Usually the new year.. especially the year of the water Dragon that is 2012, is a symbol of new life or renewed life in China.   Time to clean your house, buy new clothes, by gifts for family, and gifts for those special “relationships” you need to do business.  However, for Michael and I this new year is a time for death.

Michael’s grandfather will not last out the week.  His family has been told by the doctors that there is nothing they can do and to start preparing for his funeral.   The family seems sad… but strangely more worried about the money it is going to cost than the actual death of the man.  In China, funerals are much different from in the states.   There is no life insurance, or payment plans to pay for your loved one.  It all must be paid in cash and taken care of before the body is cremated and placed in a plot.  The average funeral costs between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan ($1,300-$2,600).  Many people cannot afford to die.   Michael’s family is such a family.  With spring festival starting on January 23rd, which costs a large amount of money and a death at the same time can put a poor family in a lot of trouble.

The burial of the dead is taken very seriously in Chinese society. The improper funeral arrangements can wreak ill fortune and disaster on the family of the deceased. 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. In Michael’s grandfather’s case he is 84 years old, married with 6 children.  Michael’s father being the oldest son and Michael being the oldest grandson have the largest part of the funeral responsibility.

Funeral rites for an elder must follow a prescribed form: Rites befitting a person’s status must be performed even if this means the family of the deceased will go into debt.  Preparation for a funeral begins before a death has occurred. When a person is on their deathbed.   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, which is kept in a room in the house and all mirrors are removed (it is believed that one who sees the reflection of dead body in a mirror will shortly have a death in their 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.

The body is cleaned with a damp towel dusted with talcum powder, and dressed in their best clothes (all other clothing of the deceased is burned). The body is then completely dressed, including the footwear, and cosmetics (if female).  The corpse is never dressed in red clothing (this will turn the body into a ghost). White, black, brown or blue are the usual colors. The corpse’s face is then covered with a yellow cloth and the body with a light blue one.

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 . Traditionally, children and grandchildren of the deceased did not cut their hair for 49 days after the death. 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.

An altar where burning incense and a lit white candle are placed is positioned at the foot of the table or coffin. Joss paper and prayer money (to provide the deceased with sufficient income in the afterlife) are burned continuously. 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 or playing mahjong in the front courtyard of the deceased’s house because the body must be “guarded,” and gambling helps the guards stay awake during their vigil. 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.  Prayers, Chanting and gong-ing are done constantly throughout the 24 hour period.

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.  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. Since my husband is the current head of the family he must be present for all of these things.

Chinese cemeteries are generally located on hillsides since this is thought to improve Fengshui. The higher a grave is located, the better. After the funeral, all of clothes worn by the mourners are burned to avoid bad luck associated with death.  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.

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.

The Chinese believe that seven days after the death of a family member the soul of the departed will return to their 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. During this whole funeral process, there is a lot of food paid for by the family that is provided to all the mourners and visitors of the funeral.

It is an expensive and long drawn out process that I am told by my husband must be done.  I am also told as the wife of the oldest grandson, and current head of the family that I must carry some white lilies during the procession walk.   The family and mourners will walk the body thru the streets, beating a gong and a drum and wailing…. until the body is taken to the plot where it will rest.

I am probably one of the few foreigners that I know that have participated in an actual traditional funeral here in China.  I am not really looking forward to all these rituals and wailing.  However, I need to support my husband and his family in this difficult time.  I will not be taking any photos during this time, due to the respect for the family.  However, I did find one on the internet to give you guys a little bit of a visual.

I always believe that everything happens for a reason, maybe this death so early in the new year will relieve some of the burden from Michael and his family.   Due to the fact that both his grandmother and grandfather are very ill at this time.  They are all in my prayers.

until next time…

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