Chinese Funeral Traditions

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Depending on the religious beliefs of the family, a Chinese funeral may meld traditions rooted in Confucianism—emphasizing a reverence for ancestors—with rituals from Taoism, Buddhism, or Christianity. As a result, Chinese funerals can be multilayered, incorporating both specific Chinese traditions that honor the departed as well as those from a particular religion. Read on to learn about traditional practices that you might incorporate into a Chinese funeral.

What happens at a Chinese funeral

Chinese funerals often include a wake or visitation. This will typically be held at the family home, a temple, or a funeral home. Mourners will traditionally bow three times, then turn to the family and bow once more. (Sometimes, Chinese Christians will not bow to the casket, as it invokes ancestral worship. Instead, they may pray and sometimes cross themselves.) Friends and family will bring flowers to the wake, usually wreaths adorned with ribbons.

The visitation often includes the placement of ritual goods into the casket, such as additional clothing and personal items (glasses, a favorite book, a mah-jongg set). This may include a blanketing ceremony, in which family members place decorative blankets upon the deceased. These are placed in a specific order, starting with the eldest son, and the ritual may involve 20 blankets or more, depending on the size of the family and community.

Another visitation ritual includes the ceremonial burning of joss paper, sheets of paper that represent money and other goods. Burning joss paper is believed to help the deceased pay off debts and live comfortably in the spirit world. This practice, which dates back more than 1,000 years, arrived in the United States in the 19th century with Chinese immigrants.

Ceremonial offerings of food and drink are also an important way to pay respect to the dead. Roast pig, duck, chicken, rice, fruit, wine, and tea may be placed on a table facing the deceased. Incense may also be placed on the table; as it burns, the smoke will summon the deceased person’s ancestral spirits to help guide them on their journey.

At the funeral service itself, the body will typically be on view in an open casket. While the specific type of service depends on the beliefs of the family, it often includes a brief eulogy and sermon offering comfort to the mourners. Often, someone may film the event and/or take pictures, including taking pictures of the deceased. This may be done to allow people who could not be at the funeral, including older people not able to travel, to experience the respect shown to the deceased friend or relative.

After the service, the mourners are handed candy and li shi—red envelopes filled with money. The financial gift is intended to provide good luck to both the giver and the recipient.

In American cities with large Chinatowns, such as San Francisco, some families arrange a funeral procession through the neighborhood. These processions can involve marching bands and a “photo car” displaying photos of the deceased. The procession will stop at the family home, where a wreath may be placed on the casket.

At the cemetery, many families hold ritual burning ceremonies. Joss paper money and replicas of products, ranging from clothing to houses, are burned to provide comforts to the loved one’s spirit. These will be burned, typically in large red barrels, at the cemetery.

Planning a Chinese funeral

After the death, family members should meet with the funeral director to make the arrangements. Among the first decisions is when to hold the service. Funerals are often held on Saturday or Sunday, which are considered the luckiest days. Invitations are sent by mail, sometimes accompanied by an in-person invitation or phone call.

Compared to some traditions, the time between death and the funeral in Chinese communities can be much longer, sometimes as long as two weeks. This is to give the person’s friends and relatives more time to make arrangements to attend. Especially for an older person who has had a full life, the funeral is not only a mourning ritual, but an event to show how deeply respected a person is.

Many Chinese families follow the principles of feng shui when selecting a burial plot. Choosing a location with positive energy brings good luck to the family of the deceased.

Following the burial, the family will often host a meal open to all funeral attendees, as a way to reciprocate the respect paid to the deceased. This gathering honors the life of the deceased and bring closure to the events.

Frequently asked questions

Is cremation allowed?

A burial is preferred, because of traditional beliefs that the body is a gift from the ancestors that should not be destroyed. However, cremation is permitted.

Is embalming allowed?

Yes; in fact, the Chinese developed highly advanced embalming practices as long as two millennia ago, the Journal of Anatomy notes.

Is organ donation allowed?

Some Chinese-Americans are resistant to organ donation due to the Confucian belief that the body is a gift from one’s parents, making it disrespectful to give their organs away, notes a paper in the Hawaii Medical Journal.  However, this belief varies by family.

What is the dress code at a Chinese-American funeral?

While white is the traditional color of mourning in China, many Chinese-Americans wear black to funerals. The oldest son in the family may also wear a black armband and waistband to show his role in the family hierarchy. More traditional families may even wear an armband of coarse cloth, representing sackcloth, or have the oldest children actually wear a sackcloth vest. Sometimes attendees are asked to wear an armband of a particular color, which denotes how they are related to the deceased.

Should you send flowers?

Yes; flowers are expected. White irises are considered a traditional funeral flower.

Are the red envelopes handed out by the family intended for everyone?

Yes; the red envelopes handed out by the mourners are intended to bring good luck, and typically given by hand from the mourners to funeral attendees. Not taking an offered envelope is seen as rude.

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