Chinese death rituals follow a rich cultural tradition dating back to the earliest dynasties. Today's Chinese family still follows those traditions with a few small exceptions.
Respect is given to elders in Chinese society, including those who are deceased. While proper respect is paid to the elders, there still remains the question of how to prepare for the funeral of unmarried adults and children.
If a person has died a bachelor or bachelorette, no respect is paid to them as they are not considered an elder, nor do they have children to prepare their funeral for them. They are left at the funeral home and not brought home for a typical Chinese death ritual. The same is true for children. The family members perform these burials in silence.
Elaborate funeral preparations are done for elders in Chinese families. It is considered good and proper for children to go into debt in order to pay respect for older people at their funeral.
While some traditional Chinese death rituals use the three-humped rectangle shaped casket, more modern Chinese use the Western-style caskets.
Preparation of the Body
Before a body can be placed in a casket it must be washed with care, dusted with talcum powder and dressed in the very best clothes from their personal wardrobe. All other clothing belonging to the person must be burned. The person is usually dressed in black, blue or brown but never red as it is believed that this will cause the corpse to become a ghost. The body is then placed on a mat with the face covered with a yellow cloth and the body covered with a blue cloth.
Preparing the Home for Chinese Death Rituals
All statues of deities in the home are covered with red paper and all mirrors are removed from sight. This is done so that no one sees the coffin in a mirror. It is believed that if you do see a coffin in a mirror, you will have a death within your own family soon.
A white cloth is hung in the doorway of the home and a gong is placed outside of the door. If a male has passed, it is placed on the left side of the doorway and if a female has passed, the gong is placed on the right side of the doorway.
If the person has died at home, his or her coffin is placed on a stand within the home. If he or she died away from home, the coffin is placed on a stand within the home's courtyard.Wreaths, photos and gifts are placed near the head of the deceased as it lays in wake. Food is placed in front of the coffin as an offering to them. During the wake, the person's comb is broken in two; one half is placed in the coffin and the other half is given to the family members.
An altar is placed at the feet of the deceased person. There, a white candle is lit and incense is burned. Joss paper and prayer money are continually burned throughout the wake to ensure the deceased person has plenty of money in the afterlife. Those attending the funeral are required to light incense, bow to the deceased and place money in a donation box to help defray the cost of the funeral.
It is customary for family members and women to wail at Chinese wakes. The larger the fortune is left to the relatives, the louder the wailing. It is also customary for gambling to take place in the courtyards of the home. This is done to help family members stay alert during the wake and to take their minds off of the funeral.
A Monk's Vigil
Taoist or Buddhist monks keep vigil over the deceased during the night. They will chant verses of scripture for the deceased in order to help ease their journey into the afterlife.
The Funeral Procession
After the wailing for the dead person has reached its highest crescendo, the coffin is nailed shut and white and yellow holy papers are pasted to the coffin. These papers will deter malign spirits from interfering with the deceased person. Everyone present does not watch this part of the Chinese death ritual as it is considered very unlucky.
Pallbearers then remove the coffin from the house or courtyard, with the head facing toward the road. The body is then placed at the side of the road where more holy papers are pasted upon the coffin and more prayers are said. The body is then placed in a slow moving hearse. The eldest son, followed by the eldest family members, place their foreheads against the hearse and follows it.
Chinese burials traditionally occur on hillsides because of their belief in feng shui. The higher the person is buried on the hillside, the better it is for them. Once the body is placed in the grave, family members toss handfuls of dirt upon the casket. After the coffin is covered, the cemetery keeper offers prayers. Family members are then presented with red packets that contain money that must be spent and white towels to wipe perspiration from their faces.
The eldest son will keep a handful of dirt from the grave after the burial ceremony is complete. It will be used during worship ceremonies for the dead in the family home.