When a Chinese family member passes on, you may be unfamiliar of the customs and Tradition to handle it. We have prepared a comprehensive list of DOs and DONT's for family members and guest who may be attending a funeral wake.
Funeral Preparation (by family)
Ancestral portraits to be taken down
Altar to be covered
Mirrors and reflective surface to be covered
Preparing a set of clothing worn by deceased - To be passed to funeral director
Preparing a set of clean clothing for yourself to be worn after funeral procession - On the final day
Taboos To Avoid
Do Not Shed Tears Onto Coffin
If Menstruating, Do Not Touch Coffin
Chinese funeral rites must be adhered to, this ensure that the deceased will rest in peace and the living will be blessed by the deceased’s passing. Even on the last important occasion, Chinese funeral rites are a symbolic acts of filial piety, the core teaching of Confucius, Menzi and other great Chinese philosophers.
However, respect must also be given to the living. If the deceased’s parents are alive, and the deceased was living with them, the funeral wake must place outside of home. His parents will also not perform certain rites or mourn his death, although they may be physically at the wake.
Before the coffin is placed in tentage setup or funeral parlour, mirrors are removed so it does not reflect another death at home or in their own family. Deities are also covered in red paper. Chinese are made of groups of various dialects, each having its subtle differences in speech and symbolism. For some, a white cloth flag and a kerosene lamp are placed side by side to guide the spirit of the deceased along the path he usually took when alive and to indicate that a wake is nearby. For others, pure white cloth denoting purity is placed over the doorway and a gong is placed on either side depending on the sex of the deceased.
Wreaths and blankets line the path to the funeral hall. Blankets were given in the past to keep mourners warm in the night vigil. Banners carry a picture of the phoenix if the deceased is a female or the dragon in the case of a male.
Before the body is placed in the coffin, it is ceremonially cleansed, embalmed and dressed in a favorite piece of clothing under the care of undertaker and embalmer. It is important to note that clothing should not be wedding suit/dress, white or anything with the color red on it. It is taboo for family and friends to witness the body being placed in the coffin. Likewise when the coffin is being sealed or carried from a stationary position, those within view will turn away. A life size photograph and an altar table are placed at the foot of the coffin, the photograph to aid mourners identify the right wake and the altar table to hold an incense pot, candles and food for the departed.
The body lies in state for an odd number of days the wealthier the family or the more descendants of the deceased, the longer the wake. Buddhists or Taoists will invite monks, priest or nuns to chant prayers at regular intervals so as to guide the spirit towards heaven. During these prayers, the descendants of the deceased will kneel at the foot of the coffin or walk round the coffin from left to right as directed by the chief monk or nun. A minimum of one day is accorded to the wake so that family and friends can mourn and funeral arrangements can be completed.
Family members and close relatives in mourning do not wear jewelry and are in white, black, dark blue or blue attire, the more traditional having the sons and daughters in sack cloth and the others wearing a square piece of cloth on the sleeve as a sign of respect for the deceased and to indicate the relationship to the deceased.
The uninitiated often muse at mahjong players, the guardians of the corpse in ancient days tucked in an unobtrusive corner of the funeral parlor and think they are out to make a quick dollar out of the living. There are also wake attendees who laugh, joke and talk about anything except the dead and leave soon after a meal is served. Occasionally, the starving poor might also gate crash for a bite but none will be chased away in the hope that these acts of generosity will bring the dead closer to heaven. It is also common for passer by to drop in to pay respect for your loved one.
There must be at least one family member by the side of the coffin. Family members are placed on a roster although some take their positions without complaint. Black cats are chased away as they are known in the Chinese world to cause the dead to arise. It is also the duty of those on sentry to ensure that joss sticks of incense are continuously lit at the foot of the deceased. Where electricity is absent, candles of white wax are lit.
On the final night of the wake as well as the next day, the very traditional may bring in professional mourners. Some of these may well have played the role of the merry makers or coffin guardians at the mahjong tables. It is believed that the loud cries will help the dead to find their way to the nether world more quickly and appease the gods that those left behind are respectful of the dead. Prayers may be overnight as well as the wake itself. It is also a sign to celebrate what wonderful life the deceased as lived so the spirit of the deceased would be less attached onto this world.
At the funeral, final prayers are offered. For the wealthy, paper cars, houses, clothes and modern amenities are burnt together with stacks of paper money to ensure a comfortable after life. The coffin is usually carried to the hearse by male relatives or close friends after it is nailed shut. The hearse then moves slowly along a short distance, the last journey from home and on earth, while the mourners follow by foot in order of seniority right behind it.
The eldest son carries a photograph and the incense pot right behind the hearse and it symbolically makes the taking over as the head of the household once the deceased is laid to rest. On reaching the burial grounds on the crematorium, prayers are said for the last time and relatives move round the coffin to have a last look at their beloved. As the coffin is lowered into the ground, the hired mourners cry all the louder and the real mourners throw a handful of soil into the grave to symbolize closure to their relationship. The final act of mourning for the family members of cremated loved ones occurs a few hours later, whereby each family member will place a piece of the cooled bone into the urn and prayers are said as the urn is placed in the temple, urn house or the family ancestral hall at home. The incense pot which is used during the wake is placed at home to help the spirit identify the home.
After the funeral, mourning items are burned, the mourners bathe in water cleansed’ with the leaves of the pomelo fruit tree and chrysanthemum flowers and a meal is offered to all at the funeral. A white towel is offered as well to wipe away the bad connotations of being present at a funeral. Red packets are presented to helpers and the money in them are to be spent and not kept.
For people who hate to lose face, these rites are either performed from a sincere heart or enacted for the gains of the those the dead leave behind donations, known as baijin or white gold’, from attendees at the wake more than often cover funeral expenses as well as fatten the pocket of a dishonest guardian of the donations.
For the thoroughly traditional as a mark of respect and filial piety, mourning is extended for a few more weeks and even to a year during which family members abstain from joyous celebrations, wearing of jewelry and colorful clothes and hair-cutting. There are also prayers with food offerings, especially on designated days when the spirit of the departed will return home for a visit and all the family members will sleep in the same room.
The spirit of the deceased is believed to return to his home seven days after his death. Food and prayers are offered and the living usually huddle together to await the return. Flour, rice or powder may be strewn on the floor to catch the footprints of the deceased. Mourners usually wear the somber colors for seven, twenty-one or forty-nine days, and in more extreme families, up to five years, all to ensure that the spirit of the deceased suffer less in the after life and hopefully proceed to eternal rest.