Throughout the history of mankind, “death” has always been a fascination. People have always wondered about the causes of death, the aftermath of death, and whether it could be stopped. Among these people were the Chinese, who like many other people, believed there was life after death. They performed certain rituals “ to help them along their way.” Chinese attitudes toward death are reflected in funerary rituals, Buddhist philosophy and reverence for the deceased.
Death is a very important issue to the Chinese people. The son of a family has the obligation to give his parents a proper funeral. “This includes such essential elements as; a large coffin, a funeral procession, a well-chosen gravesite, gifts and offerings to the soul of the deceased, a period of mourning, and keeping an ancestral shrine. If a Chinese son fails to follow these obligations, he has committed a serious offense against society.”
The Chinese believed in giving a proper funeral to their elders because when the elders were alive, they had shared their experiences and knowledge with the young. The Chinese followed the requirements to a proper funeral because they believed in remembering the dead, who were once close to them. They wanted to remember the dead by praying to them daily and making them offerings.
The Chinese believed that there were certain rituals that were necessary for certain events. For example, during a wedding, the Chinese believed that the couple must bow to the parents and offer them tea. Only then, can the couple be happily married. Because the Chinese believe in performing certain rituals for certain events, anyone who doesn’t give his parents a proper funeral would have mocked traditional beliefs. This son would be considered as a pariah in his village and looked upon as “dirty” by his neighbors.
To the Chinese, being buried in a coffin was very important. Chinese people wanted to bury the dead in coffins to preserve their bodies, protect them from decaying as fast. Although the soul of the person was to move on, the Chinese wanted to save the body as a way to remember the elderly. To some people being buried in a coffin is so important that they rather spend their money on a coffin than on necessary provisions. Although burial in a coffin is preferred, cremations also take place. A cremation is when a corpse is placed on a pyre and burned to ashes.
In the cities of present day China, because of the great overpopulation and lack of usable land, the government has made cremation a necessity. Cremation is also encouraged in rural areas in efforts of saving arable land for farming. Since the people living in the rural areas are farmers who can provide their own necessities and are independent of the government, they are more concerned with their traditional beliefs and practices than the concerns of the government. In the villages, peasants begin saving to buy coffins for themselves after they pass the age of sixty; which was considered the number of years a life cycle should be.
People have claimed that if a person died before turning sixty years old, he/she was a “short-life devil.” Because of this belief, the people that died before turning the age of sixty years old were not buried and left wherever the happened to “drop.”
To show how important burying the dead is, the Chinese hire elderly people who are familiar with the ancient wisdom of feng-shui, or the spirits of “the wind and water.” This type of ancient art was also called geomancy. The reason why the Chinese hire elderly people is because they want someone who is experienced in the field, not someone who’s new and had recently learned it from books. The Chinese believe that the more experience a person has, the more reliable is that person.
The geomancer helped the dead select favorable sites for graves.4 These favorable sites not only had to be affordable to the family but had to bring good luck to the family and ensure that there will be no evil spirits haunting them. Like the traditional matchmaker, the geomancer is respected for his wisdom and experience in life. Some similarities between the jobs of the matchmaker and geomancer are those of which they both check the social statuses of their clients.
The matchmaker has to make sure that he does not match a rich young lady to a poor young man, and the geomancer has to make sure that he picks a gravesite that is affordable to the family. The matchmaker and the geomancer also have to ensure that the matches and graves that they choose will only bring good luck to the families and not bad luck. Calculating the ages of the people involved and comparing to the stars of the sky does this: astrology.
In foreign countries like France and Spain, during funerals the undertakers, mourners, and pallbearers are supposed to wear black. The black clothing shows their grief and also protects them from evil spirits and ghosts that night be hovering nearby. Also used during funeral processions are wreaths, which reflect their heathen beliefs. The many circles of a wreath are designed to keep the spirit of the dead with in bounds.
During Chinese funerals, the mourners are supposed to wear unbleached, unhemmed, white clothing. White was considered the color of death to the Chinese people because they believe that white represents pureness. They believed that since the dead were moving on, they should wear something reflecting innocence to show how the deceased had lead a life of good deeds and charity, therefore moving on to a better place. It is an offense to wear such flashy colors as red, yellow, or green.
Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism influence Chinese attitudes towards death. The Chinese tradition usually discourages anxiety about death. Since Taoism is rigidly aligned with nature, death is considered a natural part of the life cycle. Confucianism taught the people that showing grief after death was appropriate. They believed that grieving for the dead was a sign of respect, a sign of how they will miss the guidance and help of their elders and loved ones. Even though Confucianism encourages the grieving of the deceased, they also believe that it should not last too long-because all things have an end.
The religion that has the most influence on Chinese attitudes towards death is Buddhism. The reason that Buddhism has such a great influence is that it provides a “correct” way to a funeral. There are certain dos and do nots that must be followed. In other beliefs such as Taoism and Confucianism, there are no rules, no exact way in which a funeral should proceed in. Because there are no exact rules in Taoism and Confucianism, the people often fear that they might be doing the wrong thing, therefore hindering the proceeding of the deceased to nirvana.
Buddhists believe that people should celebrate death as a way to pass to the next incarnation and move closer to nirvana (heaven). To Buddhists, the way in which a person dies is very important. They believed that a person’s last thoughts along with his accomplishments while alive determined what his next life would be like. The goal of most Chinese Buddhists is to have followed the eight-fold path and to die without fear or regret.
Buddhist funerals are very much like noisy celebrations. There is a lot of chanting, banging of gongs, and incense burning. The reason for the noise, is to tell everyone that this person was dead and moving on to the next life.
The noise is also used to express to the dead that they were all happy that the person is free from the pressures and sufferings of life, which are stated in the Four Noble Truths. After the traditional funeral, most Buddhists are cremated. They believed that by being cremated, their soul will be released from the body and move on to the next incarnation. “The funeral pyre is usually sprinkled with consecrated oil and other offerings wrapped in white scarves.”
Since white was the color of death, the Chinese believed that by wrapping items in white and burning them, the dead people will get these items in the other realm. These “items” are the things that were most cherished by the deceased. For example, they might give a teddy bear to a child because he loved it so much. The reason the Chinese people give such items to the dead is to give them comfort, so that they will not be afraid and feel lonely while they are travelling to their next life or nirvana.
The Chinese also believe in spirits and ghosts. Generally, ghosts are understood as the spirit of some deceased person appearing in visible form. In China, a ghost is the spirit of someone who has died an unusual death. “Ghosts of bandits were believed to linger close to the site of their execution. If a pregnant woman passed this spot, the ghost might later try to wrest out the child’s soul during birth and be born in instead.”
Among the many beliefs and attitudes about death, the Chinese also believe in ancestral worship. They believe in remembering the deceased elders. They would have tablets with the names of the deceased on them put upon shrines and burn incense and pray to them daily. The Chinese have great respect for their elders, honoring them regularly with offerings of roasted pigs and other foods they had loved, and praying to them. These practices contribute to a sense that death is an everyday part of daily life.
The Chinese people have great respect for their elders. They believed that since the elders were experienced and wise, they should be respected for their knowledge and guidance. The Chinese people believed that even though the ancestors are deceased, their spirits will always live on, watching over the descendants.
In honor of their dead, the Chinese have set holidays, one holiday is Qing Ming This is in the early April of the American calendar and is one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals. “ During Qing Ming, the people are supposed to visit their family graves to ‘sweep’ or clean them of weeds.”
In present day China, because of the introduction of Communist beliefs, the traditional beliefs and attitudes have been changed. Communists believed that religion and the “old ways” were not important, that believing in the government and the nation as a whole was important. Because of this, Chinese people no longer buy their coffins at the age of sixty, buy they do still pray to their ancestors for protection and guidance, mourn their parents, and sweep the family graves at the spring festivals
To the Chinese, death will always remain a mystery and they will always be fascinated with it- just as the rest of the rest of the world has been. Even though dying means losing some one close in this world, the Chinese will always celebrate deaths, because only through death, can you be one step closer to nirvana.
- Butterfield, Fox. China- Alive in the Bitter Sea. New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982.
- Jones, Constance. R.I.P. The Complete Book of Death & Dying. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
- Major, John. The Land and People of China. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1989.