Attending a Chinese Funeral

Last Thursday the mother of a cherished friend and coworker passed away. She was 70 years old, but the sudden illness that struck her down caught everyone by surprise. On Friday the same fellow, now out of the office on bereavement leave, invited me to attend the funeral on Saturday morning.

What follows is a descriptive record of that event. Photography, understandably, is not welcome during such events so please forgive the lack of imagery. Also, this being my first such experience I have very little insight to offer into the rituals I am about to relate. I must focus on the what, perhaps another time we can find resources with which to cover the why

Heterogeneity

First, let it be said that rituals for major life milestones – births, weddings, funerals, etc. – vary widely in China from region to region, even from neighborhood to neighborhood. So one should understand the below experience as merely one example, one approach, and by no means an archetypical example of “A Typical Chinese Funeral” – a concept, I suspect, which simply does not exist.

Words Unspoken

I mentioned before that I was invited. Chinese newspapers carry no obituary section announcing the deaths of local people and the time and date for memorial services. If you are meant to be there, you will be invited.

From a sociological perspective, funerals are an interesting event. The “star” of the show is effectively a non-participant. Any words spoken “to” the deceased serve to comfort the speaker, or others in attendance. To be present at a memorial service is to recognize that person’s impact on your own life, communally grieve their loss with surviving relatives, and so on.

Here in China things play out slightly differently. Despite being a valued coworker and close friend of mine, I had never met this man’s mother. Before attending the funeral I did not even know her name. Yet I was invited. Superficially I was receiving an invitation to share in my friend’s suffering during a time of need, to be there for him as one should be under such circumstances. But on a deeper level I was receiving confirmation of his perception of our relative relationship within the complex web of Chinese social networks. That sentence is rather idiotic… in plain speech: receiving (or not) an invitation let me know exactly where I stood with him.

It is unusual, and somewhat culturally taboo, to directly state aloud the nature of two people’s relationships here. Instead, there is an ever present meta-game of probing, observing, and testing conducted at all times by all people to understand how others perceive and value them, and to indirectly broadcast how they value and perceive others. In a society where someone will almost never say they don’t like you, being able to accurately read those around you is actually more valuable than having them like you. In other words, if I know you are my enemy I can adjust my actions accordingly, but if I don’t there is nothing but trouble for me in the future.

So, I was invited. And of course I accepted without hesitation. He is a dear friend, and I would have been disappointed to be left off the list.

Ritual

On Saturday morning at 0400 I pretty much fell out of bed. The funeral was set to start at 0530 far, far away on the other side of town. By 0430 I was showered, dressed in black, and walking slowly down the road in the darkness waiting for a taxi to come by. There aren’t many rolling that early in the morning and ten minutes passed before one appeared. As I crammed my oversized frame into the little Volkswagon I was beginning to worry I’d be late – it was 0445 and my destination was about 50 minutes away.

After telling the driver where we were headed I asked him if we could be there by 0530. “Nope” was the reply. I then politely explained that I was attending the funeral for a coworker’s mother which began at that time and I wanted to avoid being late if at all possible. He mulled over this new bit of information for a few long moments, then swung his head around to look me in the eyes, nodded solemnly, and said “we can do it.”

And we did.

At 0515 I dragged myself up and out of the taxi, thanked my triumphant driver, and wandered off into the neighborhood in search of my friend’s parent’s apartment. I soon realized that the only people about that early on a Saturday were also attending the funeral, and after falling into a loose confederation of stragglers we arrived at the building in question. Milling about in the courtyard in front of the 6-floor Communist-era apartment block were perhaps 20 people, mostly coworkers from my company.

While we were waiting around downstairs someone came by and passed out tissue paper lotus blossoms to be worn on the shirt.

tissue paper lotus blossom
tissue paper lotus blossom

Lotuses are an integral part of Buddhist imagery, signifying the progress of the soul, i.e. one’s ability to rise above the suffering of this world and achieve nirvana.

As more and more people arrived, some on foot some driving their own cars, at intervals small groups of people broke off from the gathering crowd and made their way up to the apartment on the top floor to pay respects. Eventually it was my turn, but first we had to prepare our offerings.

That’d be cash, of course.

One of my friends produced a fistful of blank sheets of paper and each person took one sheet, carefully wrote their name on it, neatly placed some cash in the center, and then folded it up into a sort of envelope with the money and giver’s name safely wrapped up inside.

Now this deserves critical analysis!

Upon receiving my invitation two days prior, my first reaction was to reach out to some older colleagues and ask “how much do I give?” This is a superficially simple obligation – you give money to the surviving family members. But the amount of money given carries great significance.

In my case, the decision-making process went this way:

  1. Given my income level and position held, an appropriate sum would range from 300 to 500RMB.
  2. One must always give in denominations of 100, the largest legal tender used on a daily basis in China.
  3. Bills must be as new as possible – preferably crisp, immaculate bills fresh from a bank or ATM.
  4. Within that 300 to 500 band available to me, giving 400 is absolutely, unquestionably forbidden because the Chinese word for death is homophonous with that for four. It would be folly enough to present newlyweds with 400RMB… to do it to surviving relatives at a funeral would imply I wished they all were dead and would essentially socially ostracize me forever.
  5. …that leaves me with the choice of 300 or 500. The former comes off as a bit cheap, perhaps I’m trying to say that this relationship is not as important to me as it is to him – to dial things back / cool things down a bit?
  6. On the other hand, if I give 500 I might seem like I’m reaching a bit, perhaps I want to ask him for a favor in the future? Our relationship level will be pegged to that 500RMB point from now on.

Rather complicated, eh? Ultimately I went with 500RMB, reasoning that while that is in fact a bit of a reach, foreigners are typically held to higher financial standards even when – as in my case – they draw regular Chinese salaries.

So, white paper envelope containing 500RMB and my name (they do keep records!) in hand, I and 3 other coworkers ascended the 5 flights of stairs to the tiny top floor apartment.

Follow the Leader

Up until this point I knew what I was doing. From the moment I began up the stairs, however, I was in the wilderness. I didn’t even know what would be waiting for us in that apartment. As we marched up it occurred to me that there was a real chance I was about 10 seconds away from greeting a corpse. Hey, why not?

Pro tip: when you have no idea how to do something, do it last.

I lagged up the steps at strategic intervals until I was bringing up the rear and then paid careful attention to every last action of the Chinese people in front of me.

As it happened, we entered the door into the tiny living room and went no further. Therein we found my coworker and his wife, both very visibly in mourning. His father, the widower, was also present though standing stoically in a corner. Having survived the absolute worst parts of China’s 20th century history, this man was not about to start shedding public tears now.

My friend and his wife were wearing regular clothes, their status as surviving relatives denoted by white sashes tied around the waste and hanging down to the knees.

In the center of the small room was a makeshift altar, the center of which was occupied by a black-framed black and white portrait of his mother. One universal truth in Chinese culture is that black-framed headshot portraits are only used for the deceased. (I made this mistake exactly once: I created an organizational chart at work and was just relying on PowerPoint’s default image styles… and inadvertently killed everyone …that meeting didn’t go so well.)

Beside her portrait on the altar were fruits, candles, some incense, and floral arrangements. At a glance it seemed vaguely Buddhist, but I did not notice anything that you could point to and definitively say “Buddhist funeral”.

Having filed into the room, one by one in turn we bowed three times in front of the deceased’s portrait and then handed (using two hands) our cash envelopes to his wife, who swiftly pocketed them with a stiff but polite nod.

And then just as quickly as we came we went back downstairs.

For the next half-hour my experience was repeated by everyone else in attendance. Once the offerings were done the Chinese equivalent of a hearse rolled up out of I-have-no-idea-where. I say “Chinese equivalent” because it’s just a regular old minivan with a large black ribbon draped across the grille. My friend and his wife came downstairs and knelt on the asphalt in front of and facing the van. Just in front of them on the ground was a large clay bowl filled with the yellowed-paper traditionally burned as an offering to the ancestors in China. My friend lit the paper, held the bowl high above his head with both hands while the flames flared, and then in one swift downward motion smashed it to pieces on the road between them and the minivan. As the paper ash began to drift about the courtyard they got into the minivan, the rest of us dispersed into various vehicles, and the caravan to the crematorium began.

In hindsight there is a lot of obvious symbolism in destroying things at a funeral, but I do wish I had been able to find an appropriate time to directly question someone else as to the meaning of that scene. The smashing of the bowl was quite a surprise to me at the time…

Death Caravan

(wow, that’d be a great band name!)

Like I said, after they smashed the bowl we all jumped into vehicles and caravanned to the crematorium. Each vehicle in the caravan was marked with the following sticker:

奠 (dian4, 'a libation to the dead'), and 70 denotes the deceased's age -- the text bisecting the sticker is the name of the company that printed it, seriously.
(dian4, ‘a libation to the dead’), and 70 denotes the deceased’s age — the text bisecting the sticker is the name of the company that printed it, seriously.

Eventually we arrived at the crematorium. This consisted of a muddy parking lot, large courtyard, and a C-shaped collection of buildings. In the center was the main hall, presumably housing the administrative functions. On either arm of the “C” were the memorial halls. Helpfully numbered “Hall 1”, “Hall 2”, etc., they are where the final service is conducted.

China being China, my friend’s mother was not the only person being cremated on Saturday morning and we found ourselves forced to wait nearly an hour for a hall to open up. In the meantime the guests, nearly 100, chatted in small groups in the courtyard which was also filled with similarly waiting groups for other families. Things were going pretty well until the Christians showed up…

The Christians Show Up

We had been standing around for about 20 minutes when three (remember, never four!) more white minivans rolled up. They immediately caught my attention because on the snub-nose front of each van was a rather shabby red-colored cross drawn out with what looked like electrical tape. “That can’t be…”

It was.

The van doors were flung open and the occupants spilled out into the courtyard. These weren’t regular people, these were Chinese Christians.

First off, while the rest of us were in street clothes, these folks were clad head to toe in white – yes, white – robes with light blue trim around the shoulders. As the rest of us looked on in bored disinterest, they solemnly lined up in two rows in the middle of the courtyard. Then one of the members produced a large cardboard box from the back of one of the electrical-tape-Christian-vans and began handing out plastic sunflowers to each member.

Plastic sunflowers.

Once everyone in the two lines had a flower, they shimmied a bit to get good and tight shoulder-to-shoulder and then… burst out in Chinese gospel song.

This is truly inconceivable, but I will try to relate the scene:

Imagine the Whos down in Whoville singing hand-in-hand around the spot where their stolen Christmas tree once stood, that key moment in the story when the Grinch’s heart grows two sizes. Got that image? Ok. Now transplant those Whos to a scene from The Grapes of Wrath or Angela’s Ashes, whichever you can call to mind most readily. You’re getting close to the jarring otherworldliness of that moment.

As I stood there passively watching the scene unfold, I could hear the anguished cries of a mourning woman in a nearby hall at the same time that these Christians were reenacting the rocking climax of Sister Act… an experience I will not soon forget, to be sure.

Eventually, mercifully, we were shown into a hall. There in the center of the hall wrapped in blankets and placed atop a metal cart that was clearly meant to be rolled into a furnace was my friend’s mother’s corpse. I cannot recall ever before having seen a corpse with my own eyes, sheltered person that I suppose I am.

It was evident that she had not been embalmed, which is logical considering she was only minutes away from cremation. One wonders though what is practiced in the southern, sub-tropical reaches of China. She had died 2 days earlier and the cold, dry Shenyang climate certainly helped to keep the putrefaction under control during that period…

There was a doorway in the rear of the hall through which the body would soon be going. Standing therein was a youngish woman in a formal uniform. Over a loudspeaker system she ran through a short but authoritative speech she has probably given thousands upon thousands of times. At intervals all present were instructed to bow to the deceased, which we did. When she finished two fellows standing further behind her punished us all with some dreadful misuse of perfectly good trumpets. That could be omitted from future ceremonies with no negative consequence I think…

And that was it. In small groups we once again paid respects to the body with three bows, shook the hands of my friend and his wife who were standing off to the side, and then walked out back into the courtyard.

The final act was a large breakfast at a nearby restaurant. The mood was neither solemn nor joyful, it just was.

Final Thoughts

All told it ran from 0530 to 1030. Apart from the rituals observed, what left the strongest impression on me was the attitude of the guests. With few exceptions, you could not call them sad. Serious? yeah, maybe. But there were plenty of relaxed people as well. Throughout the event it seemed as if we were all participating in just another aspect of life, doing our duty to our friend and to society at large.

Come here, go there, do this, give that, stand here, now there, shake hands, cheers, and let’s go home.

After all, everyone dies, right?

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