I attended a Chinese funeral

March 04, 2011, 05:17 AM posted in General Discussion

This Chinese New Year I attended a Chinese funeral when my grandfather-in-law unfortunately passed away. While it was obviously not the sort of even I would wish to attend, nevertheless since these events happen whether we want them to our not, the cultural knowledge I gained from it was quite interesting.

He passed away at about 10 PM. This is significant because in my wife’s hometown, a funeral ceremony must start and finish within three days. Although the day was almost over, it still counted as the first day. Thus, the whole family grieved for a few minutes and went to work transforming the house into a temporary funeral parlor. They went through the night. Because I have a young baby, and of course I have no idea about their customs, I was allowed to sleep/rest. It wasn’t an easy thing to do because their local custom is to have the lights on all night until the ceremony is completed.

I woke up at about 6 AM. There was already a huge tent set up outside. Grandpa was lying in state in the family gathering room (kind of like a living room, but not really). They had prepared for me and the family special clothes. The clothes looked like something out of a kung fu movie. Each outfit was slightly different. The differences indicate the relationship to the deceased.

Eventually the band arrived. Every ten minutes or so for the next two days, the band would play a traditional song. It was interesting that they used a synthesizer and an electronic drum kit in their act, which of course made the music sound a little different than one might expect.

The fake Buddhist monk arrived. He smoked cigarettes, and my wife said he probably had a family. I asked if the reason they didn’t get a real monk was because of the cost. My wife said there wasn’t any real monks around there anymore. At any rate, I think they don’t really care about Buddhism itself. They care about tradition and ritual. That’s what every thing was about. In the West it would be the same, but here it is much more important.

By noon the house was packed. In that town, many family members live near each other, and each family member must come. Throughout the day there were meals. There was a lot of incense and paper money burned. There was a shrine in front of grandpa that people bowed in front of, sort of a Buddhist ritual I gather.

Even though it was solemn, people found ways to pass the time. I was surprised to see how fast grandpa’s room was turned into a majong room. Where I’m from, I think people would consider this disrespectful, but they are much more communal here. I doubt anyone except me thought of it.

The Buddhist “monk” conducted a big ceremony at night. I was surprised at how unimportant most of the people thought it was to pay attention to it. The band still played outside. Chatter was at high volume. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. Upon reflection, this seemed to accord with what I have seen before. I’ve been to several apparently important ceremonies in China where most of the people just don’t pay attention. It goes back to tradition/ritual. It is important to ‘participate’, but it is less important to “participate”.

The next day there was a foot procession to the crematory. Because I was watching my baby, I didn’t attend. It took perhaps two hours to come back. After they came back, they put the ashes in a coffin, and there was another procession to the burial ground.

When we arrived, I was surprised to see that they lowered the coffin into the hole. It was a full-sized coffin. I thought they cremated bodies in China to save space, but apparently at least not always.

One of the rituals we did was throw coins into the hole. After we walked a few circles around the hole, someone pulled the money out and redistributed it to us. Apparently it is supposed to be lucky. It is interesting that money is a part of the ceremony. Where I’m from, this would probably seem disrespectful, or at least tacky, but to them it is a tradition, and they would think it is strange to disapprove.

After we walked back, we did one more bow, took our special clothes off, and then it was over. It was 10 AM. It had been thirty-six hours since grandpa passed away. What amazing efficiency.

I hope nobody thinks it is too strange that I would report on this on a public forum. I feel that insight into culture justifies it (I hope). I’m wondering if anyone else has attended a Chinese funeral? I imagine that the extreme importance on ritual is a common theme, but the particulars can vary quite a bit.

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March 04, 2011, 05:42 AM

A fascinating read, xiaophil. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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March 04, 2011, 06:42 AM

I attended a funeral when I was in the countryside in Hebei during Spring Festival. The man who'd passed away wasn't a member of the family I was staying with, so I didn't experience the whole three days, just part of the last day.

On the last day they hired musicians (about 8 of them total) who were there for entertaining the villagers. My friend said the family was probably not supposed to be outside watching, but some of them were, wearing roughly cut white muslin as shawls over their coats. The musicians  played traditional Chinese instruments including lots of cymbals, drums, and suona (which they later used to go through the village and round people up for the burial). And they also brought a keyboard and DJ equipment. So there was this cacophonous mix of traditional music alternating with modern Chinese party music (including karaoke-like performances by the younger troup members, complete with dancing).

So, this was strange enough, but the most surreal moment for me was when they played (the only English song of the day) "Na na na na hey hey hey goodbye". ......??!??!?....... No one seemed to think anything of the dance music - and my western brain was having a hard time adjusting to something that at home would be very disrespectful. So I also saw some of the 'participation, but not "participation". Being there was important - being solemn and appearing to be invested in the grief was apparently not as important.

The coffin was almost full-sized, even though the man had been cremated, and they put it on a tractor-pulled cart that had a canopy and side screens made of colorful cloth. They brought with them a lot of things made of paper that they were going to burn for the deceased to use in the after-life: houses, servants, horse and cart, car, TV, money (an interesting mix of traditional and modern - like much of life was there). The male relatives of the man had to move slowly with the coffin, with heads down and these odd white caps on their heads and white cloth fabric over their clothes. At one point the eldest son symbolically broke a bowl while they were all doing a lot of bowing...I can't remember if my friend told me why. We didn't go with them to the grave because we weren't family, so I didn't see what happened there. But it was a very interesting experience.

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Thanks for replying. It's pretty amazing that you saw so much of this, not being a family member and all.

As for "Na na na na hey hey hey goodbye", wow, that is interesting. I'm sure they had no idea what they were saying. One time I saw a commercial for a hospital in Shanghai. They used the theme to Star Wars--that's sacrilegious!

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Ya - well, I was in a very small village. And it seems like whatever happens in the village is for everyone to know about and participate in.

Ah - Star Wars. :) I met someone last week who attended an undergraduate commencement ceremony...in Shanghai, maybe...I can't remember. And the processional was The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme). I probably would have cracked up.

There's also a lot of 60s music turned into instrumental pieces - I heard a lot of "Sound of Silence" and "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head" in Xixi Wetland Preserve in Hangzhou. (Also, piping music into parks and historical places through rock-shaped speakers...very interesting.)

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Darth Vader's theme?! I probably would have jumped up and did a little march. That's awesome.

I rather dislike the rock speakers. Sometimes I'm in a park in China, and I think that it would be nice to have silence, but instead I get fluffy pop music shoved into my ears.

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March 07, 2011, 04:05 AM

Sorry to hear about your grandfather-in-law mate. Thanks for sharing. These real life observations, particularly having the details I find very interesting and informative. You've contributed to our cultural understanding here. 多谢

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March 07, 2011, 05:26 AM

Likewise xiaophil I am sorry to hear about your grandfather-in-law passing away, and thanks for giving us an insight into the customs. So very interesting.  I haven't attended a funeral but observed a funeral ceremony at a temple in town that involved just three people (immediate family) where maybe 40 or 50 monks performed a ritual around them. 

I wonder what happens when a waiguoren dies and chooses to be buried/cremated here - there must be a funeral business you can go to to make the arrangements. This will happen more and more in future so it helps to understand the local traditions.