Funeral customs and the wake
The burial of the dead (cremation is traditionally uncommon) is a matter taken very seriously in Chinese societies. Improper funeral arrangements can wreak ill fortune and disaster upon the family of the deceased.To a certain degree, Chinese funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age of the deceased, the manner of his/her death, his/her status and position in society and his/her marital status.
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 (hence why the body does not come to the family home). 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.
Funeral rites for an elderly person must follow the prescribed form and convey relevant respect: rites befitting the person’s status, age etc. must be performed even if this means the family of the deceased must go into debt to pay for them.
Preparation for a funeral often begins before death has occurred: if a person is on his/her deathbed a coffin will often have already been ordered by the family. A traditional Chinese coffin is rectangular with three ‘humps’, but it more usual in modern times for a western style coffin to be used. The coffin is provided by an undertaker who oversees all the funeral rites.
When a death occurs in a family all statues of deities in the house are covered with red paper (so as not to be exposed to the body or coffin) 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 his/her 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 his/her best clothes from his/her own wardrobe (all other clothing of the deceased is burnt and not reused) before being placed on a mat (or hay if on a farm). 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 do not wear jewellery or red clothing, red being 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 gather 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 (or compound) 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.
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