20080222-funeral alter in hme with images of decases woo.jpg
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.

Extreme Filial Piety — Three Years of Intense Mourning — in the 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: ““Chinese mourning for parents is supposed to consume three full years. In the seventeenth book of the Confucian Analects, we read of one of the disciples of the master, who argued stoutly against three years as a period for mourning, maintaining that one year was enough. To this the master conclusively replied that the superior man could not be happy during ' the whole three years of mourning, but that if this particular disciple thought he could be happy by shortening it a year, he might do so, but the master plainly regarded him as "no gentleman." The observance of this mourning takes precedence of all other duties whatsoever, and amounts to an excision of so much of the life-time of the sons, if they happen to be in government employ. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

There are instances in which extreme filial devotion is exhibited by the son's building a hut near the grave of the mother or father, and going there to live during the whole time" of the mourning. The most common way in which this is done is to spend the night only at the grave-, while during the day the ordinary occupations are followed as usual. But there are some sons who will be content with nothing less than the whole ceremonial, and accordingly exile themselves for the full period, engaging in no occupation whatever, but being absorbed by grief. The writer is acquainted with a man of this class, whose extreme devotion to his parents' grave for so long a time unsettled his mind, and made him a useless his family. To the Chinese, such an act is highly commendable, irrespective of its consequences, which are not considered at all.

The ceremonial duty is held to be absolute and not relative. It is not uncommon to meet with cases of persons who have sold their Jand to the last fraction of an acre, and even pulled down the house and disposed of the timbers, in order to provide money for a. suitable funeral for one or both of the parents. That such conduct is' a social wrong few Chinese can be brought to understand, and no Chinese can be brought to realize. It is accordant with Chinese instinct. It is accordant with li, or propriety, and therefore it was unquestionably the thing to be done.

Tomb Sweeping Day in China

The Tomb Sweeping Festival — or Qingming, on April 5 — 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.”

Ghost Month (late August to late September) is a time when the spirits of the dead are thought to return to earth. It is not a propitious time for new beginnings, and anyone who dies during this period is not buried until the next month. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

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.

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.

Paying for a Funeral in 19th Century China

On the funeral for a woman that committed suicide, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: The elaborateness of a Chinese funeral may be roughly determined in advance by calculating the product of two factors, the age (especially the rank of the deceased by generations) and the social rank of the family. “It is not usual to make much parade over the funerals of suicides, unless the sum to be expended is exacted from those who are supposed to have impelled to the suicide. In this instance, half the amount paid would have been amply sufficient for the funeral and for all its expenses. The “family friends” of the husband, uncles, cousins, nephews, etc., took charge of the proceedings, which they contrived to drag out for more than a week, and when the funeral was over, the husband, whose crops had been that year totally destroyed by floods, ascertained that these “family friends” had not only made away with the 30,000 cash awarded as a fine, but that he was saddled with a debt of immediate urgency amounting to 20,000 more for bread-cakes and wine, which had been consumed (as alleged) by the “family friends” during the protracted negotiations. No clear accounts of the expenditure were to be had, and the only thing of which the poor husband was sure, was that he was practically ruined by his “family friends.”[Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“A wealthy man lost his father, and made preparations for an expensive funeral. He took a hundred strings of cash in a large farm-cart, and went to a market to buy swine to be slaughtered for the feast. On the way he was waylaid by a party of his own relatives, and robbed of all the money, in such a way as to render recovery of it hopeless. Having afterward bought four swine and an ox (a most generous provision for the feast), the arrangements were put into the hands of managers (tsung-li) as usual. These persons found themselves wholly unable to restrain the raids made upon the stores by “friends,” neighbors and others, and the night before the funeral was to occur, thieves broke into the storeroom and carried off every scrap of meat, leaving nothing whatever for the feast. The managers were frightened and ran away. The feast was of necessity had with nothing but vegetables and was of a sort to bring the householder into disgrace. As a result he was afraid to try to have any more funerals, and there are at present on his premises two unburied coffins awaiting sepulture, perhaps by the next generation.

“As soon as the “shares” have all been sent in and reckoned up, it is known how much the host is out of pocket by the affair, and this information is so far from being private that it is sometimes at once announced to the guests, and if the amount is a large one the host gets credit for doing business on an extensive scale, regardless of expense. This gives him a certain amount of honour among his neighbors, and honour of a kind which is particularly prized. Among poor families, where “face” is of much less consequence than cash, it is not uncommon to find the feasts on a scale of such extreme economy that the cost is very trifling, although the “shares” are as great as at much better entertainments. It occasionally 8happens that a family is able to reduce the expenses so that the contributions are large enough to cover them, and even to leave a margin. A man who has carried through an enterprise of this sort is regarded as worthy of a certain admiration; and not without reason, for the feat implies generalship of no mean order.

Funeral Societies in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: ““Another illustration of the application of coöperative principles is found in the organization of the men of a village into details, or reliefs, as bearers of the catafalque of a specified size, each having its own leader. Whenever a funeral is to take place, notice is sent to the head of the division whose turn it is to serve, and he calls upon the men of his detail in a regular order. If any one is not on hand to take his turn, he is subjected to a fine. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In country districts, the funeral catafalque, with its tremendous array of lacquered poles upon which it is borne, is often the property of a certain number of individuals, who are also ordinary farmers. On being summoned to take charge of a funeral, they often perform the service gratuitously for people living in their own village, but charging a definite sum for the rent of the materials, which sometimes represent a considerable capital. Wedding chairs are often owned and managed in the same way, of which the advantage is that an investment which it is so desirable for the community to have made, and which is too large for an individual, is made by a company, the members of which receive a small dividend on its cash outlay, and an acknowledgment in food, presents, etc., of the manual labour involved in serving those who invite their aid.

“The principle is capable of indefinite expansion. The writer once lived in a Chinese village, where there was a “Bowl Association,” owning 100 or 200 bowls which were rented to those who had occasion for a feast, at such a rate as to be remunerative to the owners, and at the same time more economical to the householder than the purchase of a great number of dishes for which on ordinary occasions he would have no use.

“Societies for the assistance of those who have funerals are of common occurrence, and are of many different kinds. There is special reason for the organization of such leagues (called pai-shê), since, while weddings may be postponed until suitable arrangements can be made, it is generally difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do the same with a funeral.

“Sometimes each family belonging to the league pays into the common fund a monthly subscription of 100 cash a month. Each family so contributing is entitled upon occasion of the death of an adult member of the family (or perhaps the older generation only) to draw from this fund, say, 6,000 cash, to be used in defraying the expenses. If there is not so much money in the treasury as is called for by deaths in families of the members, the deficiency is made up by special taxes upon each member. According to a plan of this sort, a subscriber who drew out nothing for five years would have contributed the full amount to which he is entitled, without receiving anything in return. A mutual insurance company of this nature is probably entered into on account of the serious difficulty which most Chinese families experience in getting together ready money. From a financial point of view there may be nothing saved by the contribution, but practically it is found to be easier to raise 100 cash every month, than to get together 6,000 cash at any one time.

Funeral Cost Sharing in China

Smith wrote: “Another form of mutual assistance in the expenses of funerals is the following: A man whose parents are well advanced in life knows that he may at any time be called upon to spend upon the ceremonies at their death an amount which it will be difficult to raise. He therefore “invites an association” (ch‘ing hui), each member of which is under obligation upon occasion of the death of a parent to contribute a fixed sum, say 2,000 cash. The membership will thus be composed exclusively of those who have aged parents. The number of names may be forty, which would result, whenever a call shall be made, in the accumulation of 80,000 cash. With this sum a showy funeral can be paid for. It is customary to provide in the document which each signs, and which is deposited with the organizer of the association, that the funeral shall be conducted on a specified scale of expense, nor can the funds be diverted to any other use than for a funeral. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Whenever a member wishes for his own use to make a call for the quota from each member, he must previously find two bondsmen, who will be surety for him that he will continue to pay his share on demand, otherwise the other subscribers might be left in the lurch. Only those known to be able to meet their assessments would be likely to be invited to join such an association, and if for any reason a member should fail to furnish his quota, he would be heavily fined.

“At each funeral, all the subscribers to the funeral fund are present ex officio, and it is not necessary for them to contribute any other share than that represented by the 2,000 cash of the assessment. Each member of the association appears in mourning costume, and wailing as would become a near relative of the deceased. The presence of so large a number of mourners in addition to those really near of kin, gives a great deal of “face” to the individual whose parent has died, and this is perhaps quite as attractive a feature of the arrangement as the financial assistance.

“If it should happen that for a long time no one dies in the families of any subscribers to the funeral fund, it may be thought best to summon the members to a feast, at which the project is broached of making a call for a share to be used for a wedding, or some other purpose outside of the constitutional limits of the society. In any arrangement of this nature the feast is an indispensable concomitant of the proceedings. Without it nothing can begin, and without it nothing can end.

“Associations of this nature are much more common in connection with funerals than with weddings, yet they are not unknown for the latter purpose. A family, for example, wishes to marry a son on a scale which the family resources will not warrant. It then resorts to an expedient, which is called “drawing friends by means of other friends.” Let us suppose that it is desired to raise the sum of 100,000 cash. A hundred cards of invitation are prepared, ten of which are sent to ten friends of the family, who are invited to a preliminary feast. These friends receive the extra cards of invitation, and each one gives a card to nine other “friends” of his own, who agree to attend the wedding in question, each one bringing with him as a share a string of cash. By this means a family with little wealth and few connections is able suddenly to blossom out at a wedding with a hundred guests (many of whom nobody knows), and all expenses are provided for by the liberal contribution of the “friends,” and of the friends of the “friends.”

“The only motive for the act, on the part of the original “friends” is friendship, and the gustatory joy of the wedding feast. The only motives for the friends of the “friends,” are their friendship, and the same joyful feast. It is needless to observe that the 100,000 cash thus suddenly raised is a debt, which the family receiving it must repay in future contributions.

“To a Westerner, it doubtless appears a preposterous proceeding to saddle a family with a liability of this sort, for the mere sake of a temporary display. But love of display is by no means confined to the Chinese, although doubtless they are satisfied with manifestations of it which to us are far from being attractive. It is a characteristic in the Chinese conduct of affairs, to make heavy drafts on the future in order to satisfy a present need. Many a family will sell all their land, and even pull down their house, to provide for a funeral of a parent, because to bury the deceased without a suitable display would be a loss of “face.” And this irrational procedure is executed with an air of cheerfulness and of conscious virtue, which seems to say, “Behold me! I will do what is becoming at any personal inconvenience whatever!”

Chinese Communist Party Funeral Rules

In 2016, China's Communist Party issued a series of rules on weddings and funerals for party members. The BBC reported: The theme was frugality when the party's disciplinary watchdog issued a raft of tweaked guidelines for its 88 million members last October. Even though the wording was vague, the statement on how these guidelines should be enforced remained well within the spirit of the party's ongoing austerity drive. It is all in the name of stamping out corruption, but the perceived intrusion into life's most significant rituals sparked a backlash online. [Source: BBC News, February 19, 2016]

“1. Don't profit from a funeral: “It is part of traditional Chinese custom for guests at such events to give cash to the grieving family. At funerals the money is seen as a way of paying condolences and it also helps out with funeral expenses. Wedding and funerals are seen as key indicators of one's social status in Chinese culture, and there is an emphasis on holding extravagant affairs. Now, members are discouraged from using their power to "hold large parties" and using the "manpower and resources" that come with one's position, such as employees or service staff, at such events. They also cannot use funerals "as vehicles to make money", so the custom of giving and receiving money at these events is frowned upon. “The watchdog noted that sometimes members could hold events "on a very large scale or invite lots of guests" where in the process they would receive "large sums in gifts".

“2. Don't be a nuisance: In smaller villages funerals can last days and involve mass processions. So the guidance noted that such events cannot "disturb or obstruct daily production, lives, work, business, teaching, research, traffic and any other regular orders". It added for good measure that they also cannot "injure or kill people" or "violate the interests of the country, collective and people".

“3. Leave behind the old traditions: Members are encouraged not to adhere blindly to their local cultural customs, although the watchdog stressed this did not mean a total ban on local traditions. "Members, particularly those in the leadership, must note that they could cause a bad impression among the public, and so should observe customs while also organising simple and regular weddings and funerals," it said. But the explanation cut no ice among some, as a backlash took place online. On microblogging network Weibo, many users complained of the rules as being too overbearing and draconian. "The enforcing of rules has become askew, even normal citizens are being regulated now," said one user.

According to new rules issued in 2021 a county in Yunnan Province in southwest China: “Funerals cannot be held longer than three days, and details of the event must be submitted to the government within 10 days after it is held. According to the BBC: Sometimes there is “societal expectation — especially for those in power like village leaders — to hold extravagant and elaborate affairs. In smaller villages, funerals can involve mass processions.[Source: BBC, May 13, 2021]

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 2021

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