a photograph of the deceased on an outing and maybe some gadget or picture of a kitten.
Cremations are much more impersonal than traditional funerals and burials. "People send their dead bodies to the [cremation] works," one Chinese man told the writer Paul Theroux. "The men put gasoline on the body. They burn it. They get ashes. They put the ashes in a small box. The people take it home and put it in a desk...A few people take the ashes to the mountains—to a Buddhist temple. But we take it home. I have my mother's sister in a box." Many mourners place fire-resistant objects with the body before the cremation to make sure they get back the ashes from the right body
Describing the scene at a crematorium in Beijing, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a series of glass-walled rooms, the bodies changed even if the plastic flowers, paper displays and related decorations remained. Ceremonies lasted no more than 30 minutes and there were often a line of body-laden gurnies, waiting their turn.” The basic fee is $50. For an extra $27 you can get “deluxe service” and watch the body be consumed by flames In Beijing you can pay extra to be buried in a small plot near a Qing emperor.
On the way to the crematorium with hsi deceased grandmother Ron Lin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "My father carried a paper lantern, and older brother carried her spirit tablet— a placard bearing my grandmother;’s name...An uncle held an umbrella over the table, a funeral tradition dating back to the Japanese occupation. The umbrella covered the deceased’s view of the sky, which was said to be under the rule of the Japanese emperor.” [Source: Ron Lin, Los Angeles Times]
We arrived are the [crematoria] and walked downstairs to a large, white room. A machine slid the coffin into a steel tube, and orange-yellow flames quickly engulfed it...’Leave Ah-Me!’ we shouted, urging Ah-Ma’s spirit to leave her body while the coffin burned....Several hours later we returned to receive her ashes. Using tongs, family members took turns placing her bones into the urn. ‘Ah-Ma, this is your new home,’ we said.” [Ibid]
“We took the urn to the columbarium, which houses the ashes of the deceased, and placed it on a shelf. Then it was time for us to leave. One by one, we lined up to say a few words to Ah-Ma.:...When my turn came, I stared into the urn m head bowed, palms clasped and prayed.” Columbarium are places where relatives can keep ashes in an urn in a 30 cm (one foot) crevice in a wall.[Ibid]
Mao encouraged people to get cremated. Zhou En lai and Deng Xiaoping were cremated but Mao was placed in a 300,000 square tomb in Tiananmen Square. After Deng's death, scattering the ashes over bodies of water became popular for a while. But efforts to get people to scatter the ashes of loved ones at sea or on a beautiful spot have had limited results. Tending the grave of one's parents is a cornerstone of Chinese religious beliefs and family traditions. To do this without a grave is problematic.
In November 2010, during a nationwide shortage of diesel, the Longxing Funeral parlor in Chongqing stopped cremations, Around 10 bodies had to be “put back in the freezer” until enough supplies of diesel could secured.
World’s Largest Crematory and Burial Site Shortage
The world’s largest crematory, the Yishin Crematory, is located in Shanghai. The facility has 24 incinerators that help dispose of most of the roughly 100,000 people that die in Shanghai each year. Members of the “burn teams” that do the dirty work have ash all over their clothes, in their hair and in their fingernails. The workers say that busiest time of the year is before Lunar Year because more people die in the winter than other times of year and families want to make sure all funeral rites are completed before the holiday begins.
Yishin is located on the outskirts of town so the acrid smoke that is produced bothers a minimum of people. To save wood, the dead are placed in red velveteen-covered bamboo caskets. Bodies are kept frozen before they are cremated and if necessary embalmed with a special process that prevents blood from being disposed of in the sewer system. After the cremation mourners are herded into an area that resembles a bus station and dine on a ritual “tofu meal” while hawkers try to sell them hell money and other funerary items.
New and Environmentally-Friendly Funeral Technologies
In Hong Kong where space is tight, the government has also urged residents to think of alternatives, such as scattering ashes in memorial gardens or at sea. But these are unpopular with Chinese mourners, who want a permanent resting place to visit and honor their dead. [Source: Stefanie McIntyre, Reuters Life! May 20, 2011]
Enter SIMTECH, a German electronics company that produces touch-screens and has teamed up with the manager of two memorial gardens in Shanghai to provide memorial databases for people whose ashes were scattered at sea. Visitors can type in the name of a person on a screen and then call up pictures, a curriculum vitae, or whatever the person wanted. SIMTECH says that once installed, the screens require no maintenance and have been tested to withstand temperatures from -40C to 80C. "I think it's also very interesting for the cemeteries that they can offer their customers something new," said SIMTECH business manager Stephan Simanowski.
Since the Shanghai memorial garden introduced the technology two years ago, ashes being scattered at sea have increased by 100 percent, he added. The technology is also available for land-based burials. One noted Chinese director, Xie Jin, has a screen on his tombstone playing his biography and films.
The Asia Funeral Expo, held Hong Kong in May 2011, showed that, like many other industries, the funeral business is also trying to go "green." Biodegradable urns, paper coffins and emissions-reducing crematoria were all presented.
Custom-decorated, recycled cardboard coffins made by an Australian firm, LifeArt, can carry 250 kg but weigh only 10 kg, their lightness helping to fight global warming. "You'll probably have an 80 percent difference in emissions and burn time," said Natalie Verdon, LifeArt business manager. "That's been a very big thing for all the crematoriums, to watch the emissions."
For those who don't want to be parted from the departed, the South Korean firm "Immortal Jade" offers to turn ashes into the precious stone in under an hour -- for a mere U.S. $1,500. "We process for (around)40 minutes," said manager Marie Park Youngeun. "It's just made from the pure ashes, but we can also add some colors if you want a certain color. And it varies in color and size because you have different elements in the body," she added.
Mourning After the Funeral in China
Funeral alter in home
with images of deceased There is a six day mourning period after the funeral. Observations may include not washing or shaving, avoiding colorful clothes and fancy foods and not taking part in ceremonies or festive occasions. Otherwise the period of mourning depends on the closeness of the individual to the deceased. Those closest to the deceased are supposed to observe mourning customs for two or three years. In the old days these customs were followed to the letter but are generally followed in a more relaxed manner today.
Chinese believe it takes the soul three years to reach its final resting place. Three days after the burial family members return to the grave to place more earth or stones on the grave. Buddhist monks keep up their chanting sessions for seven weeks. This may occur at grave or home of the deceased or at a Buddhist temple. Visits to the grave occur on the 16th and 100th day after death and the anniversary of the death day. Graves are also visited on New Years Eve and during the Ghost Festival in August.
Traditionally, the Chinese and many Asians have believed that making a person comfortable in the afterlife is of the utmost importance and that if dead ancestors are taken care of they can bring happiness and prosperity to their caretakers. Conversely unhappy ancestors can make trouble. Many Chinese try to visit their hometown once a year to tend the graves of their ancestors, make offerings, burn fake money and kowtow three times in a traditional show of reverence to ancestors.
There are both spring and winter ancestral rites. During the Chinese New Year food and alcohol is offered to dead ancestors at their graves. After the spirit of the food has been taken the family members can then eat or drink the same food and alcohol.
Ancestral shrines are traditional meeting places for clans. Even today the concept of clan relationship (often determined by family name) is very strong among the Chinese. Traditionally, the desecration of graves has been regarded as a very serious crime. The destruction of a grave or even moving ancestral bones, Chinese have traditionally believed, can change a family's entire fortune.
Sometimes the burning of funerary objects can get out of hand. A forest fire in 1999 that killed 23 people in the mountainous Shixiafen forest in Shanxi province is believed to have been started by a man who was burning funerary money during a festival to honor the dead.
Tomb Sweeping Day in China
The Tomb Sweeping Festival is a day when Chinese traditionally honor their dead ancestors by visiting their graves and tidying up and sweeping the grave sites. Participants sometimes place flowers on the graves, burn ghost money, and make offerings of fruit, chicken, pork and sometimes beer. In rural areas, tombs are painted, grass is cut and the areas around the graves are swept clean. The holiday also marks the beginning of the busy agricultural season, when the fields are prepared and seeds are planted.
Tomb Sweeping is a recognized holiday in Taiwan and Hong Kong but not on the mainland which as traditionally tried to discourage ancestor worship. The dates of the festival, known in China as the Qingming Festival, or Day of Clear Brightness, are set by the solar calendar rather than by the lunar calendar. In recent years it has become popular to honor the dead online by clicking into “memorial halls” for the dead and lighting virtual candles and joss-sticks and sending flowers and messages. The government has encouraged the practice to reduce air pollution and waste caused by the burning of hell money and funerary objects . Some Internet companies offer “e-Tomb Sweeping.”
Describing the celebration of the holiday in a village outside Beijing, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “Each tomb is nothing more than a mound of dirt, and the villagers cover the piles with fresh dirt...The men chatted idly as while they worked. It was communal: a man took particular care with the tombs of his own ancestors, but everybody added a little dirt to every tomb. After the shoveling, they burned money for the dead to use in the afterlife. They bills looked like official Chinese currency, but were labeled, in English, “The Bank of Heaven Company, Ltd.”
Image Sources: Lee Wood's Bear Page website except Funeral procession, Bucklin archives http://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2011