Funerals -- just like birthdays and weddings, the celebrations we hold to celebrate the end of life say so much about culture. The ways that we say goodbye often trace back to our perspectives on life. As a student of Chinese culture, the small, but meaningful differences between Western and Asian funerals have fascinated me. All reveal something about the Chinese mindset.
Some differences can be attributed to differences in the dominant religions -- Judeo-Christian versus Buddhism. For example, bringing offerings of water, fruit, and money to the grave is a religious rite. Mourners also burn miniature paper renderings (joss paper) of all kinds of things during the funeral: cars, cell phones, clothes, accessories, houses and office supplies. Chinese Buddhists believe these provisions will sustain their loved ones in the afterlife.
Example of joss paper house burned during Chinese funeral
Others differences are rooted in tradition. While black is the color associated with death in the West, white is the color for death in China. Just as red envelopes full of cash are given by the Chinese during weddings and holidays, white money envelopes are brought by funeral attendees and given to the deceased’s family to pay for the funeral expense. Because red is the Chinese color for happiness, red should never be worn to a Chinese funeral. Red flowers should also be avoided in funeral floral arrangements.
One Chinese holiday is dedicated to honoring the dead. Tomb Sweeping Day, (Qing Ming Jie, 清明节) was created by an Emperor during the Tang dynasty to prevent the citizens from too frequently (and too extravagantly) honoring their deceased relatives. Instead, the Emperor wanted to limit the festivities to one day a year, and only at the grave. As a result, Tomb Sweeping Day became a holiday when loved ones cleaned the graves of their relatives and again burn offerings.
Finally, some aspects of Chinese funerals are drawn from superstition. The money in the white envelopes must be in odd numbers, never even, because of the unlucky connotations of odd numbers. Families of the deceased also give gifts to the attendees -- a red thread to tie on front of the attendees’ home to keep away bad spirits, and candy to remind attendees that life has sweetness with bitterness.
(Photo c/o Flickr Creative Commons)