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What are Chinese funerals like?

If you’ve been invited to a Chinese funeral you may have many questions – “What should I wear to a Chinese funeral?” “What should I bring to show my condolences?” “What will the funeral ceremony be like?”

In fact, there are numerous ethnic groups across China and each of them has its own funeral rituals; for the Han, the largest of the ethnic groups, traditional funeral customs encourage lavish funeral ceremonies. It is this tradition that we will focus on here.


Chinese funerals in history

Chinese funeral practices are based on the belief that spending a lot of money on funerals shows a deep love and abiding memory for the deceased, ensuring that the deceased’s spirit is happy and willing to help the bereaved as they continue with their lives. Over the long period of imperial rule, the extravagant rituals in the emperors’ funerals enhanced these beliefs. Emperors built large graves and put lots of treasures in them, in the hope of maintaining their power and wealth after death; the remnants of these can be seen in the Ming Tombs and the Terracotta Warriors

In ancient times, the Han people would bury the deceased, with funerals performed in three phrases: dressing the body, laying the body into the coffin, and burying the coffin. Nowadays the three phrases are not clearly divided, and people have begun to use cremation to dispose of bodies; nevertheless, the basic rituals are still carried out in similar ways.


The mourning tent

The funeral begins with the family telling relatives and friends of the bad news. Close relatives will shave, bathe and dress the deceased, and put the body into a coffin, or send it to the mortuary if it is to be cremated. Traditionally, families will then set up a tent near their house in order for friends and relatives to view the body and say their final goodbyes. During this time, mourning music will be played over and over. 

Close relatives will wear white clothes that differ from person to person, indicating their relationship with the deceased. Buddhist monks or Taoist priests (usually an odd number – five, seven or nine) will chant sutras in the tent. Relatives stay up all night in order to keep the deceased company, as his or her spirit has not yet left the family. People who come to mourn will bring colored paper wreaths or written elegies (in the form of calligraphy couplets composed and written by the mourner) as a way to send condolences. Close relatives will knee down and kowtow to thank the visitor. 


The funeral home

Some people skip the funeral tent and let friends and relatives view the body at the funeral home. In this case, often a host will ask for one-to-three minutes’ silence to pay respect and mourn, and a eulogy will be spoken. Later, the deceased will be buried or cremated. This process is often exclusively witnessed by close relatives and friends. If you are not invited, you should not go along. 

Whether the body is being buried or cremated, color paper wreaths, written elegies and fake paper money will be burned in the belief that those things will go along with the deceased to their afterlife; other items that the deceased liked in life, such as personal objects, may also be burned.

After the ceremony the body or cremated remains will be interned in a tomb. Close family members will visit this tomb seven days after the death, and every seventh day after that until seven weeks have passed; then they will visit again on the hundredth day since the death to complete the funeral ritual. After that, the tomb will be visited on the anniversary of the death and on national mourning days such as Tomb Sweeping Festival, and of course at any other times that they personally want to visit and pay their respects.


What to wear

Visitors should wear white or black clothes, or at least dark colors. In some cases, the family of the deceased will accept money, though the visitor should confirm this before handing them the cash. As mentioned above, colored paper wreaths, flowers, or elegies in the form of couplets written in Chinese calligraphy can also be brought to the funeral; they may be burned after the ceremony, as mentioned above.

If you intend to bring flowers, white and yellow chrysanthemum are the best choice, as they are traditional symbols of death and mourning (one good reason why you should never buy chrysanthemums as a gift outside of funerals!). After the funeral, the family may invite visitors to a banquet, as a way to thank them for their time and effort.


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