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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 in the 1990s was about $50. In China, about 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: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources ; Qi Gong Institute ; Qi Gong association of America / ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions ; Old Book on Superstitions or Old Book PDF ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista ; Robert Eno, Indiana University;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death ; Death and Burials in China ; Grief in China Culture ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article ; China View article ; News in Science ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com ; Chinatown Connection ; What’s Your Sign

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971); 7) "The Way of Qigong" by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books); 8) "Astrology: A History" by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Funeral Practices in China

Funeral Bannermen in the 1910s

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “There were two universal aspects of ancestor veneration in traditional China: mortuary rites (sangli) and sacrificial rites (jili). Mortuary rites involved elaborate mourning practices that differed in particulars from region to region but shared certain major features. These were, in the order they usually occurred: 1) public notification of the death through wailing and other expression of grief; 2) the wearing of white mourning clothing by members of the bereaved family; 3) ritualized bathing of the corpse; 4) the transfer of food, money, and other symbolic goods from the living to the dead; 5) the preparation and installation of a spirit tablet for the deceased; 6) the payment of ritual specialists, including Buddhist monks and Daoist priests; 7) the playing of music to accompany the corpse and settle the spirit; 8) the sealing of the corpse in an air-tight coffin; 9) the expulsion of the coffin from the community. [James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 12-15] [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“In most regions of China a funeral procession for the body and spirit tablet, followed by a feast for family members, marked the formal conclusion of the mourning process. Sacrificial rites consisted of daily or bimonthly devotions and anniversary services. Families burned incense every day on the domestic ancestral altar, which houses the family spirit tablets in hierarchical order. In front of the tablets often glowed an eternal flame, symbol of the ancestor’s abiding presence within the household. Anniversary rites took place on the death date of each major deceased member of the family. Sacrificial food was offered, and living members of the family participated in the ceremony in ritual order based on age and generation. Sacrifices were also made to the ancestors during major festival periods and on important family occasions such as births and weddings. In general, these domestic devotions reflected a ritual apparatus characteristic of most other forms of Chinese religious practice. [ See chapter by Richard J. Smith in Orthodoxy in Late Imperial China, ed. Kwang-Ching Liu (Berkeley, 1990)] <|>

Lisa Mak told the Freer Gallery of Art: "My father's funeral is probably my most vivid memory of an experience in a funeral. My father had suffered a stroke, and he stayed at a hospital for a week before he died. At his funeral, we started out with a period of time reserved for people to view the body. My brothers and sisters and I knelt next to the coffin and kowtowed to anyone who went over to view or bow down to the body of my father. My direct family members all dressed in burlap. After the viewing, the body was placed on a cart and we wheeled him to his grave. [Source: Lisa Mak, April 2001, Freer Gallery of Art ^^]

"After the funeral, we mourned my father's death by wearing dark clothes and a black 'respect band,' symbolizing the respect we had for my father and the sadness we felt for his departure. We were not allowed to wear red clothing, to symbolize our mourning. My father died in September, and in the end of February, I wore a red sweater. But I was scolded by the neighbors for not 'respecting my father.' Even after one hundred days, the traditions still stood!"

Preparations After Death in China

Funeral chair from the 1910s

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.

Li-san Chen told the Freer Gallery of Art: "For my father-in-law's funeral, there was a lot to do: I was the one who organized it. First, I had to find formal dress for my deceased father-in-law. I bought all sorts of clothing to aid him in the afterlife. Next, we had to invite monks to come and do a ritual prayer. Also, someone was sent to find a proper resting place for my father-in-law's ashes. I had to find people to prepare food, to decide what kind of food, and to organize the post-funeral meal. Also, it goes against tradition to hold the ceremony on any given day. It has to be on a day that is in accordance with feng shui traditions." [Source:Li-san Chen, April 2001, Freer Gallery of Art ^^]

Preparations Before a Funeral in China

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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."

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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."

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.

Burning Xi bo
Xi bo is burned at a temple

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.

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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]

A drawing of a funeral procession in 1793

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.

Funeral Strippers

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

Brightly-colored coffin from the early 1920s

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.

Mourning After the Funeral in China

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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

Spirit seat for ancestors

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.”

Funeral Ceremony in Southern Taiwan

Funeral ceremony in the City of Tainan, in Southern Taiwan. According to the Freer Gallery of Art: “After the body is placed in the coffin, the coffin is placed on the left side of a large room. The in-laws give blankets to the family of the deceased to drape the coffin. The large house is a spirit house. It is for the deceased's afterlife. After the coffin is buried, the spirit house is burned for the use of the deceased. [Source:Freer Gallery of Art ^^]

There is a place where people bow (or kowtow) to the deceased. In the morning, they bow twice and burn paper "spirit" money. Next to the shrine are some clothes and shoes, along with a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, a tub of water, and a towel. There are four small statues of people representing the deceased's servants.

The person died of cancer, and a Daoist monk was asked to perform a special ceremony to pray to the medicine god. This ceremony lasts around two hours and is meant to ensure that the deceased can enter the afterlife without any disease. During the funeral, close friends send baskets of flowers and cans of food.

Taoist-Buddhist Funeral

On the funeral for his grandfather on his mother's side: Chihoung Chen told his son Leon Chen: When we went back that time, we didn't know much about funerals, so we had other people who worked for the funeral home perform the procedures. They cleaned his body and changed his clothes. They asked us if we had any money. We gave them some money. The people working for the funeral home took the money and put it in your grandfathers's hand, then gave it to us. They said that your grandfather gave the money to us, and they wanted us to keep it forever. Then we invited Buddhist monks, and they chanted sutras. [Source: interview of Chihoung Chen conducted by his son, Leon Chen; Freer Gallery of Art ^^]

“This funeral was a combination of Taoism and Buddhism. After that the coffin was closed. A lot of people sent flowers. Your grandfather was the second most powerful general in the Taiwan navy. And then we went to the mountains. Traditionally, we would throw paper, but your grandmother was a principal of an elementary school, so we didn't throw that much as to not harm the environment. At the grave site, we waited. Chinese people believe that there must be a certain time for burial. It's all determined by a feng-shui master. He determines the time and the day and the angle. He has a special kind of compass and waited for the right time. I have one of those instruments. ^^

“Afterwards, we were grateful to those workers so we took them out to dinner. After several years, many people in Taiwan go back and collect the bones. It's not that popular among mainland Chinese, but it's done very often in Taiwan. After awhile, they go back and open up the coffin. The bones are then placed as to resemble the skeleton and they would spray wine on it. Some people would cremate the bones, while others would clean it, spray it with wine again, and put it into the coffin. The Chinese say that the more the body decomposed the better. If the body is not decomposed, then it's bad luck. It means the soul isn't willing to leave the body. Egyptians in old days want bodies to stay whole. In some cases, if the body can't be found, then clothes or a paper with their Sign would be placed in the coffin. If there's like a car crash and a person's in a coma, then people would take clothes and incense and call the soul back. ^^

“Sometimes there are two coffins. The body is placed in a coffin, then that coffin is placed inside a bigger coffin. Chinese beliefs are different from those of other cultures....In the past, there were shops with the body parts of the portraits all painted in. Once somebody died, family members would go to the shop and commission a painting and the artist would paint the head in. Nowadays, there are no ancestral halls to place the portraits. Your grandparents probably saw them.” Do you think there are any more of those shops you were talking about? “No. First of all, the houses were too small, and the Cultural Revolution probably destroyed them. The Communists also dug up many graves, including those of your great-great grandfather and the great grandfather on your grandmother's side. Many graves were dug.” ^^

Taoist ceremony at an ancestral temple in Guangdong

Chinese- Christian Funeral

In an interview conducted by Vicky Chen, with Yeong-Tsuey Uang said: “The funeral I attended was for my grandmother. In traditional Chinese funerals, there are many decorations to represent your sorrow and memories to the deceased. For example, flower wreaths and memorial banners, and they used a lot of flowers to decorate the repository hall. My grandmother is a Christian. Therefore, the whole funeral practice is a mixture of traditional Chinese customs and Christian religious procedures. [Source: Interview with Yeong-Tsuey Uang conducted by Vicky Chen, Freer Gallery of Art ^^]

“My grandmother died at the age of 98. When a person died after age 80, this is a person with long life. This person should be proud of himself (or herself). Therefore, the funeral would be different from an ordinary procedure. For example, in ordinary funeral practice, all the things used in the ceremony are white. In a funeral for a person who died after the age of 80, there would be some red (color of good luck) in the decoration. Using both white and red colors in the practice expresses the mixed types of feeling (sorrow and happiness). To represent joyful feelings, people would write memorial banners on red paper instead of white cloth. Therefore, banners on either red or white fabrics were used in my grandmother's funeral. ^^

Many friends also sent flower wreaths in memory of my grandmother. You can tell that the flower wreath decorated with red flowers is a sign the deceased died after age of 80. The hearse carrying the coffin is also decorated. The cross is a sign indicating my grandmother is a Christian. Again, the red flower balls hanging at each corner and window are signs that the deceased died after age of 80. ^^

“In ordinary funerals, using red in the practice would be considered as a very impolite behavior. The front of the hall is all decorated with flowers and a picture of my grandmother is hanging in the center. Because my grandmother is a Christian, therefore, burning canal, paper money and joss-stick (things commonly seen in Chinese funeral) are not used in the ceremony. ^^

“At the beginning of the ceremony, to show respect, all the children and grandchildren entered by crawling. First, we would bow and kowtow nine times to represent our respect to the deceased.Then, one of the children read a memorial essay to express the family's feelings toward the deceased. After the ceremony, the closest families and friends carried the portrait of the deceased and they would go to the burial site where the coffin is buried, and people would say prayers.” ^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Lee Wood's Bear Page website; 1920s Funeral procession, Bucklin archives

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.

Last updated September 2016

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