March 5, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Chinese Funeral Traditions

Cultural spotlight

Chinese Funeral Traditions
Incense burning, courtyard gambling, crawling towards the corpse, bowing to show respect, prayers, and chants are all part of Chinese funeral traditions. (Shuttertock)

Funerals and burial customs have great religious significance in China. China recognizes five official religions, and there are many more that also play into the cultural rite of performing funeral services. Christian, Buddhist, or Taiwanese folks pay special attention to the basic rules and traditions believed to be required to properly mourn their death. Many customs also serve to avoid bad luck—either for the deceased in the afterlife, or for the surviving family.


Apart from the few differences in Chinese funeral traditions with respect to religion, procedures may differ depending on the age, social status, marital status, family role, and cause of death of the deceased. Mourning periods can span a few days to years depending on some of these same factors. Arranging the best date for the funeral is a very important task after someone dies. 


Funeral preparations


Chinese folks don’t generally advocate for older people showing formal respect to younger ones. Thus, the responsibility of preparing the funerals of elders rests on the shoulders of their children, especially the daughters. Unmarried persons are commonly taken to funeral homes and children are often buried with subdued and silent ceremonies or even no ceremonies at all. 


Most families begin the mourning of an elder family member by ensuring the body is brought home at the time of death if possible or immediately after death. Chinese Christians will take mirrors out from the home, cover religious statues with red paper, place a white cloth across the house’s main entrance door, and place a gong either to the left (for males) or to the right (for females) of the entrance to the house of the deceased. 


Buddhist families carry out a special bathing ceremony in which water is poured over one hand of the deceased. After this, the body is placed in a casket and the casket surrounded with flowers. The corpse is then be kept for certain religious rituals, such as daily monk visits, chants, and prayers. These rituals could continue for up to a year depending on the fame and financial status of the deceased before cremation, which frees the soul according to their beliefs. 


Taiwanese families follow rules of mourning that date back centuries. Firstly, they light an oil lamp believed to light the path of the loved one into the afterlife, before placing boiled rice and a hard-boiled egg (last meal) at the foot of the deceased. Relatives also burn an offering of special paper money and gather to cry out or weep apologies to the family member they have lost. A white square cut paper carrying the Chinese character for death is placed on the door of the house where the corpse awaits its final resting destination. Meanwhile, neighbors hang a small red piece of cloth to help direct people to the white.  


Chinese people inform friends and other family members about a dead relative by distributing invitations on strictly white paper after preparing the body for the wake. They prepare the body of the deceased person by carefully washing it with a damp towel, dusting with talcum powder, dressing in a favorite outfit and laying in a casket. 


Red is never used in dressing the corpse because it’s a color that signifies joy for the Chinese, and is therefore believed to turn the deceased into a ghost. Black, white, blue, or brown are preferred. The family members also change into dark clothing during the mourning period showing their closeness to the deceased. 


Burial practices and activities 


Wakes and funeral processions in China are usually accompanied with wailing and crying to show loyalty and respect to the deceased. Guests arriving at the ceremony will dress in dark clothing, though usually lighter than those of very close family members. The darkest attire is reserved for those deepest in mourning, since their sadness is believed to be the heaviest. The guests always bring along gifts of flowers, which are used to decorate the surrounding of the corpse during the wake. They also bring envelopes of cash to help the bereaved family cover some of the burial expenses.  


Other activities common in Chinese funerals include incense burning, courtyard gambling, crawling towards the corpse, bowing to show respect, prayers, and chants. At the end of the vigil comes the procession to either the burial or cremation site. Burial sites are usually on hill areas, with the procession usually in an order of the eldest son and family members directly behind the hearse. Pallbearers are usually tasked with the honor of carrying the casket on the way to the grave. After prayers have been said, and the body lowered into the grave, a handful of soil is tossed into the grave by every relative before the burial is concluded.


Cremation processions end with prayers led by monks. The cremation is directed presided over by mourners. Family and friends toss a lit candle into the wood and incense underneath the casket, which is usually placed on a stack of bricks. The ashes are sometimes gathered and preserved in an urn.


After burial or cremation


When the burial or cremation is complete, the family continues to mourn. Mourning is often marked by the wearing of colored clothes on their sleeves for up to 100 days. The children of the deceased wear black; the grandchildren, blue; and great-grandchildren, green. The burial site is left with red money packets which must be spent by the family, as well as white towels to be used to wipe their faces. Ash gathered from cremation or soil from the grave is often kept by the eldest son to be used during later worship ceremonies. 


Chinese funeral ceremony, the Chinese custom of burning toy furniture and utensils during a funeral in order to provide the dead with the comforts he was used to during his lifetime. (Shutterstock)


Chinese families visit the grave sites of their lost loved ones annually in the spring to keep them clean, offer gifts of food and wine, and burn paper money offerings.

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