Funerals and deaths in China are sensitive subjects, imbued with superstition and age-old customs. For a foreigner living in China, this aspect of Chinese culture is often inaccessible or off-limits. So how exactly are funeral arrangements carried out in China and what are the important customs related to this sad occasion? From the moment of passing at the hospital to the cremation and funeral, this article takes you through each step of the process.
The passing at hospital: transactions, transactions, transactions
We were waiting in a large crowd of panicking relatives outside the doors to the resuscitation room when the doctor came out, prompting a sudden surge of questions and a crush of bodies. My mother-in-law stepped forward, and the doctor handed her a piece of paper. He instructed her to take it the main desk and have it stamped for the official death certificate, after which we could take the body. As we joined the queue for the main desk, several undertakers emerged from the crowd to offer their services, quoting prices and trying to outdo each other in advice on funeral arrangements. My mother-in-law struck a deal in the same way she buys fish at the market, only this time with more tears.
At the undertaker’s
Ten minutes later we wheeled the metal domed trolley which covered the body of “Nainai”, my husband's grandma, out of the hospital to the building next door where the undertaker had set up his shop. Here, there was a transaction for the purchase of ceremonial clothes, one for the coffin and another for the urn. All of this was handled within 30 minutes of Nainai's passing.
It was then that the body was uncovered. My mother-in-law gave instructions to change the clothes into the ceremonial garb she had just purchased. Everyone else left the room. My husband told me his mother had also performed this task five years ago upon the death of his grandfather, who died at home in bed. In China, the clothes must be changed as soon as possible after death to ensure the deceased are dressed their best when entering the next world.
Once the clothes had been changed, we viewed the body again before it was put in a cold truck and taken to the mortuary. As is custom, we bowed three times before the truck drove away. Later that evening we returned to Nainai’s house where we would stay for the next three days, as tradition stipulates that the house of the dead must be kept warm. Nainai's ayi was very superstitious and was frightened the house would be haunted, so refused spend any time alone there, even in daylight.
The following morning, the undertaker arrived with incense and bags of paper money. He set up a shrine near the doorway with a large photo of Nainai as the centrepiece. On the table he placed a bowl of oranges and a plate of special biscuits as an offering, and a sand bowl in which the incense sticks were to be stood. On each side of the photograph were banners of handwritten calligraphy with wishes for a happy and prosperous afterlife. On the floor he placed a large terracotta urn which would be used to burn the paper money.
The burning of paper objects
Chinese people believe that by burning things – usually fake money and other paper objects considered precious – the dead can use them in the afterlife. Jacky Zheng, a drama teacher from Beijing, told me: “Chinese people believe that when people die they go to another world where they need money to live. Their families want them to have a good life in the other world so they burn anything they think they might want, like a horse, a TV, cars. Some people even burn paper iPhones. And always really big amounts of [fake] money, like billions.”
In Nanjing there is a tradition to make an offering to the dead at Chinese New Year, while other provinces have their own specific times to observe the custom. Jacky told me: “People usually do this three times in a year, sometimes more. There are special days [to make an offering] such as tomb-sweeping day, the day the people died, and, in the Chinese lunar calendar, Oct. 1 because that is the winter time in the other world. So they burn some paper cloth and heaters to help their family have a warm winter.”
Friends and family arrived over the course of the next three days to pay their respects. Each person lit an incense stick and raised it over their head three times as they uttered wishes for a safe passage into the afterlife. They then placed the incense stick in the sand bowl and kneeled or bowed three times before the photograph. Some people stayed a while to share a story about Nainai or to ask after the family, others left very quickly.
The day of the funeral arrived and the undertaker shepherded us onto a bus that had been hired to drive everyone to the crematorium and later to the cemetery. My husband, Nainai's grandson, was told to carry the large urn at the front of the procession and then smash it on the floor in the gateway to Nainai's housing compound as we left. This is a symbol of the end of a life. On our return from the cemetery later that day, the undertaker ignited a cloth over these ashes and we each had to jump over he small blaze before returning to the house. The idea is that bad spirits cannot pass through the fire and follow you into the house.
After the cremation we proceeded to the cemetery where the box of ashes was placed in the tomb. We had previously been given black armbands with a coloured circle denoting our relationship to the deceased. This a custom seems to vary widely, however, as people in the street would stop to ask why we were wearing them. After the tomb had been resealed with fresh cement, we each burned our armband in a metal urn in front of the tomb, followed by more paper money.
The wake was a meal with countless bottles of baiju and much talk of the hometown. After the wake, everyone who attended the proceedings was given a gift of a new rice bowl and chopsticks, a type of blessing for the living. In the space of three days, clinical absurdity and businesslike transactions had given way to superstition, tradition and ritual; the synthesis that is modern China.
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Keywords: funerals in china death in china
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