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Farewell from a foreign family at a traditional Chinese funeral
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We run a guesthouse in a small village near Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and integrating into rural life has been one of our main interests.

Recently, the father of our night guard passed away. The bangs of fireworks heralded the start of the funeral, on a day that rained continuously, causing floods - unusual in the dry season.

The immediate family stayed with the body for nearly two days and various rituals were carried out. There were signs of respect and a way of saying farewell. And there was possibly a vital chance for the Chinese involved to hold on to some of their rich cultural heritage.

Bowls of rice and steamed pigs legs were put in front of the heavy, wooden coffin, as well as a chicken with its feet tied. Close family members wore off-white linen coats, hurriedly made for the occasion.

The fireworks exploded all day and night, scaring away the bad spirits. The musicians played their tin flutes and drums. Dragon dancers followed a rhythm so as to protect the dead man on his path to the afterlife.

When it was our turn to offer sympathies to the family we stopped at the local corner shop to buy a red envelope, (hongbao), and put some notes in to contribute to the funeral costs, as well as buying incense sticks and paper money. Then we stepped into the makeshift tent.

Michael, my husband, stood in front of the coffin and lit a candle, which he placed in a rice bowl. He repeated the procedure with a bunch of incense sticks and let our two boys copy him. I went last. We folded some paper money, set fire to it and placed it facing the altar, on the sandy floor, where it quickly turned to ashes.

The smoke from the burned donations was carried away by the wind. Lastly, we bowed a few times out of respect to the deceased and shook hands with his family members. We felt a strong bond with these people.

We were also invited to the funeral's evening meal and felt honored. Mourning, for us, is a private affair, but this invitation felt like a sign of acceptance and trust.

The funeral party never left the body of the dead man. There was plenty of time for tears. In the morning the coffin was closed and tied up with the off-white cloth ribbons worn previously by the family. The rain stopped. Half-a-dozen strong men lifted up the coffin and carried it slowly down the street toward the mountain.

In front of the procession two youngsters walked. They held fireworks and let them off every few meters leaving a trail of red paper in their way. The musicians walked at the back of the procession. The lion dancers gave a final performance.

The many hours without sleep, the weeping, the noise, smoke and alcohol drunk at the funeral had exhausted the dead man's family. They were at the end of their strength. They bowed in front of the coffin for the last time and broke down.

A small girl, carried on the back of her mother waved to us. A wire construction was put on the coffin, crowned by a colorful paper bird, that would fly away with the spirit of the dead and become part of the circle of life.

(China Daily July 29, 2009)

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