FUNERALS IN TAIWAN

FUNERALS IN TAIWAN

Many Taiwanese follow traditional Chinese customs to honor gods and ancestors. Cremation is become more popular in cramped urban areas. Bodies are allowed to stay in graves for seven years. see Singapore

Funerals are big business in Taiwan. In the 1990s an average funeral cost more than $10,000, about 40 percent of the average annual income. Grieving relatives hire Buddhist monks to read scriptures for weeks to help the souls of the dead. After an auspicious date for the funeral has been selected , processions are held in streets and ceremonies are held in temples and homes to help the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

Funerals are often symbols of status and wealth. Paper objects are burned. Sometimes striptease shows are featured and songs are sung by scantily clad women. People are sometimes hired off the street to cry into loudspeakers as an expression of grief. A funeral procession for an influential businessman might have a two-mile long procession with more than 100 Mercedes Benz cars.

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Funeral Preparations in Taiwan

On the events before the funeral of her grandmother Ah-Ma, Rong-Gong Lin II wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Preparations began immediately. Her body was delivered home from the hospital, and every morning and evening, food was taken to her coffin. When I arrived, one of my aunts brought me to see the coffin. She announced my arrival and told me to say something to Ah-Ma. My mind was blank. I didn't have the words in Taiwanese to respond. [Source: Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2010 ||||]

“Later, the family gathered to read aloud Buddhist sutras. The readings began in Taiwanese, but it quickly became clear that my family could not keep up. My parents, aunts and uncles had spoken Taiwanese growing up, but they were taught to read in Mandarin, the state's official language. My grandmother, raised during the era of Japanese occupation, hadn't been fluent in Mandarin. "Would she understand the sutras if they are read in Mandarin?" my uncle asked. "It doesn't matter what language you read it in," a nun reassured him. "Japanese, Mandarin -- she will understand it all." ||||

“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 her next life and more: a kitchen, two bedrooms, 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 intended 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 ribbon that encircled the burning paper house, and watched the black smoke flutter to the sky. How old was Ah-Ma? By Western reckoning, she was 88. Chinese accounting, which includes the time since conception, would have made her 89 -- but the funeral director, with my family, rounded her age up for good luck. So, she was 90.” ||||

Funeral for a Hardworking Taiwanese Grandmother

Rong-Gong Lin II wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “On the day of the funeral, my aunts and uncles gathered in front of the coffin to tell my grandmother stories. An aunt recalled how, half a century earlier, Ah-Ma had worked so hard on the family's farms that she didn't get home until well after nightfall. "Sometimes," my aunt said, "I would be hungry until 9 o'clock at night. We would lie in bed surrounded by mosquitoes, too weak from hunger to fight them from biting us. She continued:"The first day of each semester, you would always worry about not having enough money to pay for school tuition. All these memories came through my mind when I heard about your passing. I felt so much pain inside." [Source: Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2010 ||||]

“I was surprised to learn how poor my grandmother, who had seven children, had been. That explained why she put so much pressure on my father to do well in school and become a doctor. She once told him: "If you don't study hard, it is worthless to have you as a son." Now I understood why my parents had always pushed me and my siblings to become physicians. As I listened to the stories of my grandmother's hard work, tears streamed down my face. ||||

“At noon, it was time to bring Ah-Ma to her final resting place. My father carried a paper lantern, and my older brother carried her spirit tablet -- a placard bearing my grandmother's name. An uncle held an umbrella over the tablet, a funeral tradition dating to the Japanese occupation. The umbrella blocked the deceased's view of the sky, which was said to be under the rule of the Japanese emperor. |||

“We arrived at the Forensic Medical Autopsy Center of Hsinying, 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-Ma!" 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 her urn. "Ah-Ma, this is your new home," we said. 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, head bowed, palms clasped together. I took a deep breath, and I prayed. I realized that the rituals passed down by my ancestors were helping to ease my grief over the loss of Ah-Ma and my nephew. And I began to believe that death could be a door to a new state of being, for them and for me.” ||||

Gangster-Run Funeral Businesses in Taiwan

Gangsters run the mortuary business in Taiwan. Known as”funeral rascals,” they have muscled into the lucrative business and make huge amounts of money overcharging grieving relatives for everything from coffins to transporting the body.

After car accidents fights sometimes break out between gangs of rival mortuaries over who can claim the dead bodies. Corrupt police sometimes provide tips. There is a general understanding that whoever get the shroud on the body first get the business.

Employees at city-run morgues and graveyards take bribes from the funeral parlors. Some have been beaten up for demanding bribes that are to high. Thugs sometimes break into the offices of rival funeral companies and beat up employees and smash urns of ashes. To crack down on shady practices, the Taiwanese government lists honest funeral parlors on its website and organizes mass funerals to help people cut costs.

Professional Mourners of Taiwan

In Taiwan, staging a dramatic funeral for relatives who have passed away is of the utmost importance. So, to create the proper atmosphere, wealthy families hire professional mourners who cry, sing and crawl on the ground to show their grief. They were paid around $90 for a half day’s work in 2010. [Source: The Nation, April 7, 2013]

Among mainland Chinese, Chen Ning wrote on Danwei.org : “Wailing is an ancient funeral custom. Texts show that dirges began to be used in ceremonies during the time of Emperor Wu of Han and became commonplace during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Customs varied across ethnicities and regions. During the Cultural Revolution, wailing was viewed a pernicious feudal poison and went silent. In the reform era, it was revived in a number of areas.” [Source: Chen Ning, TBN, Danwei.org July 23, 2010]

Taiwan’s “filial daughter” phenomenon emerged during the 1970s, when sons and daughters left their families to work in the city. Transport was limited, so if one of their parents died and they couldn’t make it back in time for the funeral, they would hire a filial daughter to take their place and lead the family in mourning. [Source: Allie Jaynes, BBC World Service, February 26, 2013]

Taiwan's Most Famous Professional Mourner

Allie Jaynes of BBC World Service wrote: “Crying on command isn't easy, but Liu Jun-Lin is hired to do it every day, at funerals for people she never knew. She's Taiwan's best-known professional mourner - a time-honoured tradition in her country that may be dying out. Crying for a living is controversial, seen by some as the commercialisation of grief, but mourners like Liu say their profession has a long history in Taiwan, where according to tradition the deceased needs a big, loud send-off to cross smoothly into the afterlife. "When a loved one dies, you grieve so much that when it finally comes time for the funeral, you don't have any tears left," says Liu. "How are you going to suddenly switch your mood to show all that sorrow?" Liu is there to help strike the right tone. [Source: Allie Jaynes, BBC World Service, February 26, 2013 |=|]

“I ask Liu how she manages to manufacture tears at will. But she insists all her crying is real. "Every funeral you go to, you have to feel this family is your own family, so you have to put your own feelings in it," she says. "When I see so many people grieving, I get even sadder." With her long eyelashes, dimples, and sing-song voice, Liu seems much younger than her 30 years. At home, she wears an orange jogging suit and sparkly nail polish. I'd sooner believe she was a nursery school teacher than a professional in the grief business. Funeral director Lin Zhenzhang, who has worked alongside Liu for years, says that's a big part of her appeal. "Traditionally, we think of this as a job for women a generation older," he says. "But Jun-Lin is so young and beautiful. That contrast makes people very curious." |=|

Taiwanese Professional Mourner at Work

Allie Jaynes of BBC World Service wrote: “Traditional Taiwanese funerals are elaborate, combining sombre mourning with louder, up-tempo entertainment to fire up grieving spirits. For the entertainment portion, 30-year-old Liu and her Filial Daughters Band wear bright costumes, and perform almost-acrobatic dance numbers. They do the splits, back-bends, and somersaults. Her brother, A Ji, plays along on traditional stringed instruments. [Source: Allie Jaynes, BBC World Service, February 26, 2013 |=|]

“Later, Liu will change into a white hood and robe, and crawl to the coffin on her hands and knees. There, in time to her brother's organ playing, she performs her signature wail. Liu Jun-Lin and her brother Liu's brother, A Ji, accompanies her at funerals Her sounds are long and drawn out, somewhere between crying and singing. At home, she demonstrates a typical wail for me. "My dear father, your daughter misses you so much!" she cries. "Please, please come back!" |=|

Life of Taiwan's Professional Mourner

Allie Jaynes of BBC World Service wrote: “Liu's grandmother and mother were both professional mourners. As a young child, she would play outside the funeral homes while her mother worked. At home, she mimicked her mother and older sister as they rehearsed. "I'd grab any object and pretend it was a microphone," she says. "Then I'd pretend there was a coffin and crawl to it." Both of Liu's parents died when she was young, leaving her grandmother with three children to bring up, and a heavy burden of debt. So the grandmother pulled Liu and her older brother into the family trade. Liu was just 11 years old. [Source: Allie Jaynes, BBC World Service, February 26, 2013 |=|]

“She had to get up before dawn each morning to rehearse, and often had to miss school for work. When she did go to class, other children would make fun of her job and the strange costumes she wore. "They'd say, that's so weird, so ugly, you look so stupid!" she says. "I felt really inferior and thought other kids didn't like me." Performing wasn't much easier. Stigmas around death make many people look down on mourners. "Sometimes before we'd start the performance, the grieving family would be very sour when they talked to us," says Liu. "But after we performed, they'd cry and say thank you, thank you, thank you!" |=|

“That's when Liu realised the real purpose of her job. "This work can really help people release their anger, or help them say the things they're afraid to say out loud," she says. "For people who are afraid to cry, it helps too, because everyone cries together." Mentored by her grandmother, a tiny woman in wire-framed glasses and a tight perm, Liu trained rigorously as a performer, and developed the shrewd business skills that have lifted her family from poverty to prosperity. Liu and her siblings each have their own house, and their company charges up to $600 (£380) for a performance. |=|

“But it's a business in decline, says Lin Zhenzhang, as the economic downturn and simpler modern tastes turn people away from lavish traditional funerals, "The tradition of professional mourners is going to slowly be eliminated," he says. "So people like Jun-Lin are going to have to find a way to reinvent their profession, or find new sources of revenue." This hasn't escaped Liu. That's why she has recruited some 20 female assistants. They're young, good-looking women in black and white uniforms, who help funeral directors with embalming and memorial services, and they've brought Liu a lot of attention. |=|

"There was no-one else doing this in northern Taiwan, and it ended up being more successful than I'd thought," says Liu. "Within this industry, I know I need to find niches that no-one else is exploring." No matter what, Liu says, she won't ever leave the family trade. "This is something my grandmother struggled to build up from the ground," she says. "I have to teach others what she taught me, and carry on her tradition." |=|

Taiwanese Funeral Strippers

Allie Jaynes of BBC World Service wrote: “Some funerals in Taiwan feature strippers, women who sing, dance and take off their clothing, says anthropologist Marc Moskowitz: As with funeral wailers, funeral stripping stems from the Chinese conception of "hot and noisy" (Chinese: renao). "Hot and noisy" refers to the active hustle and bustle of a public event. In the West, a rock concert would be good examples of "hot and noisy" in that the frenetic energy level and noise is one of the markers of a good concert. In Taiwan, all public events need to be hot and noisy to be considered a success. [Source: Allie Jaynes, BBC World Service, February 26, 2013 |=|]

“Funeral strippers perform on what are known in Taiwan as Electric Flower Cars (Chinese: dianzi huache), large pick-up trucks that have been converted to stages so that these women can sing and dance as a truck drives with a funeral procession or a temple procession. The practice was particularly thriving in the 1980s when Taiwan's economy was booming and people had more money to spend on religious practices and conspicuous consumption. |=|

Taiwanese Funerals and Copyright Fees

Jens Kastner wrote in the Asia Times: “The back alley in Taipei's satellite city is closed to traffic... The tent's entry is decorated with orange wreaths, and gifts for the afterworld are displayed: beer pallets and models of a villa and a Mercedes Benz made of cardboard. The mourners sit on simple folding benches, the deceased man's coffin placed in front of them. [Source: Jens Kastner, Asia Times, April 20, 2010 ~~]

“A subtle tension is perceptible when the funeral director starts tinkering with the widescreen flat-panel monitor in the corner. Seconds later, images depicting the deceased in his lifetime appear in a photo stream, and a pre-mortem recorded voice wishes a “Thank you for coming, I wish you all live to 120 years.” Incense smoke and the tunes of Willie Nelson's You Are Always on My Mind fill the tent. ~~

“This is how Taiwanese say farewell to the dead. But copyright protectors are now crying foul play to the popular use of memorial CD-ROMs, saying it infringes intellectual property rights (IPR), and mourners ought to pay up. Taiwan's zealous IP protectors claim that although police raids on funeral ceremonies are unlikely, the law is clearly being broken. This is especially the case when the deceased's favorite songs are placed on blogs or photo-sharing websites as is commonly done. In the past, Taiwan has been reputed for rampant copyright piracy, but the controversy over the memorial CD-ROM implies that times have changed. ~~

“Producers of memorial CD-ROMs advertise that songs chosen by the dead played at the funerals bring emotions to a climax. “To deliver quality work isn't child's play,” Chen Kai-wen who markets his services online points out. “Presenting a whole life in a few minutes to the satisfaction of the bereaved requires skill.” Some families would hand Chen hundreds of pictures, others only 10. Either way it doesn't work out because the amount of photos needed for an excellently made memorial CD-ROM should be around 30 per song. Otherwise the photo stream would become too boringly slow or, even worse, too hectic. ~~

“In Chen's eyes, Taiwanese morticians and CD producers both do a great job to soothe the bereaved relatives' emotional pain, and he also understands the necessity for the collection of copyright fees. Chen promises: “In future we will encourage the grieving families to be creative and use music they have recorded themselves. If they still insist on playing protected songs, I think it should be up to the morticians to pay the bill.” ~~

Ghost Money in Taiwan

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “According to local tradition, when the body expires the soul continues to live in the next world, where "residents" still need money for their daily needs. The living prepare the dead to meet their expenses by entombing them with treasure or sending cash to the underworld through the ritual burning of joss money. The burying treasure of gold or jade is not within everyone's means, so since the invention of paper 2,000 years ago, paper objects and joss money have been the most popular, and affordable, substitutes. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, March 2006 ^/^]

“The burning of joss money came to Taiwan with the first Chinese immigrants who crossed the Taiwan Strait. Chang Yi-ming, who has been researching and collecting joss money for 30 years, says that in the early days immigrants relied on supplies from China. Jhunan, in Miaoli County, once a bustling port city, was an important shipping center for the trade in central Taiwan. Yet local residents soon found that shipping was expensive and unreliable, so they started making their own joss money in Jhunan. According to township history, several makers were already in operation in the early 1900s, and the number peaked at more than 380 in the 1970s. "Making joss money was either your day job or your part-time job," Chang recalls. "When the paper was set out to dry in the sun, the town became a sea of gold." ^/^

“The products, in addition to meeting local demand, were exported to Chinese communities all over the world. But, as with other labor-intensive industries, lower labor costs abroad began to lure manufacturers offshore in the 1980s. There are now only a handful of factories, where craftsmen hand-paste silver and gold foil onto imported paper. The market, on the other hand, has always been strong. During the Ghost Festival (the 15th day of the seventh lunar month) in 2005 Kaohsiung burned NT$4 billion (US$120 million) worth of joss money and Jhunan NT$2 billion (US$60 million). Taiwan's total annual consumption of the otherworldly currency is estimated at NT$80 billion (US$2.4 billion). Judging by the size of the current market, people do not seem to fear the consequences of living beyond their means in this world or the next. But if burning joss money really works, would not the amount that Taiwanese have already burned be more than enough to keep everyone from disaster and misfortune? "It all depends if you believe in it," says Chang.” ^/^

Ghost Money Research in Taiwan

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “The huge paper money market had never generated much academic interest, and joss money was never considered collectable in the eyes of most people--until Chang came along. A Jhunan native, he grew up immersed in the industry and became more interested in it when he began researching the history and culture of his hometown in 1965. The distaste with which Taiwanese people traditionally regard the discussion of anything related to death made it difficult for Chang to do his research. Most of his information came from local people who had worked in the industry. On the other hand, the morbid aversion made collection a whole lot easier--there were few competing collectors. "No one ever spent hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, on small bits of paper," he says. "I guess I'm totally obsessed." In the last three decades, Chang has invested tens of millions of dollars in joss money. His collection stretches back as far as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and includes more than 2,000 stone, wood and rubber printing plates. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, March 2006 ^/^]

“There are three kinds of joss money. Gold money has a thin layer of gold foil on it and is largely used to worship deities. In a mirror image of corruption in this world, gold notes are also used to grease the palms of officials in the next, so that they might better care for their wards. Silver money makes use of tinfoil and is for those from the underworld--ghosts and ancestors. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests assign plain paper money, without foil, to serve various purposes, and it therefore comes in the broadest variety of designs. The ma-ci-san (horse, flag and umbrella), for example, is used to send the local earth god on an out-of-town trip to protect families afar. "The horse, in a way, is a little out of date in some cases," Chang says. "A man had his son's sports car blessed by a priest. The son crashed it regardless. When the father questioned the priest, he was told that the car was too fast for the horse." ^/^

“Over and above its ceremonial functions, joss money had other uses in the days when medical science was spread less evenly. People used yellow joss bills to dress wounds or insect bites to great effect, since the paper was dyed with curcuma root, which reduces inflammation. Today, curcuma root is no longer used as a dye. In fact, except for the bamboo paper that has been used since the old days, most other manufacturing methods and materials have changed.” ^/^

Ghost Money Production in Taiwan

Jim Hwang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Inside a modern factory, printing presses have been replaced by machines and natural dyes by chemical substitutes. The tinfoil once pasted by skillful hands has been replaced by aluminum directly printed onto the paper. Mechanization has improved productivity and significantly lowered costs. "The price for a wad of factory-made joss money is usually a fifth of that made by hand," Chang says. "They're all basically useless anyway. It's fake! Burning it is just tricking the gods and your ancestors." Perhaps even worse is that the chemical colors used in printing are suspected of giving off toxic smoke when torched. [Source: Jim Hwang, Taiwan Review, March 2006 ^/^]

“Just as the production of joss money is changing so too is its design. The stylized Chinese characters for fortune, wealth and longevity remain popular, but looks are meeting new purposes. "Designs reflect society," Chang says. "What people can't have in the real world, they project into the next." This is especially true of paper money since it has to provide a wide range of functions. The popular "lottery money," for example, looks like a lottery ticket. Another note has been specially designed for politicians, and sells like hotcakes after elections. Chang explains that candidates make a lot of promises during their election campaigns and cannot keep them after winning. The solution is to burn joss money so that the ill consequences of broken promises will not befall them. Replicas of foreign currencies, credit cards and passports meet travel needs in the afterlife, just as they do in this life. "The basic principle is parallelism," says Chang. ^/^

“The relationship between the side-by-side worlds has not always been harmonious. Burning joss money was prohibited in Taiwan for a decade from the mid-1930s by the Japanese colonial government, but manufacturers managed to keep going in Jhunan--47 factories were active in 1938 and 60 in 1940. According to Chang, there must have been some kind of arrangement whereby the law was not enforced. For their part, manufacturers printed fake addresses to avoid being tracked down, although everyone knew who made and where to buy them. The "underground" operation increased production costs and put obligatory burning beyond the reach of average people. To placate the underworld, people made their own joss money by pasting pieces of tinfoil onto the pages of notebooks and tearing them out as required. ^/^

“While the Japanese ban and the people's can-do solution indicated the important role joss money plays in Taiwanese culture, ceremonial burning etiquette has suffered as the economy has boomed. "People these days burn by the truckload, thinking it guaran tees them more blessings," Chang says. "This is, unfortunately, not a case of the more, the better." Take the gengyi (clothes changing) paper money used during the Ghost Festival as an example. According to tradition, believers invite guests from the underworld for a meal. Before dining, gengyi is burned to offer the guests new clothes to change into. A wad of gengyi has about 200 sheets, only 10 of which should be burned before the feast since one table can only hold about 10 dishes and as many guests. The rest of the stack should be burned after the feast as take-home gifts for the departing diners. If an entire stack of gengyi is burned then 200 invitations are sent out--too many for a single table of food. The result is the unfed guests will linger to collect their just desserts.” ^/^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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