Like many aspects in Chinese life, funerals are a custom that are considered very important and steeped in tradition. Elders are respected even in death, which conforms to one of ancient China's most important cornerstones of filial piety. Improper burial can result in bad luck and misfortune for the deceased's family, so close attention is paid to the burial process. Traditionally, cremation was rather uncommon and the exact type of burial was decided by the deceased's age and social status. Today, cremation is a more accepted practice. Because elders should never show respect to someone younger, children and bachelors do not receive the same type of funeral as a man who has children.
Often times, when a person is on his deathbed, the funeral process will begin before he actually dies. The family will order the coffin, which traditionally had three humps supporting the neck, back, and legs. More recently, western-style coffins are acceptable. Once the person dies, all statues within the house are covered with red paper and all mirrors are taken down. It is believed that anyone who sees a reflection of the coffin will soon have a death in their family.
Before a corpse is placed in the coffin, the body is cleaned with a damp cloth and dusted with talcum powder. The body is dressed in their finest clothes and a yellow cloth is placed over the face and a light blue cloth is placed over the body. A deceased person is never dressed in red. Red is the traditional color of happiness and a corpse dressed in red is said to return as an unfriendly ghost.
Chinese wakes last for at least one day, but can last longer depending upon the family's financial status. The coffin is kept at the deceased's home, either inside or outside, and a photograph of the deceased and gifts are placed at the head of the coffin. The family of the dead man does not wear red clothing or jewelry and positions themselves around the coffin by order of family rank. Children and daughters-in-law wear black and wear a hood of sackcloth over their heads, while sons-in-law wear white or other bright clothing because they are considered outsiders.
An altar is positioned at the foot of the coffin and a candle and incense is burned throughout the wake. Joss paper is burned continuously. Joss paper is traditionally made out of bamboo or rice paper and is burned during funerals to ensure that the deceased receives good things in the afterlife. Guests are also expected to give donations to the family as a sign of respect.
It is believed that before entering the afterlife, a dead person must first go through torture because of the sins they committed in life. A monk chants Buddhist or Taoist verses during the night to help the deceased's soul move more easily into heaven.
A traditional funeral ceremony lasts over 49 days. Prayers are said every seven days. If the family cannot afford such a long ceremony, it can be shortened. A second tradition is that a prayer ceremony can be held every 10 days. Many Chinese Buddhists believe that there is an intermediate period between death and rebirth. The correct burial ceremony must be upheld so that the deceased will be reborn into something favorable.
After the prayer ceremonies, the coffin is nailed shut. The mourners must turn away during this process to protect themselves from bad luck. Before taken to burial, the coffin is placed on the side of the road outside the dead man's house for more prayer. Once this is completed, the coffin is placed in the hearse, where it is driven slowly for one mile while the family follows behind. The order of the processional line follows the family hierarchy.
At the burial site, the mourners once again turn away while the coffin is lowered into the ground. Cemeteries are often found on hillsides in China, due to the concept of Feng Shui
. The higher the body is buried, the better. Family members throw a handful of dirt on the coffin before it is buried. The oldest son brings back some of the gravesite dirt and places it in an incense holder that is kept at the family home, so that the family may still pay homage to their relative. After burial, the family burns the clothes they were wearing to avoid bad luck. Family members and relatives are presented with red packets that contain money. This is a sign of gratitude from the deceased's family and the money must be spent. Another sign of gratitude is a white towel, though guests may also use it to wipe away perspiration.
A period of mourning follows the death of a patriarch for 100 days. During this time, children and grandchildren wear certain colors to signify their loss.
Seven days after death, the spirit of the deceased is said to return to his home. Family members are expected to remain at home during this day. Talcum powder or flour is sometimes spread on the floor to spot the visitor.