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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 10 million deaths a year in China, compared to around 9 million in the early 2000. 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 been compared with assembly lines. The average cost of a funeral in the 1990s was about $50. In China, about 53 percent of people were cremated in the early 2000s, compared to 30 percent in the United States and 99.4 percent in Japan. In the 1980s about two thirds of people were buried rather than cremated. Most people in urban areas are cremated. In rural areas, many are still buried.

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: By law, all bodies in China must be cremated to save land that would otherwise go to gravesites. The exception to this rule are ethnic minorities, like the Tibetans, who are allowed to follow their traditional customs. The Chinese government provides three days off work as bereavement leave for working members of the deceased’s family. Funerals are usually not religious and usually involve family and friends gathering in a function room at the local crematorium to show appreciation for the deceased’s life and console bereaved family members. Some Chinese believe that the more people to send someone off into the next life, the stronger their chance of getting there quickly. Because of this, a recent law has had to be enacted banning the hire of ‘extras’ at a funeral. It had become a trend to hire students to attend funerals to provide the extra support needed to give a strong launch into the next life. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

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 much 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.

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

Spirit seat for ancestors

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.” ^^

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. ^^

Taoist ceremony at an ancestral temple in Guangdong

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

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

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

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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