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Chinese Funeral Traditions

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ARATS President Wang Daohan's Funeral Held In Shanghai
China Photos/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

See how people’s lives are remembered and celebrated at Chinese funerals. Chinese funeral traditions vary depending on where the deceased person and his or her family are from but some basic traditions still apply.

How Do Family and Friends Prepare for a Chinese Funeral?

The job of coordinating and preparing the Chinese funerals of elders falls on children or younger family members. It is part of the Confucian principle of filial piety, devotion to one’s parents. Family members must consult the Chinese Almanac to determine the best date to hold the Chinese funeral ceremony. Funeral homes and local temples help the family prepare the body and coordinate the funeral rites.

Announcements of the funeral are sent in the form of invitations. For most Chinese funerals, the invitations are white. If the person was age 80 or older, then the invitations are pink. Living until 80 or beyond is considered a feat worth celebrating and mourners should celebrate the person’s longevity rather than mourn.

The invitation includes information about the funeral’s date, time, and location as well as a small obituary that includes information about the deceased that may include his or her birth date, date of death, age, family members that survived them and sometimes how the person died, The invitation may also include a family tree.

A phone call or in-person invite may precede the paper invitation. Either way, an RSVP is expected. If a guest cannot attend the funeral, flowers and a white envelope with money should still be sent.

What Should Guests Wear to a Chinese Funeral?

Guests at a Chinese funeral wear somber colors like black. Bright and colorful clothing, especially red must be avoided as these colors are associated with happiness. White is acceptable and, if the deceased was 80 or above, white with pink or red is acceptable as the event is cause for celebration. The deceased person wears a white robe in which white envelopes with paper money are tucked inside.

What Happens During a Chinese Funeral?

First, there is often a wake that precedes the funeral. The wake can be held at the family’s home, a local temple (if the deceased was religious), or a funeral home. The wake may last several days. Family members are expected to keep an overnight vigil for at least one night in which the person’s picture, flowers, and candles are placed around the body and the family sits in wait.

During the wake, family and friends bring flowers, which are elaborate wreaths that include banners with couplets written on them, and white envelopes filled with cash. Traditional Chinese funeral flowers are white. Irises are a traditional Chinese funeral flower.

The white envelopes are similar to red envelopes that are given at weddings. White is the color reserved for death in Chinese Culture. The amount of money put in the envelope varies depending on the relationship to the deceased but must be in odd numbers. The money is meant to help the family pay for the funeral. If the deceased person was employed, his or her company is often expected to send a large flower wreath and sizeable monetary contribution.

At the funeral, the family will burn joss paper to ensure their loved one has a safe journey to the netherworld. Fake paper money and miniature items like cars, houses, and televisions are burned. A eulogy may be given and, if the person was religious, prayers may also be said.

The family will distribute to guests red envelopes with a coin inside each one to ensure they return home safely. The family may also give guests a piece of candy that must be consumed that day and before going home. A handkerchief may also be given.

The envelope with coin, sweet, and handkerchief should not be taken home. One final item, a piece of red thread, may be given. The red threads should be taken home and tied to the front doorknobs of the guests’ homes to keep evil spirits away.

What Happens After the Funeral?

After the funeral ceremony, a funeral procession to the cemetery or crematorium is held. A hired band resembling a marching band typically leads the procession. The band plays loud music to frighten spirits and ghosts.

The family wears mourning clothes and walks behind the band and a hearse or sedan containing the coffin and adorned with a large portrait of the decreased hanging on the windshield follows behind. Friends and associates complete the procession.

The size of the procession depends on the wealth of the deceased and his or her family. The sons and daughters wear black and white mourning clothes and walk in the front row of the procession. Daughters-in-law come next and also wear black and white clothes. Grandsons and granddaughters wear blue mourning clothes. Professional mourners who are paid to wail and cry are often hired to fill up the procession.

Depending on their personal preference, Chinese are either buried or cremated. At a minimum, families make an annual visit to the gravesite on the Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Festival.

Mourners will wear a cloth band on their arms to show that they are in a period of mourning. If the deceased is a man, the band goes on the left sleeve. If the deceased is a woman, the band is pinned to the right sleeve. The mourning band is worn for the duration of the mourning period which can last 49 to 100 days. Mourners also wear somber clothes. Bright and colorful clothes are avoided during the mourning period.

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