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In premodern China, the great majority of people held beliefs and observed practices related to death that they learned as members of families and villages, not as members of organized religions. Such beliefs and practices are often subsumed under the umbrella of "Chinese popular religion." Institutional forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other traditions contributed many beliefs and practices to popular religion in its local variants. These traditions, especially Buddhism, included the idea of personal cultivation for the purpose of living an ideal life and, as a consequence, attaining some kind of afterlife salvation, such as immortality, enlightenment, or birth in a heavenly realm. However, individual salvation played a small role in most popular religions. In typical local variants of popular religion, the emphasis was on (1) passing from this world into an ancestral realm that in key ways mirrored this world and (2) the interactions between living persons and their ancestors.

In every human society one can find manifestations of the human desire for some kind of continuance beyond death. In the modern West, much of human experience has been with religious theories of continuance that stress the fate of the individual, often conceived as a discrete spiritual "self" or "soul." Typically, a person is encouraged to live in a way that prepares one for personal salvation, whether by moral self-discipline, seeking God's grace, or other means. Indic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, include similar assumptions about the human self/soul and personal salvation. In premodern China, especially if one discounts Buddhist influence, a person's desire for continuance beyond death was rooted in different assumptions and manifested in practices not closely related to the pursuit of individual salvation.

First, Chinese emphasized biological continuance through descendants to whom they gave the gift of life and for whom they sacrificed many of life's material pleasures. Moreover, personal sacrifice was not rooted in a belief in asceticism per se but in a belief that sacrificing for one's offspring would engender in them obligations toward elders and ancestors. As stated in the ancient text, Scripture of Filiality (Warring States Period, 453-221 B.C.E. ), these included obligations to care for one's body as a gift from one's parents and to succeed in life so as to glorify the family ancestors. Thus, one lived beyond the grave above all through the health and success of one's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

In every human society one can find manifestations of the human desire for some kind of continuance beyond death. In the modern West, much of human experience has been with religious theories of continuance that stress the fate of the individual, often conceived as a discrete spiritual "self" or "soul." Typically, a person is encouraged to live in a way that prepares one for personal salvation, whether by moral self-discipline, seeking God's grace, or other means. Indic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, include similar assumptions about the human self/soul and personal salvation. In premodern China, especially if one discounts Buddhist influence, a person's desire for continuance beyond death was rooted in different assumptions and manifested in practices not closely related to the pursuit of individual salvation.

Second, because of the obligations inculcated in children and grandchildren, one could assume they would care for one in old age and in the afterlife. Indeed, afterlife care involved the most significant and complex rituals in Chinese religious life, including funerals, burials, mourning practices, and rites for ancestors. All this was important not only as an expression of each

person's hope for continuance beyond death but as an expression of people's concern that souls for whom no one cared would become ghosts intent on causing mischief.

Finally, there was a stress on mutual obligations between the living and the dead; in other words, an emphasis on the same principle of reciprocity that governed relations among the living members of a Chinese community. It was assumed that the dead could influence the quality of life for those still in this worldeither for good or for ill. On the one hand, proper burial, careful observance of mourning practices, and ongoing offerings of food and gifts for ancestors assured their continued aid. On the other hand, failure to observe ritual obligations might bring on the wrath of one's ancestors, resulting in family disharmony, economic ruin, or sickness. Ancestral souls for whom no one cared would become "hungry ghosts" ( egui ), which might attack anyone in the community. Royal ancestors, whose worship was the special responsibility of the reigning emperor, could aid or harm people throughout the empire, depending on whether or not the emperor upheld ritual obligations to his ancestors.

In traditional China, the idea that personal continuance after death could be found in the lives of one's descendants has been closely linked to practices rooted in mutual obligations between the living and the dead: those who had moved on to the ancestral state of existence. But what is the nature of the ancestral state? What kind of rituals for the dead have been performed by most Chinese? And under what circumstances have individual Chinese sought something more than an afterlife as a comfortable and proud ancestor with loving and successful descendants; that is, some kind of personal salvation?

Over the course of Chinese history, classical texts on ritual and commentaries on them had increasing influence on the practice of rites for the dead. The text Records of Rituals ( Liji ),

after being designated one of Confucianism's "Five Scriptures" during the Han era (206 B.C.E. 220 C.E. ), became the most influential book in this regard. The Family Rituals according to Master Zhu ( Zhuzi jiali ), by the leading thinker of later Confucianism (Zhu Xi, 11301200 C.E.), became the most influential commentary. The influence of these texts resulted in widespread standardization of funeral rites in particular and rites for the dead in general. According to the cultural anthropologist James Watson, standardized funeral rites became a marker of "Chineseness" for Han (ethnically Chinese) people in their interactions with other ethnic groups as they spread into new territories.

In his article, "The Structure of Chinese Funerary Rites," Watson identifies nine elements of standardized funeral rites: (1) the family gives public notification by wailing, pasting up banners, and other acts; (2) family members don mourning attire of white cloth and hemp; (3) they ritually bathe the corpse; (4) they make food offerings and transfer to the dead (by burning) spirit money and various goods (houses, furniture, and other items made of paper); (5) they prepare and install an ancestral tablet at the domestic altar; (6) they pay money to ritual specialists (usually Taoists priests or Buddhist clerics) so that the corpse can be safely expelled from the community (and the spirit sent forth on its otherworldly journey); (7) they arrange for music to accompany movement of the corpse and to settle the spirit; (8) they have the corpse sealed in an airtight coffin; and (9) they expel the coffin from the community in a procession to the gravesite that marks the completion of the funeral rites and sets the stage for burial.

While burial customs were more subject to local variation than funeral rites as such, throughout China there was a preference for burial over alternative means of dealing with the corpse. For example, few Chinese opted for Buddhism's custom of cremation, despite the

otherwise strong influence this religion had on Chinese ideas and practices related to life and death. Unlike Indians, for whom the body could be seen as a temporary vehicle for one's eternal spirit, Chinese typically saw the body as a valued gift from the ancestors that one should place whole under the soil near one's ancestral village. In modern China, especially under the Communist Party since 1949, Chinese have turned to cremation more often. But this has been for practical reasons related to land use and to the party's campaign against "superstitious" behavior and in favor of frugality in performing rituals.

Traditionally, the corpse, or at least the bones, represented powers that lasted beyond death and could affect the fate of living relatives. For this reason, the use of an expert in fengshui (Chinese geomancy) was needed to determine the time, place, and orientation of the burial of a corpse. This usage was in line with the aforementioned belief that the po, which lingered at the grave, was more physical in character than the hun soul(s). Its importance is underlined by the fact that the practice is being revived in China after years of condemnation by Communist officials.

Here in the Philippines, since cremation is traditionally uncommon, the burial of the dead is a matter taken very seriously in Chinese society. Improper funeral arrangements can wreak ill fortune and disaster on the family of the deceased.

To a certain degree, Chinese funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age of the deceased, cause of death, status and position in society, and marital status.

According to Philippine-Chinese custom, an elder should never show respect to someone younger. So, if the deceased is a young bachelor, for example, his body cannot be brought home

and must remain at the funeral parlor. His parents cannot offer prayers to their son, either: Since he was unmarried, he did not have any children to whom he could perform these same rites. (This is why the body cannot come into the family home.) If an infant or child dies, no funeral rites are performed either since respect cannot be shown to a younger person. The child is thus buried in silence.

Funeral rites for an elder must follow a prescribed form: Rites befitting a person's status, age, etc., must be performed even if this means the family of the deceased will go into debt.

Preparation for a funeral often begins before a death has occurred. When a person is on his/her deathbed, a coffin will often have already been ordered by the family. A traditional Chinese coffin is rectangular with three 'humps', although it more common in modern times for a western style coffin to be used. The coffin is provided by an undertaker who oversees all funeral rites.

When a death occurs in a family all statues of deities in the house are covered up with red paper (not to be exposed to the body or coffin) and all mirrors are removed (it is believed that one who sees the reflection of a coffin in a mirror will shortly have a death in his/her family). A white cloth is hung over the doorway to the house and a gong is placed to the left of the entrance if the deceased is a male, and to the right if female.

Before being placed in the coffin, the corpse is cleaned with a damp towel dusted with talcum powder, and dressed in his/her best clothes (all other clothing of the deceased is burned) before being placed on a mat (or hay in rural areas). The body is completely dressed, including the footwear, and cosmetics (if female), although the corpse is never dressed in red clothing (this

will turn the corpse into a ghost). White, black, brown or blue are the usual colors. Before being placed in the coffin the corpse's face is covered with a yellow cloth and the body with a light blue one.

The Wake

The coffin is placed on its own stand either in the house (if the person died at home) or in the courtyard (if the person died away from home). The coffin is placed with the head of the deceased facing the inside of the house, resting at about one foot from the ground on two stools; wreaths, gifts and a portrait or photograph of the deceased are placed at the head of the coffin. The coffin is not sealed during the wake. Food is placed in front of the coffin as an offering to the deceased. The deceased's comb is broken into two -- one part is placed in the coffin and the other is kept by the family.

During the wake, the family does not wear jewelry or red clothing (red is the color of happiness). Traditionally, children and grandchildren of the deceased did not cut their hair for 49 days after the death, but this custom is now usually only observed by older generations. It is customary for blood relatives and daughters-in-law to wail and cry during mourning as a sign of respect and loyalty to the deceased. The cries are particularly loud if the deceased has left a large fortune.

At the wake, the family members of the deceased gather around the coffin positioned according to their rank in the family and special clothing is worn: Children and daughters-in-law wear black (signifying that they grieve the most); grandchildren, blue; and great grandchildren, light blue. Sons-in-law wear brighter colors, such as white, since they are considered outsiders.

The children and daughters-in-law also wear a hood of sackcloth over their heads. The eldest son sits at the left shoulder of his parent and the deceased's spouse on the right. Relatives arriving later must crawl on their knees towards the coffin.

An altar where burning incense and a lit white candle are placed is positioned at the foot of the coffin. Joss paper and prayer money (to provide the deceased with sufficient income in the afterlife) are burned continuously throughout the wake. Funeral guests are required to light incense for the deceased and bow as a sign of respect to the family. There will also be a donation box since money is always offered as a sign of respect to the family of the deceased. This money will also help the family defray the costs of the funeral.

During the wake there is usually a group of people gambling in the front courtyard of the deceased's house because the corpse must be "guarded," and gambling helps the guards stay awake during their vigil. This custom also helps to lessen the grief of the participants.

The length of the wake depends on the financial resources of the family, although it should be at least one day long to allow for the offering of prayers. While the coffin is in the house (or compound) a monk will chant verses from Buddhist or Taoist scriptures at night. It is believed that the souls of the dead face many obstacles and even torment and torture for the sins they have committed in life before they enter the afterlife: Prayers, chanting and rituals offered by the monks help ease the passage of the deceased's soul into heaven. These prayers are accompanied by music played on the gong, flute and trumpet.

Form of the Funeral Ceremony

There are two main traditions observed:

1. The funeral ceremony traditionally lasts over 49 days -- the first seven being the most important. Prayers are said every seven days for 49 days if the family can afford it. Otherwise, the period can be shortened by three to seven days. Usually, it is the responsibility of the daughters to bear the funeral expenses. The head of the family should be present for at least the first and possibly the second prayer ceremony. The number of ceremonies conducted depends on the financial situation of the family. The head of the family should also be present for the burial or cremation.

2. In the second tradition, the prayer ceremony is held every 10 days: The initial ceremony and three succeeding periods of 10 days until the final burial or cremation.

After 100 days a final prayer ceremony is conducted, but this is optional and not as important as the initial ceremonies.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, to which most Chinese Buddhists belong, it is believed that between death and rebirth there is an intermediate period called "Antarabhava" in Sanskrit or "Bardo" in Tibetan. It is an important period that influences the form that the rebirth will take. If the family ensures that proper assistance in the form of prayer and remembrance ceremonies are duly performed, the departed will be more equipped for a favorable rebirth.

Funeral Ceremony and Procession

When the prayer ceremonies are over, the wailing of the mourners reaches a crescendo and the coffin is nailed shut (this process represents the separation of the dead from the living). Then yellow and white "holy" paper is pasted on the coffin to protect the body from malignant spirits. During the sealing of the coffin all present must turn away since watching a coffin being sealed is considered very unlucky. The coffin is then carried away from the house using a piece of wood tied over the coffin, with the head of the deceased facing forward. It is believed that blessings from the deceased are bestowed upon the pallbearer, so there are usually many volunteers.

The coffin is not carried directly to the cemetery but is first placed on the side of the road outside the house where more prayers are offered and paper is scattered. The coffin is then placed into a hearse that moves very slowly for one mile (more rarely, it is carried for a mile), with the eldest son and family members following behind with their heads touching the hearse. If there are many relatives, a white piece of cloth is used to link the hearse to family members behind. The order of the funeral procession follows the status of the family members. A white piece of cloth is tied to vehicles accompanying the hearse, or a white piece of paper can be pasted on their windshields. The eldest son usually sits next to the coffin. A long, lit joss stick is held throughout the journey, symbolizing the soul of the deceased; it is relit immediately if it goes out. Occasionally, paper models of such objects as cars, statues, ships, etc., are carried during the procession to symbolize the wealth of the deceased's family. If the procession must cross a body of water, the deceased must be informed of this since it is believed that an uninformed soul will not be able to cross water.

The Burial

Chinese cemeteries are generally located on hillsides since this is thought to improve Fengshui (geomantic omen). The higher a grave is located, the better. At the graveside, when the coffin is taken down from the hearse and lowered into the ground, all present must turn away. Family members and other relatives throw a handful of earth into the grave before it is filled. After the funeral, all of clothes worn by the mourners are burned to avoid bad luck associated with death. After the coffin is buried, the keeper of the cemetery will also offer prayers to the deceased. Family members and relatives are presented with a red packet (a sign of gratitude from the deceased's family, and the money in it must be spent). A white towel is also a sign of gratitude although it is also used by funeral guests to wipe away perspiration.

The eldest son of the deceased will retrieve some earth from the grave to put into an incense holder, and the deceased will be worshipped by the family at home using an ancestral tablet.


Although the funeral rites are over, the period of mourning by the family continues for another 100 days. A piece of colored cloth is worn on the sleeve of each of the family members for 100 days to signify mourning: Black is worn by the deceased's children, blue by the grandchildren and green by the great grandchildren. More traditional families will wear the pieces if cloth for up to three years. A period of mourning is not required if the deceased is a child or a wife.

The Return of the Dead

The Chinese believe that seven days after the death of a family member the soul of the departed will return to his/her home. A red plaque with a suitable inscription may be placed outside the house at this time to ensure that the soul does not get lost.

On the day of the return of the soul, family members are expected to remain in their rooms. Flour or talcum powder may be dusted on the floor of the entrance hall of the home to detect the visit.

The burial of the dead is a very serious matter in Chinese societies. Improper funeral arrangements can cause bad fortune upon the family of the deceased.

Chinese funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age, the manner of the death, the status and position in society and the marital status of the deceased.