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Chinese Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs

Chinese funeral traditions have been carried down from generation to generation and still remain a part of modern society. Attending a Chinese funeral for the first time can be intimidating, but understanding the customs and etiquette can help make it less daunting. From traditional to modern practices, here is an in-depth look at what to expect when attending a Chinese funeral.

Chinese funeral traditions

Traditional Chinese funerals stem from Confucianism and Taoism, two Chinese religions that heavily influence the culture. Funerals are seen as very important in Chinese society; they are a way of honoring the deceased and showing respect to their ancestors.

What to expect before the funeral

In preparation for a traditional Chinese funeral, the family of the deceased may choose to get in touch with a feng shui master. The feng shui master will help decide on the best day and time for the funeral, as well as provide advice on where to place the casket and how to arrange flowers. They fill a role similar to a funeral director, except with a focus on feng shui. (Feng shui means 'wind-water' and is the ancient Chinese system of harmonizing everyone with their surrounding environment. This is accomplished by moving items and positioning items to bring about balance and harmony in various forms.)

The wake

The wake, or visitation, takes place for three days before the funeral. During the wake, family members, friends and acquaintances will typically come to pay their respects and offer condolences. The body of the deceased is usually placed in an open casket for viewing during the wake. Those attending the wake should wear darker, modest (but not cheap) clothing and avoid wearing red, as red is the color for happiness in Chinese culture.

The funeral

After the visitation period, the family and loved ones will traditionally hold a funeral. If you're attending a Chinese Buddhist or Taoist funeral, the service will most often be held in a Buddhist or Taoist temple and will be presided over by monks or priests. Prayers are said, incense is burned, and food offerings may be made. Guests should arrive on time with modest clothing and bring food if they wish to give it as an offering.

Wailing

As with some other Asian funeral traditions, Chinese funeral customs include a custom called wailing. Wailing is the act of expressing intense sorrow through loud cries and mourning -- this is customary and expected at a Chinese funeral. Wailing is such an important Chinese funeral tradition for some families that they will pay a professional wailer to come and wail at the funeral as a sign of respect towards the deceased.

What to wear to the funeral

Those attending the funeral should wear dark colors, such as black, navy blue or gray. The clothing should also be modest but look put together. Red should still be avoided and jewelry should be kept to a minimum as well. In general, it's considered a Chinese funeral taboo to wear clothing that's red -- these colors are reserved for happier moments.

The Chinese mourning period

After the funeral, there is a three to four-week period of mourning for the family of the deceased. During this time, it's important to show respect and support for those grieving as they adjust to life without their loved one. It's customary to bring food offerings

Chinese funerals: what type of flowers to bring or send

If you're considering sending or purchasing funeral flowers, you should generally send either white or yellow mums (chrysanthemums), as these are seen as the most appropriate choice to represent sorrow and respect. Sending large sprays or wreaths is appropriate, as Chinese funerals typically feature a large number of flowers.

Send flowers to a funeral

Offerings and incense

At the gravesite, monetary offerings are common. Offering incense and burning joss paper (which is also referred to as 'spirit' or 'ghost money') is also customary as it's believed this will help the deceased in their journey to the afterlife. This tradition is still included even in modern Chinese funeral customs, along with burning incense at the graveside ceremony if they choose to.

In addition to monetary offerings to the deceased, it's common for funeral attendees to give money to the family as well, either before the funeral or at the funeral. Typically, the total amount of money given to a family is an odd amount (such as $51) and can be given to the family directly – this is because even numbers are associated with auspicious occasions in Chinese culture. Since a funeral isn’t a “favorable” event, odd numbers are preferred.

Chinese superstitions about going to a funeral

There are different types of Chinese superstitions when it comes to death rituals and funerals. Choosing to honor these superstitions can help you immerse yourself in the culture and be sure you're respecting the choices of those around you. Here are some of the dos and don'ts during a Chinese funeral:

  • Don't look at the casket when it's being sealed or lowered into the gravesite. It's believed that your soul can get trapped in the casket if you witness the sealing or lowering of the casket into the gravesite. If you see individuals turning their backs during these moments at a Chinese funeral, this is most likely why.
  • Don't attend the service if you're engaged or pregnant. It is considered bad luck for those who are engaged or pregnant to attend a funeral service.
  • Do celebrate the life of those who lived a long life. In Chinese culture, those who have lived at least 80 years are considered to have lived a full and long life. If you're attending a funeral service for someone over 80, you can typically expect the mood at the service to be celebratory rather than somber.
  • Do share offerings in odd numbers. Odd numbers are generally preferred in Chinese culture when it comes to events that are not considered ‘auspicious’. This preference typically includes the number of mourners at the service as well as the amount of incense and offerings that are given.

Mourning period

The traditional mourning period in Chinese culture typically lasts up to 100 days. The seventh day following the funeral service is a unique time where the family of the deceased believes the soul of their loved one will visit them. In preparation for this, families will often sprinkle salt or powder to show the footsteps of the person who has visited them.

During the mourning period, families will also visit the gravesite regularly as a form of remembrance. When visiting the gravesite, they often clean the space and leave offerings in memory of the person who passed.

Attending a Chinese funeral for the first time can be an overwhelming experience if you're going in without any preparation, but understanding their customs and rituals will help you show respect and honor those who have passed away.

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Last updated December 15, 2022
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