As sad as it sounds to discuss, funeral customs really do vary significantly from country to country. If you should ever find yourself in a position where you must attend a Chinese funeral it will be helpful to understand exactly what the traditions entail as the customs are much different than those found in the west or even in surrounding European countries.
Customs and Traditions before Death
Many Chinese families recognize the importance of having the deceased’s body lie in the home after death. As such, if someone who is older or chronically ill is lying sick in the hospital the family will likely bring that family member home so that he or she can die peacefully surrounded by loving friends and family members.
Preparations for the funeral begin immediately after the family realizes their loved one is preparing to pass on. Once their loved one passes away they will want to focus most of their time on mourning so it is imperative that most of the preparations are completed in advance.
Traditionally, the women would begin to sew special outfits for their family members to wear during the deceased’s wake. Today these outfits can be purchased in stores, freeing the time of the women so that they can focus on their families.Â When a family enters the mourning period they are not allowed take a bath or cut their nails or hair until it is over. They are also forbidden to leave the family compound because doing so is believed to bring bad luck to the family.
Every member of the family wears a specific color to the wake. The husband or wife of the deceased and their sons are required to wear black, grandchildren and their spouses will wear dark blue, and great grandchildren and their spouses will wear a shade of pink. If the deceased’s daughter is married, she and her spouse are not required to mourn but are encouraged to join the family each evening for a prayer session at which point they’ll be given a piece of cloth in the appropriate color to place on their arm. If a male member of the family is engaged his fiancÃ© will also be given a pink swatch to wear if she attends prayer.
Preparing for the Wake
Upon the death of a loved one the body and casket must be prepared for the wake and funeral. The body is first washed and powdered and is dressed in his or her favorite or best outfit. The color of the clothing is usually dark blue, black, brown and sometimes even lighter green or white. Red clothing is never used.
Before the body is placed inside, the casket is lined with additional clothing. This is traditionally done so that the deceased will have something special to wear as he moves through the afterlife. After the body is placed inside the casket, a black pearl will be placed in between his lips before the entire body is covered with glass to prevent exposure to air as the bodies are rarely embalmed. From this point forward the family of the deceased is no longer allowed to see his body.
The Chinese Wake
At the time of death, an urn is lit and placed near the casket. Family members participating in the wake will ensure that the urn continues to burn throughout the wake. They will do so by placing gold prayer papers into the urn, representing a gift of money.Â The casket will be moved to the front hall of the family complex where all furniture will be removed and all mirrors, statues, and alters will be covered.
Image credit: Gilgongo
The length of the wake can be anywhere from three to seven days depending on the age of the deceased individual. The longest wake, seven days, is reserved for elder family members who have lived past the age of ninety. During the wake, family members sit and fold prayer papers into replicas of Chinese coins and they believe that the more the fold the more money their loved one will receive in the afterlife.
The evening prayers during the wake are incredibly important. The Chinese believe that upon death you will immediately go to hell unless your family members pray for you. The deceased’s wife and anyone older than him does is exempt from prayer.
Despite the length of the wake, death is considered a happy occasion. As such, visitors to the wake are given food and drink. If the deceased was elderly other adults may start gambling games. If the family is wealthy, you might even see entertainment at the wake.
The Morning of the Funeral
On the day of the funeral the family will pray before the casket is loaded onto the Hurst. Mourners are not supposed to watch the casket and, as such, will cover and turn their heads. The deceased’s son will ride on the Hurst with him and everyone else will follow behind to the funeral site.
At the grave, the family will again turn their heads as it is considered bad luck to watch the casket as it is lowered into the ground. The paper money folded during the wake will be burnt and the ashes are often collected and scattered on the family alter back home.
After the funeral, family members are allowed to wash their faces and change into traditional clothing but must attach a small cloth to their arms to signify that they are still in mourning. Mourning periods may last anywhere from three weeks to give years depending on the family member. The family will continue to pray, especially on the 49th and 100th day after death, and at each prayer they will burn effigies including things they believe their loved one needs.
Funeral Customs and Pending Marriages
Anyone engaged to be married at the time an elder dies is required to finalize his or her marriage within 100 days. If they fail to do so they must wait a full three years after the elder’s death before they can marry.
If you are visiting and should happen to venture from your hotel in China and stumble upon a funeral, be respectful. Don’t gawk at the family or take pictures. Allow them to mourn peacefully as you would expect others to do if you were experiencing the same!