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Guide to Chinese Funeral Rites

Chinese funeral rites must be adhered to, so that the deceased will rest in peace and the living will be blessed by the deceased’s passing. Even on the last important occasion, Chinese funeral rites are symbolic acts of filial piety, the core teaching of Confucius, Menzi and other great Chinese philosophers.

The deceased automatically rises in rank. Rites must be observed to the last detail so that the spirit of the deceased can ascend to heaven peacefully and not become a homeless wanderer. As on auspicious occasions, aunts and grandaunts appear out of nowhere and give their words of wisdom that tend to divide and confuse the emotionally drained family members rather than ease their pain.

However, respect must also be given to the living. Thus, if the deceased’s parents are alive, and the deceased was living with them, the funeral wake will take place at a funeral parlour and not home. His parents will also not perform certain rites or mourn his death, although they may be physically at the wake. 

Before the coffin is placed in the home compound, mirrors are removed so that mourners cannot see the coffin in its reflection and have a death in their own family. Deities are also covered in red paper. The Chinese are made of people groups of various dialects, each having its subtle differences in speech and symbolism. For some, a white cloth flag and a kerosene lamp are placed side by side to guide the spirit of the deceased along the path he usually took when alive and to indicate that a wake is nearby. For others, pure white cloth denoting purity is placed over the doorway and a gong is placed on either side depending on the sex of the deceased.

Wreaths and blankets line the path to the hall. Blankets were given in the past to keep mourners warm in the night vigil, to cover the dead and to form a tent for the funeral when the family is too poor to afford a coffin or a room to place the dead. Banners carry a picture of the phoenix if the deceased is a female or the dragon in the case of a male.

If the deceased died within the house, the coffin will be placed in the house; otherwise, it will be outside the house. This is to help the spirit of the dead person identify the place his last rites will be performed. It is also a subtle hint to attendees of the wake that they may glint juicy stories from an otherwise solemn or boring event.

Before the body is placed in the coffin, it is ceremonially cleansed, embalmed and dressed in a favorite piece of clothing but it cannot be the wedding suit, white or anything with the color red on it. It is taboo for family and friends to witness the body being placed in the coffin. Likewise when the coffin is being sealed or carried from a stationary position, those within view will turn away. A life size photograph and an altar table are placed at the foot of the coffin, the photograph to aid mourners identify the right wake and the altar table to hold an incense pot, white candles and food for the departed.

The body lies in state for an odd number of days the wealthier the family or the more descendants of the deceased, the longer the wake. Buddhists or Taoists will invite monks or nuns to chant prayers at regular intervals so as to guide the spirit towards heaven. During these prayers, the descendants of the deceased will kneel at the foot of the coffin or walk round the coffin as directed by the chief monk or nun. A minimum of one day is accorded to the wake so that family and friends can mourn and funeral arrangements can be completed. 

Family members and close relatives in mourning do not wear jewelry and are in white, black, dark blue or blue attire, the more traditional having the sons and daughters in sack cloth and the others wearing a square piece of cloth on the sleeve as a sign of respect for the deceased and to indicate the relationship to the deceased.

The uninitiated often muse at mahjong players, the guardians of the corpse in ancient days tucked in an unobtrusive corner of the funeral parlor and think they are out to make a quick dollar out of the living. There are also wake attendees who laugh, joke and talk about anything except the dead and leave soon after a meal is served. Occasionally, the starving poor might also gate crash for a bite but none will be chased away in the hope that these acts of generosity will bring the dead closer to heaven.

In the name of well-being for the living, those paying their last respect to the deceased will receive a short length of red thread or a small coin wrapped dark red stained paper. They are to wind the thread round their finger and as they move off without turning around or saying goodbye, they are to inconspicuously dispose of the thread and not bring it home. However, the red coin packet is to be tucked and hidden in the bag or pocket and brought home. The money is to be spent the very next day.

There must be at least one family member by the side of the coffin. Family members are placed on a roster although some take their positions without complaint. Black cats are chased away as they are known in the Chinese world to cause the dead to arise. It is also the duty of those on sentry to ensure that joss sticks of incense are continuously lit at the foot of the deceased. Where electricity is absent, candles of white wax, not the auspicious red ones, are lit.

On the final night of the wake as well as the next day, the very traditional may bring in professional mourners. Some of these may well have played the role of the merry makers or coffin guardians at the mahjong tables. It is believed that the loud cries will help the dead to find their way to the nether world more quickly and appease the gods that those left behind are respectful of the dead. Prayers may be overnight as well as the wake itself.

At the funeral, final prayers are offered. For the wealthy, paper cars, houses, clothes and modern amenities are burnt together with stacks of paper money to ensure a comfortable after life. The coffin is usually carried to the hearse by male relatives or close friends after it is nailed shut. The hearse then moves slowly along a short distance, the last journey from home and on earth, while the mourners follow by foot in order of seniority right behind it.

The eldest son carries a photograph and the incense pot right behind the hearse and it symbolically makes the taking over as the head of the household once the deceased is laid to rest. On reaching the burial grounds on the crematorium, prayers are said for the last time and relatives move round the coffin to have a last look at their beloved. As the coffin is lowered into the ground, the hired mourners cry all the louder and the real mourners throw a handful of soil into the grave to symbolize closure to their relationship. The final act of mourning for the family members of cremated loved ones occurs a few hours later, whereby each family member will place a piece of the cooled bone into the urn and prayers are said as the urn is placed in the temple, urn house or the family ancestral hall at home. The incense pot which is used during the wake is placed at home to help the spirit identify the home.

After the funeral, mourning items are burned, the mourners bathe in water cleansed’ with the leaves of the pomelo fruit tree and chrysanthemum flowers and a meal is offered to all at the funeral. A white towel is offered as well to wipe away the bad connotations of being present at a funeral. Red packets are presented to helpers and the money in them are to be spent and not kept.

For people who hate to lose face, these rites are either performed from a sincere heart or enacted for the gains of the those the dead leave behind donations, known as baijin or white gold’, from attendees at the wake more than often cover funeral expenses as well as fatten the pocket of a dishonest guardian of the donations.

For the thoroughly traditional as a mark of respect and filial piety, mourning is extended for a few more weeks and even to a year during which family members abstain from joyous celebrations, wearing of jewelry and colorful clothes and hair-cutting. There are also prayers with food offerings, especially on designated days when the spirit of the departed will return home for a visit and all the family members will sleep in the same room.

The funeral rites do not stop after the burial or cremation. If cremation is performed, the eldest surviving son or spouse will be the first to place a bone into the urn, followed by other family members. The eldest surviving son or spouse also carries the urn to the coumbaria niche and place it inside after prayers and incense are offered.

The spirit of the deceased is believed to return to his home seven days after his death. Food and prayers are offered and the living usually huddle together to await the return. Flour or powder may be strewn on the floor to catch the footprints of the deceased. Mourners usually wear the sombr garb for seven, twenty-one or forty-nine days, and in more extreme families, up to five years, all to ensurre that the spirit of the deceased suffer less in the after life and hopefully proceed to eternal rest.