Many Chinese people follow the belief system that the spirit of the deceased stays with the family for 7 days, and will then either go to heaven or hell, or be reincarnated. The burial of the dead is a very serious matter in Chinese culture, and it is very important that the process be handled correctly as to not inflict bad fortune onto the family of the deceased. To some degree, the burial tradition is based on the age of the deceased, the cause of death, the status and position in society and the marital status of the deceased.
Home Preparations: The family will prepare the home after the passing of a loved one, by first covering all deities in the home in red papers and removing all mirrors as to ensure the body and the coffin are never seen as a reflection in the mirror. It is believed that if you see the reflection of the coffin in a mirror that a death in that individual’s family will shortly occur. A white cloth is hung over the doorway of the house and a gong is placed either to the left of the entrance if the deceased is a male, or to the right if the deceased is female. All of the clothing of the deceased will be burned, with the exception of the deceased’s best outfit.
Preparation of the body: The body is first cleaned with a damp towel that has been dusted with talcum powder, and then dressed in the deceased’s best clothing. Color of clothing is typically white, black, brown or blue. In Chinese tradition, red is never put on a corpse, as it is said to turn the deceased into a ghost. Prior to being placed into the casket, a yellow cloth will be placed over the face and a light blue cloth will cover the body of the deceased. The coffin is placed on a stand either in the house or in the courtyard. The coffin is placed with the head of the deceased facing the inside of the house, resting at about one foot from the ground; wreaths, gifts and a portrait or photograph of the deceased are placed at the head of the coffin. The coffin is open during the wake. Food is placed in front of the coffin as an offering to the deceased.
When the prayer ceremonies are over, the coffin is nailed shut to represent the separation of the dead from the living. During this process, everyone must turn away as it is considered unlucky to watch a coffin being sealed. Yellow and white “holy” paper is pasted on the coffin to protect the body from malignant spirits. The coffin is then carried away from the house to the place of burial.
Typically, when a person passes away, the family will bury or cremate the body on that day, or the 3rd, 5th or 7th day following the death. The further the date of burial/cremation, the more friends and relatives the deceased had. Although in the past a Feng Shui specialist would evaluate the burial land to decide on the right place and right time for the burial, nowadays, land is limited, so burial grounds are scarce and many are drawn to cremation, with ashes placed in an urn.
Family Traditions: According to Chinese funeral customs, an elder should never show respect to someone younger. If the deceased is a young, unmarried male, or an infant child, the body cannot be brought home. It must remain at the funeral parlor and the parents are not allowed to offer prayers to their children. In these instances, the deceased is buried in silence. If a father passes away, the eldest son becomes the head of the family. But if the eldest son passes away, the second son does not assume leadership of the family, but instead is passed on to the eldest son of that eldest son who passed.
In many Asian cultures, the wearing of white is symbolic of death. White or off-white robes are traditionally worn to symbolize someone’s death and can be seen worn among relatives of the deceased during a Chinese funeral ceremony. In Chinese tradition, red is strictly forbidden, as it is a traditionally symbolic color of happiness. Contemporary Western influence has made dark-colored or black attire acceptable for mourners to wear and therefore mourners wearing dark colors may also wear a white or off-white armband during a Chinese funeral ceremony. Jewelry is not to be worn eithe
In older tradition, children and grandchildren of the deceased would not cut their hair for 49 days after the death, but this custom is now usually only observed by older generations. 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. The cries are particularly loud if the deceased has left a large fortune.
This is the fourth and final blog post for the series on unique burial and cremation customs throughout the world. Although at first glance, some of the traditions sound a bit harsh and very different from the customs of the U.S., they typically follow the belief system of that culture and are done with good reason and intentions.