It is not often that I get invited to a Chinese funeral, so I was pretty intrigued. Turns out they are very different to funerals in the West. For starters the guest list was unexpected: pregnant women must not attend as a funeral is believed to adversely affect the unborn child, work colleagues of the deceased were asked not to attend (it was a work day and they were told to stay at work), but the strangest absentee by far was the deceased man’s wife of 50 years, it was felt to be too traumatic for her at her age. Other important things to know before a funeral is that red clothing is a no-no unless the person that died was over 80 years old and a Hongbao should still be given but they are placed in a white envelope.
Once all guest were gathered off we went, our small solemn group, to mourn the death of a 73 year old man.
The crematorium was an extremely uninviting looking place. Again, so different to what I’ve seen in my home country. Beautiful gardens, arbors, flowers, trees and the peaceful serenity of a private chapel were replaced by an enormous, grey, stark structure with no gardens, no trees and no character. Upon arrival family members tied white cloths around their waists to distinguish themselves from the other mourners. There were about 20 of us including the family, which doesn’t sound like a lot but was in fact, too many to fit into the mourning room, and so some of us stood outside.
Family members tying white cloth around their waists
The mourning room
Down each side of the room stood large floral wreaths adorned with fake flowers and draped with farewell messages. The body lay in the center of the room in a glass topped refrigerator set at -22°C and at the foot of the fridge there was a coffin made of either bamboo or cardboard lined with colorful silk cloth. At the front end of the room was an altar on which there were vases with flowers and joss sticks for burning. I have to say it was good to see that the coffin was just a simple container and that the practice of using expensive wood has been done away with. There are almost 9 million deaths a year in China; the quantity of wasted timber would be enormous.
Handling the body
The refrigerator is opened and after members of the family and a few other selected people have been handed white cotton gloves they all take hold of the cloth that the body is lying on and together lift it from the container and place it into the coffin. The family had hired a Feng Shui Master and he began to allocate tasks to specific family members such as the offering of prayers at the altar and the correct positioning of the joss sticks once they had been lit. After the body had been placed in the coffin, the cloth covering his face was removed. This was the signal for the wailing, by some of the females there, to begin.
The deceased was dressed in a black suit, a baseball style cap and inserted in the mouth was a coin on a piece of string. The Feng-Shui master directed a number of different procedures at this point including unbuttoning the jacket, and the correct placement of money and food into pockets and under the body to help the spirit on its journey. The face and neck were then washed lovingly by the deceased’s daughter. After this was done we were all asked to walk around the coffin to pay our respects. The face is then covered again with a cloth and the lid of the coffin is put in place. The wailing gets louder. Men don’t cry – just the women.
Moving the body
The exit doors opened onto a long ramp outside; the family knelt at the end of the ramp to watch the coffin while the rest of us watched from the side. The master gathered some paper money and while the oldest son knelt at the front of the other members the master lit the paper and placed it into a black ceramic dish and as the last of the embers died the dish was smashed on the ground.
Then the coffin is wheeled down the ramp and outside. I had thought the wailing unnervingly loud earlier, but now all the women reached a new crescendo as they said goodbye to their beloved relative. The coffin was then wheeled to another section of the building, up another ramp and into a corridor to await cremation. It’s hard to imagine how the logistics of this ceremony would work if it had been raining.
Waiting for the ashes
A funeral is usually over at this stage in many Western countries. You offer your condolences to the relatives and either go home or attend the wake. Here, you walk to the other side of the building and wait for the ashes after cremation. The two brothers and the sister actually witness the cremation; I’m still unclear whether this is to ensure they get the right ashes afterwards or whether it formed part of the ceremony. The cremation took about 45 minutes. The rest of us waited in a sterile room, three times the size of the mourning room. I spent the time watching the Feng-Shui Master unpack a beautifully made mahogany box, in which the ashes would be placed.
The Ashes ceremony
From my personal experience ashes from a cremation are seen as just that, grey ash in a container, but when the relatives arrived with the container from the furnaces it held no ashes, only the bones. The master washed the hands of the two sons in Baijiu before they handled the bones. With white gloved hands the bones are placed into the box in such a way as to remake the body. When the box was full, the bones, as brittle as eggshells, were crushed down to make room for the rest. Only the male offspring can perform this ceremony. I asked what happens in a one child family where the only child is a girl? Raised eyebrows but no answers were forthcoming.
Once all the bones were placed in the box we went outside to another section of buildings where relatives were burning paper money and gold paper ingots in furnaces. Only family are allowed in this area, except for a brief moment when biscuits were handed out to us all as part of the Feng-Shui. The ashes can be brought back to this place for burial or placement in a wall but I saw no evidence that anybody had done this. It would be impossible to dig up the ground for a burial in this province in the winter.
This was as expected with everybody making their way to a restaurant for a lavish meal. The two sons and the daughter stood at the doorway before we started eating and said thank you to everyone and bowed three times. While my Chinese is not good I observed nobody speaking of the dearly departed. At the restaurant the wife of the deceased finally made an appearance.
Obviously there are major differences between a Chinese funeral and a Western funeral, from the handling of the body to the wait for the ashes to the behavior of guests and everything in between. Despite not fully knowing the significance of each and every act, this experience – as sad as the occasion was – taught me a number of valuable lessons regarding funeral etiquette and culture in China.
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Keywords: Chinese Funeral Funeral in China; China’s funeral ceremony
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