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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.

Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Funerals have traditionally been large and elaborate. The higher the social standing of the deceased, the more possessions and people were buried with him or her to ensure entry into the next world. Traditionally, this included horses, carriages, wives, and slaves. Chinese mourners dress in white and wrap their heads in white cloths. Ancestor worship is an important part of religious practices. It is common for people to have a small Buddhist altar in the house dedicated to deceased family members. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

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; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Society ;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 ; Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death ; Death and Burials in China ; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article ; News in Science ; Symbols Chinatown Connection ; What’s Your Sign

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); 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961); 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4,; 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).

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.

Wake in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China” in 1899: “ As soon as a death occurs the wailing begins, and at once, or possibly at sunset, the temple of the local-god is visited to make the announcement to him, accompanied with more wailing. Further exercises of this sort take place on “the third day,” that is in some regions the next day, which is held to be to all intents “the third”! In case of an affair of great ceremony there will be special performances on every seventh day (a strange and apparently unique survival of the hebdominal division in China) for seven times, the funeral occurring on the forty-ninth day. During the whole of this period there is no quiet time for the distracted family. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg; Smith (1845 –1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong]

Perhaps both Buddhist and Taoist priests are chanting their Sacred Books in extemporized mat-shed pavilions of a tawdry splendour; for it is often considered safest in the dim uncertainty as to the best way to reach the regions of the blest, to take passage by both of these religious routes. Excruciating music rends the air from morn till eve, and bombs are detonating at frequent intervals to terrify malignant spirits, and to delight the swarms of village boys who riot in ecstasies during the whole procedure.

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Preparing xi bo

“English-speaking peoples have been criticised for taking their pleasures sadly. The Chinese, on the contrary, often contrive to get through their mourning not without considerable enjoyment. Under no other mundane circumstances is so much to be had to eat on such easy terms. The adage says truly, ““When old folks die, the rest feed high.”

“The strain upon the exiguous resources of a single courtyard or set of yards in preparing food simultaneously for the guests, often numbering hundreds, is very great; yet the inevitable waiting, the crowding, the turmoil, and discomfort are all borne without a tenth of the complaint and resentment which a tithe of the same annoyances and provocations would probably cause the readers of these lines. In China there is no other way to bury the dead, and there never has been any other way. Ceremony is the very life of the Chinese race, and on no other occasion is ceremony so triumphantly tyrannical as at a Chinese funeral. Yet in the most showy pageantry there is likely to be an element of unutterable shabbiness.

“It is always taken for granted by the Chinese, that any family rich enough to spend a large amount of money on the funeral of a parent, will be mercilessly pillaged on that particular occasion. The reason for this is that, at such a time, the master of the house is (theoretically) overcome by grief, and ordinary propriety requires that he himself should take no part in the management of affairs, but should give his exclusive attention to the mourning rites. Even though he clearly perceives that everything is going wrong, he must act as if he were blind and deaf, and also dumb. Long practice has made the Chinese very expert in such an accomplishment, which, it is needless to say, for an Occidental would be difficult, not to say impossible.8 If the householder is a man for any reason generally unpopular, his disadvantages will be greatly increased, as is illustrated by the following case, narrated to the writer by a man who lived within two miles of the village in which the event occurred.

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.

Burning Xi bo
Xi bo is burned at a temple

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."

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.

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]

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funeral procession the 1920s

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.

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.”

A drawing of a funeral procession in 1793

Funeral Procession in China in the 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “In city processions flags, banners, umbrellas, screens, and handsome wooden tablets shining with lacquer and glittering with gilt are carried in great numbers before and behind the coffin of notables, but the bearers are not infrequently dirty, ragged beggars, straggling along without aim and without order. Little or nothing of this is to be seen in the rural districts, but the confusion and disorderliness are omnipresent and inevitable. There is in the Chinese language no word meaning solemn, for there is no such thing as solemnity in the Chinese Empire.[Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899]

“White being the mourning colour, at a funeral swarms of people appear, some with a mere fillet about their head, others with square caps, and others with a more abundant display, up to those whose near relationship to the deceased requires that they be covered entirely with the coarse cloth which denotes the deepest depth of mourning, their feeble steps being supported by a short stick of willow upon which they ostentatiously lean, particularly at the numerous junctures when wailing is to take place. Generally speaking, the wearers of white are those who come within the “Five Degrees of Relationship” (wu fu), that is, all directly descended from one’s grandfather’s grandfather (the steps being indicated in Chinese by separate names for each generation, to wit, kao, tsêng, tsu, fu, and shên, viz., three generations of “grandfathers,” my father, and myself). The family in mourning furnishes material for all the cloud of mourners, but if the married daughters are provided by their husband’s family with a supply, this is a mark of special honour. Sometimes women are seen proudly carrying a huge bolt of wholly superfluous cloth on their arm all through a funeral, furnishing a public testimonial that their husbands or fathers-in-law have done the correct thing, thus giving the daughter-in-law a large supply of “face.”

“Since family graveyards are surrounded by planted fields, if a funeral happens to be held in the spring or early summer, it is inevitable that by the trampling of so many persons much damage should be done to growing crops. A space twenty feet wide or more would be required by the bearers of a catafalque, and if the funeral is a large one it will be followed all the way by a dense crowd. The unhappy owners of adjacent land sometimes provide themselves with shovels, and throw quantities of earth into the air so as to fall on the heads of the trespassers on their grain, as a protest (like all Chinese protests wholly futile) against the invasion of their rights.

“Angry words and reviling are not infrequent concomitants of Chinese funerals, for the provocation is often grievous. To interfere with a funeral is a serious offence, but disputes sometimes arise between the participants. The writer once saw a coffin left for many days by the side of a public road because the bearers of the two coffins that were to have been buried together, differed as to which set should first leave the village, the disagreement terminating in a fight and an angry lawsuit, pending the settlement of which the dead man could not stir.

“It is when the almost interminable feasts are at last over, and the loud cry is raised, “Take up the coffin,” that the funeral’s climax has arrived. Sixteen bearers, or some multiple of sixteen (and the more the better) wrestle with the huge and unwieldy burden of the ponderous coffin and the enormous catafalque supporting it. Only the bearers in the immediate front can see where they are going, so that it is necessary that a funeral director take charge of their motions, which he does by shrill shouts in a falsetto key ending in a piercing cry by no means unlike the scream of a catamount. To each of his directive yells the whole chorus of bearers responds with shouts resembling those of sailors heaving an anchor. These cries mingled with the ostentatious wails of the mourners piled into a whole caravan of village farm-carts, combine to produce a total effect as remote from our conception of what a funeral ought to be as can easily be imagined. When, by a slow and toilful progress, the family graveyard has been reached, the lowering of the coffin into the grave—sometimes a huge circular opening—is the culminating point of the many days of excitement. The cries of the director become shrieks, the responses are tumultuous and discordant, every one adding his own emendations according to his own point of view, and no one paying any attention to any one else. Thus, amid the explosion of more crackers and bombs, the fiercer wails of the mourners, the shouts of the bearers and the grave-diggers, and the buzz of the curious spectators, the Chinese is at last laid away to his long rest.

Chinese Funeral Entertainment

Brightly-colored coffin from the early 1920s

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.

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.

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 --- 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]

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.” ^^

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

“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.

“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!”

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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