The burial of the dead is a very serious matter in Chinese societies. Improper funeral arrangements can cause bad fortune upon the family of the deceased.
Chinese funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age, the manner of the death, the status and position in society and the marital status of the deceased.
According to Chinese custom, an older person should not show respect to a younger. Thus, if the deceased is a young bachelor his body cannot be brought home but is left in a funeral parlour. His parents cannot offer prayers for their son: being unmarried he has no children to perform these rites either. If a baby or child dies no funeral rites are performed, as respect cannot be shown to a younger person: the child is buried in silence.
Preparations for a funeral often begin before death has occurred. When a death occurs in a family all statues of deities in the house are covered with red paper and mirrors removed from sight, as it is believed that one who sees the reflection of a coffin in a mirror will shortly have a death in their own family. A white cloth will be hung across the doorway of the house and a gong placed on the left of the entrance if the deceased is male and right if female.
Before being placed in the coffin, the corpse is cleaned with a damp towel, dusted with talcum powder and dressed in their best clothes. The body is completely dressed, including footwear, and cosmetics if female, but it is not dressed in red clothes (as this will cause the corpse to become a ghost): white, black, brown or blue are the usual colours used. Before being placed in the coffin the corpse's face is covered with a yellow cloth and the body with a light blue one.
The coffin is placed on its own stand either in the house, if the person has died at home, or in the courtyard outside the house, if the person has died away from home. The coffin is placed with the head of the deceased facing the inside of the house resting about a foot from the ground on two stools, and wreaths, gifts and a portrait or photograph of the deceased are placed at the head of the coffin. The coffin is not sealed during the wake. Food is placed in front of the coffin as an offering to the deceased. The deceased’s comb will be broken into halves, one part placed in the coffin, one part retained by the family.
During the wake, the family does not wear jewellery or red clothing; red is the colour of happiness. Traditionally, children and grandchildren of the deceased did not cut their hair for forty-nine days after the date of death, but this custom is usually only observed now by the older generations of Chinese. It is customary for blood relatives and daughters-in-law to wail and cry during mourning as a sign of respect and loyalty to the deceased. Wailing is particularly loud if the deceased has left a large fortune.
At the wake, the family of the deceased gathers around the coffin, positioned according to their order in the family. Special clothing is worn: children and daughters in law wear black (signifying that they grieve the most), grandchildren blue and great grandchildren light blue. Sons-in-law wear brighter colours such as white, as they are considered outsiders. The children and daughters-in-law also wear a hood of sackcloth over their heads. The eldest son sits at the left shoulder of his parent and the deceased’s spouse at the right. Later-arriving relatives must crawl on their knees towards the coffin.
An altar, upon which burning incense and a lit white candle are placed, is placed at the foot of the coffin. Joss paper and prayer money, to provide the deceased with sufficient income in the afterlife, are burned continuously throughout the wake. Funeral guests are required to light incense for the deceased and to bow as a sign of respect to the family. There will also be a donation box, as money is always offered as a sign of respect to the family of the deceased: it will also help the family defray the costs of the funeral.
During the wake there will usually be seen a group of people gambling in the front courtyard of the deceased’s house: the corpse has to be ‘guarded’ and gambling helps the guards stay awake during their vigil; it also helps to lessen the grief of the participants.
The length of the wake depends upon the financial resources of the family, but is at least a day to allow time for prayers to be offered. While the coffin is in the house a monk will chant verses from Buddhist or Taoist scriptures at night. It is believed that the souls of the dead face many obstacles and even torments and torture, for the sins they have committed in life, before they are allowed to take their place in the afterlife: prayers, chanting and rituals offered by the monks help to smooth the passage of the deceased’s soul into heaven. These prayers are accompanied by music played on the gong, flute and trumpet.
When the prayer ceremonies are over the wailing of the mourners reaches a crescendo and the coffin is nailed shut. The sealing represents the separation of the dead from the living. Yellow and white ‘holy’ papers are pasted on the coffin to protect the body being disturbed by malign spirits. During the sealing of the coffin all present turn away from the coffin, as watching a coffin being sealed is considered very unlucky. The coffin is then carried (with the head of the deceased facing forward) from the house (being a pallbearer is considered to bestow the blessing of the deceased upon the bearer, thus there are usually many volunteers) using a piece of wood tied over the coffin.
The coffin is not carried directly to the cemetery but is first placed on the side of the road outside the house, where more prayers are offered and papers scattered. The coffin is placed in a hearse, which moves slowly for a mile, with the eldest son and family members following behind with their heads touching the hearse. If there are many relatives, a white piece of cloth links the hearse to family members behind. Order in the funeral procession follows the order of status in the family. A white piece of cloth is tied to vehicles accompanying the hearse, or a white piece of paper may be pasted on their windshields. The eldest son usually sits next to the coffin. A long, lit joss stick is held throughout the journey, symbolizing the soul of the deceased, and is relit immediately if it goes out.
Occasionally paper models of objects such as cars, statues ships etc. are carried with the procession symbolizing the wealth of the deceased’s family. If the procession needs to cross water, the deceased must be informed that the cortege is to cross it, as it is believed that if not informed, the soul of the dead will not be able to cross the water.
Chinese cemeteries are generally located on hillsides as this is thought to improve the feng shui. The further up the hill the grave is, the better its situation is thought to be.
When the procession arrives at the graveside it is taken down from the hearse and, again, all present turn away from the coffin, and also turn away when it is lowered into the grave. Family members and other relatives throw a handful of earth into the grave before it is filled. After the funeral, all clothes worn by the mourners will be burned in order to avoid the bad luck associated with death. After the coffin is buried, the keeper of the cemetery will also offer prayers for the deceased. Family members and relatives are presented with a red packet (a sign of gratitude from the deceased family, and the money contained in it must be spent) and a white towel, also as a sign of gratitude but also for funeral guests to wipe off perspiration.
The eldest son of the deceased will retrieve some earth from the grave to be placed in an incense holder, and the family at home using an ancestral tablet will worship the deceased.
Although the funeral rites are now over, the period of mourning by the family continues for a hundred days. A piece of coloured cloth is worn on the sleeve of each of the family members for the hundred days to signify mourning: black by the deceased’s children, blue by the grandchildren and green by the great-grandchildren. More traditional families will wear these cloths for up to 3 years. A period of mourning is not expected if children die, and a husband is not compelled to mourn the passing of his wife.
The return of the deceased
Chinese belief holds that seven days after the death of a family member the soul of the departed will return to their home. A red plaque with suitable inscription may be placed outside the house at this time to ensure the soul does not become lost.
On the day of the return of the soul, family members are expected to remain in their rooms. Flour or talcum powder may be dusted on the floor of the entrance hall of the home to detect the visit of the deceased.