Perhaps I got a little ahead of myself with an entry about tomb robbers without first posting Sharon's presentation about the funeral. I remember telling my students about western Halloween customs and myths. They were particularly surprised at how jolly we were with our ghost stories and costume parties. There are very few marriages in July because that is a month of superstition and commemoration of the dead in China and one is very careful about what one says out loud lest a spirit should overhear and take offense. They were very nervous talking about ghosts which are looked upon with a degree of negative suspicion in spite of filial ties to ancestors and burning money and offerings, sending these goodies via the smoke to loved ones on the other side to make their after-life more comfortable.
I also remember learning on our tour of Southeast Asia about the graves I saw in the middle of the rice fields so the recent dead could be close to family and home. And then, in some cultures, three years later the remains were removed to another, more permanent place.
Here is what Sharon presented on the subject:
"As sad as it sounds to discuss, funeral customs really do vary significantly from country to country. If you should ever find yourself in a position where you must attend a chinese funeral it will be helpful to understand exactly what the traditions entail as the customs are much different than those found in the west or even in surrounding European countries."
1. CUSTOMS & TRADITIONS BEFORE DEATH
"Many Chinese families recognize the importance of having the deceased's body lie in the home after death. As such, if someone who is older or chronically ill is lying sick in the hospital, the family will likely bring that family member home so that he or she can die peacefully surrounded by loving friend and family members.
"Preparation for the funeral begin immediately after the family realized their loved one is preparing to pass on. Once their loved one passes away they will want to focus most of their time on mourning so it is imperative that most of the preparation are completed in advance.
"Traditionally, the women would begin to sew special outfits for their family members to wear during the deceased's wake. Today these outfits can be purchased in stores, freeing the time of the women so that they can focus on their families. When a family enters the mourning period they are not allowed to take a bath or cut their nails or hair until it is over. They are also forbidden to leave the family compound because doing so is believed to bring bad luck to the family.
2. PREPARING FOR THE WAKE
"Upon the death of a loved one the body and casket must be prepared for the wake and funeral. The body is first washed and powdered and is dressed in his or her favorite or best outfit. The color of the clothing is usually dark blue, black, brown and sometime even lighter green or white. Red clothing is never used.
"Before the body is placed inside, the casket is lined with additional clothing. This is traditionally done so that the deceased will have something special to wear as he moves through the afterlife. After the body is placed inside the cast, a black pearl will be placed in between the lips before the entire body is covered with glass to present exposure to air as the bodies are rarely embalmed. From this point forward the family of the deceased is no longer allowed to see the body.
3. THE CHINESE WAKE
"At the time of death, an urn is lit and placed near the casket. Family members participating in the wake will ensure that the urn continues to burn throughout the wake. They will do so by placing gold prayer papers into the urn, representing a gift of money. The casket will be moved to the front hall of the family complex where all furniture will be removed and all mirrors, statues, and altars will be covered.
"The length of the wake can be anywhere from three to seven days depending on the age of the deceased individual. The longest wake, seven days, is reserved for elder family members who have lived past the age of ninety. During the wake, family members sit and fold prayer papers into replicas of Chinese coins and they believe that the more they fold the more money their loved one will receive in the afterlife.
"The evening prayers during the wake are incredibly important. The Chinese believe that upon death you will immediately go to hell unless your family members pray for you. The deceased's wife and anyone older than the deceased is exempt from prayer.
4. THE MORNING OF THE FUNERAL
"On the day of the funeral the family will pray before the casket is loaded on the Hurst Mourners are not supposed to watch the casket and, as such, will cover and turn their heads. The deceased's son will ride on the Hurst with him and everyone else will follow behind to the funeral site.
"At the grave, the family will again turn their heads as it is considered bad luck to watch the casket as it is lowered into the ground. The paper money folded during the wake will be burnt and the ashes are often collected and scattered on the family altar back home.
"After the funeral, family members are allowed to wash their faces and change into traditional clothing but must attach a small cloth to their arms to signify that they are still in mourning. The family will continue to pray, especially on the 49th and the 100th day after death, and at each prayer they will burn effigies including things they believe their loved one needs.
"In conclusion, a good egg must behave himself in a Chinese funereal and show his respect to the deceased."