A Chinese funeral is steeped in solemn beauty and tradition. It's a display of respect and honor of heritage. Customs may vary by geography and a family's religion and the age, social status and cause of death. Still, all traditional Chinese funerals include certain elements and follow etiquette around the length of the visitation, dress code and colors.
Chinese people believe that funeral customs and traditions must be followed very strictly or else bad luck may befall the family.
In this article, you will learn the following about Chinese funerals:
The role of the family
Traditionally, Chinese families are known to host lavish funeral ceremonies for their loved ones, as elaborate funerals help determine status in society. The family plays a key role in organizing the funeral. They may enlist the help of a monk, priest or another clergy member who reflects the family’s religious traditions.
The traditional mourning period, called 守喪 (shǒusāng) is one year, and for the first-born son up to three years, though modern Chinese families observe a period of 49 days. During that time, the family prays for their loved one every week.
Before the funeral
When a loved one dies, there are many arrangements to be made. Among the first things a Chinese family may do is contact a feng shui 風水 (fēngshuǐ) master to choose the day and time for their loved one's funeral and burial. If a gravesite hasn't already been chosen, they will ask the feng shui master to help them choose cemetery property with location and orientation in mind—often on a hill and never under a tree.
It’s common for Chinese families to honor their loved ones with three days of visitation before the funeral. The loved one will be dressed in his or her best clothing or a traditional white burial robe. Only loved ones who lived to be 80 or older can be dressed in red or other colorful clothing.
If facilities allow, the family may choose to stay with their loved one overnight, even preparing meals on-site. This is called 守夜 (shǒuyè).
The day of the funeral
At the end of the visitation period, the casket is sealed. If family members are present, they will turn their backs because they believe that the souls of the people who see a casket being closed will be trapped in the coffin. Likewise, at the gravesite, family and friends turn their backs on the casket as it is lowered into the grave.
During the funeral ceremony, the casket stays open. This is considered respectful to the elders and the loved one who has died.
Chinese funeral flowers
White or yellow mums are most often used for Chinese funerals, as white chrysanthemums symbolize grief. The white iris is traditional for families from certain regions of China. However, in the case of an elder who lived to be 80 or older, red flowers—and often a red casket interior—will be chosen. Both the visitation and funeral may include many large wreaths and sprays of flowers, 花圈 (huāquān). In fact, it's not uncommon for flowers to fill a room.
Women in the family often wear mourning flowers in their hair. The color depends on their relation to the loved one:
- White–wife, daughter, daughter in law
Burning incense and joss paper
A grieving family may burn incense, 香 (xiāng), throughout the funeral service. They may also burn joss paper, 香紙 (xiāng zhǐ), also known as ghost or spirit money, though it's often also paper houses, cars and other objects. The tradition helps ensure that the loved one will have the things they need to be comfortable in the afterlife.
The family may also burn incense or joss paper money at the graveside ceremony and upon returning to the gravesite a few days later.
Gifts of money to the family
Chinese funeral guests can be expected to give the grieving family money, 奠儀 (diàn yí), at the funeral or one day prior. The traditional gift is an odd dollar amount, starting at $101, in a white envelope. It may be handed to a family member or put into a donation box. The person giving the gift can write his or her name on the envelope or leave it blank.
After the funeral service
After the funeral, there is a procession to the gravesite or crematory. Tradition calls for the loved one's oldest son or grandson to lead, carrying a large portrait of the loved one and the incense holder. Other family members follow the leader. Friends and other guests walk behind the family.
Once a loved one's casket has been lowered into the ground or taken into the crematory, the service ends.
If the family is of Cantonese origin, they give red (for loved ones over 80) or white envelopes containing candy and coins to their guests. Leave the bad luck at the funeral, and bring good luck home. In Chinese culture, red is the color of good luck, and the coin represents fortune. Before guests arrive home, they should eat the candy and spend the coin to seal their luck.
Families in other regions may present guests with a red thread instead. Guests are to take the thread home and tie it to a doorknob to ward off evil spirits.
What to wear to a Chinese funeral
Traditionally, family and guests of a Chinese funeral wear plain white and brown burlap clothes, 披麻戴孝 (pī má dàixiào). A son or son-in-law will wear a black armband. Western influences have made black attire more acceptable at Chinese funerals, so if you want to wear conservative black dress clothes, you can feel free to do that.
There's an exception to this tradition, however. If the loved one died naturally at 80 or older, the funeral event is a celebration of a long life, and guests may wear pink or red to show their happiness.
Different Chinese cultural traditions
Chinese families follow a variety of religious practices, including Hindu and Taoist. Families living in the United States may also combine their cultural traditions with Christian funeral practices.
Buddhism is Asia’s most widespread religion, and the majority of Buddhists in the United States are Asian Americans. vary, but it’s common for Buddhist services to include an altar with a portrait of their loved one, where friends and family can bring offerings of candles, incense, flowers and fruit. A Buddhist service may be presided over by a monk, and an image of Buddha could be placed near the altar. Chanting, 誦經 (sòng jīng), is the most important aspect of a Buddhist funeral, as it helps ensure the loved one reaches enlightenment in death.
What is a witness cremation?
Chinese people equally accept casket burial and cremation. The choice is a matter of personal preference, and some families choose to watch or even participate at the beginning of the cremation.
During a witness cremation, which is also called a cremation viewing, family members are brought into the crematory to watch as their loved one is moved into the cremation chamber. In some cases, a loved one may be permitted to press the button that starts the cremation process.
Not every funeral home or crematory is set up to accommodate a cremation viewing, but it is becoming more common. If this is important to your family, be sure to bring it up early in the funeral planning process.
Let us help you plan a traditional Chinese funeral
If you are seeking to plan a funeral that will honor your family traditions and the wishes of your loved one, Dignity Memorial professionals can help. It’s important to choose a funeral home provider familiar with Asian funeral traditions that can assist you in for your loved one. We specialize in honoring family customs while adding personal details where appropriate. Our funeral homes offer cremation services, and many include a private witness room where the family can gather to pay respects and reflect on the life being honored.