The Taoist (Chinese) Way of Death

Linda Sun Crowder. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

“The most important thing in life is to be buried well,” is an old Chinese adage that reflects the importance of funerals in traditional Chinese culture. Funerals are the most important life passage ritual, surpassing weddings and birthdays in priority, expense, and significance. For the Chinese, death means becoming either an ancestor who has a continued relationship with its family or a ghost that endangers society. In either case, the spirit or soul exists to have an interactive relationship with the living. Because ancestor reverence is the cornerstone of Chinese cultural belief and social structure, death rituals are of serious concern and are the most important of Chinese religious practices. With death, a family member has the potential for becoming a beneficent ancestor, and funerals are the ritual means of accomplishing this transition. A well-disposed corpse will have a safe, peaceful spirit that will reward its family with good fortune for many generations. Corpse and spirit disposition are also community concerns because the improper disposal of the dead will produce an unhappy spirit that will cause havoc and bad luck for all. Such concern with spirit welfare and familial duty is expressed and judged by the funeral procured, particularly if the funeral is for one’s parents. A respectable funeral presentation to show filial duty, respect, and spirit concern becomes necessary to “save face” (Yang 1961:38, 44-53).

The particularly Chinese way of viewing the world and dealing with evil, nature, death, and the afterlife stem from the beliefs of the classic period (1500 B.C.- A.D. 9) and the “Three Teachings” of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. As these schools of belief gained a wide popular hold, their doctrines were merged, officially synthesized, and adopted as the imperial state religion in the 14th century. The religion, culture, and government of China became synonymously integrated to be one and the same. Their conjoined discourses pervaded the local folk beliefs and popular culture, forming a general Chinese worldview. From this convergence is derived the basic ideologies that have structured and predicated Chinese religious beliefs and cultural operations and motivated its mortuary rituals. To understand this worldview, the importance of rituals, and the logic underlying them, a brief explanation of China’s religious development and its cosmological concepts is in order.

The Background of Religion In Chinese Culture

Since the classic period (1500 B.C.- A.D. 9), the Chinese world has been conceived of as a living energized whole composed of five elements (water, fire, metal, wood, and earth) and complementary negative yin and positive yang forces. The yang represents heat and light, the power that starts things; and yin is the cold and dark power that completes them. These elements and forces can be accessed, manipulated, and channeled through magic, geomancy, and the inner discipline of the body. Chinese gods and animated nature and human spirits can be interacted with and engaged in a negotiating relationship through the offering of sacrifices. The gods have ranks and include nature and cosmic deities as well as highly evolved, exemplary humans who have achieved a saintly status and semidivine nature, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (see below), or local cult heroes. At the pinnacle is the major all-encompassing deity of Heaven who endorses the authority of the emperor and is approachable only by him. Ordinary people appeal to the lesser gods, “saints,” and their ancestors for help. Ancestors are the spirits of parents whose place in Heaven has been secured by sacrifices from their families. Because they are the most personal and accessible of the spiritual entities, funeral rituals by their families focus heavily on their cultivation (Lai 1983; Li 1993:118; Overmeyer 1986:13, 62; Teiser 1996:4, 12-13, 30; Thompson 1973:160; Yang 1961:23, 109, 111-12, 135-37).

Confucianism, an ethical philosophy approved as a doctrine by the state in the second century B.C., provided a functional approach for the social control of humans by modeling society after the patriarchal order of the family and mandating the offering of sacrifices to ancestors and the gods. These sacrificial rites were considered essential for cultivating moral values, a respect for order and authority, and the regulation of social conduct—the ultimate concerns of Confucianism. Confucianism complemented the classic beliefs by endorsing social hierarchy and the emperor as the authority from Heaven. But although it instructed people on how to conduct themselves with others, its pragmatic agnosticism did not satisfactorily address people’s concern for the state of the soul after life (Li 1993:118-19; Teiser 1996:4-7; Yang 1961:44-48).

Buddhism is the only foreign religion that became an integral part of the Chinese cultural discourse. It entered China from India in the first century A.D. and introduced the concept of spiritual salvation through enlightenment. Enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism, is the attainment of a completely objective and egoless understanding of life, which is believed to bring about peace of mind and compassion for all creatures. Two major schools developed in China: the Chan school (Zen in Japan), with its complex philosophy of enlightenment through disciplined meditation, and the Pure Land, with its simpler approach to salvation by believing in, praying to, and chanting the name of Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land paradise of the West. Buddhism explained the meaning of suffering and taught pity and mercy. Its teachings of good deeds for karma (the retributive cause and effect of one’s actions), reincarnation (the rebirth of the soul into another life form), and a clear image of an afterlife paradise and hell with demons (from Tantric Buddhism) were popularly accepted for their appealing and graspable theory and practice. Buddhism absorbed the popular folk and classic beliefs and contributed to them with its own rituals, folklore, art, and group of revered Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. A Buddha is one who has attained complete enlightenment through many lifetimes of moral and spiritual development. There are many Buddhas (Amitabha and Gautama Siddhartha are two), because each world and era has one. Bodhisattvas are those whose lives have been exceptional in their vow to seek enlightenment and attain Buddhahood. They are the heroes and “saints” of Buddhism (Li 1993: 118-19; Overmeyer 1986:40-48, 120-22; Teiser 1996: 13-25; Yang 1961:118-21, 124-25, 151).

Taoism (fourth century A.D.), in many ways a sophistication of the classic beliefs, fit into the state’s framework of Heaven with its man-in-nature orientation that focused on the role of humans to the ordered processes or “way” of the cosmos. Taoism offered explanations for the tumultuous political changes and the inconstancy in life as resulting from the naturally alternating progression of yin and yang forces. Taoism’s popularity was also attributed to its mystical cult magic and the practice of alchemy that could manipulate the five elements. Taoist masters with highly cultivated body energies (ch’i) that connected them to the cosmic consciousness, could become powerful magus-shamans who received esoteric revelations from celestial gods. Cults and social movements often developed around these charismatic masters. When conducting rituals, they exercise the power of a god and perform mysterious rites that channel positive forces to the event. Taoist priests train for years and often take the lead at funerals when Buddhist clergy are also involved (Li 1993: 118-19; Overmeyer 1986:37-39; Schipper 1993:41, 103, 108; Teiser 1996:7-13; Yang 1961:109-10, 114).

Taoism formalized the classic beliefs of Heaven, the five elements, and the yin-yang system. Its concept of the internal cultivation of the body to connect to the cosmos complemented the Confucian view of the continuing link between earthly descendants and their spirit ancestors and the Buddhist practice of meditation to refine one’s inner spirituality. In addition to introducing another pantheon of celestial gods and local cult figures, Taoism emphasized the need for reciprocity in offering sacrifices to maintain an evenness of forces. It did not, however, explain what happened after death, provide an organized path of living, or establish a clear purpose to a moral life. Soul salvation was considered unnecessary because it would occur in the natural process of things (Li 1993:113, 118-19; Overmeyer 1986:39; Teiser 1996).

The characteristics that made the classic beliefs and the Three Teachings compatible to each other were (a) their lack of a dominant, monotheistic god that demanded exclusive commitment; (b) their inclusive universalism that viewed all things under Heaven as rightful creations of it; and (c) their complementing themes involving the human component in society, nature, and the spirit life. Taoism, the only religious organization indigenous to China, is sometimes referred to interchangeably as the “Chinese” religion. Its doctrines were the most closely identified to the prevailing classic and folk beliefs and could incorporate other religious tenets and rituals that became accepted in Chinese popular culture. To speak of a Chinese or Taoist funeral then, is to speak of an eclectic mortuary process that includes features from several sources of religious belief (Li 1993:115; Overmeyer 1986:51-52, 58; Schipper 1993:79-80; Yang 1961:111-12, 124-25, 150).

Concepts Surrounding Death Rituals

The main theme of Chinese rituals is reciprocity—the offering of sacrifices to gods, spirits, and ancestors in a mutual exchange for gifts and favors. According to the classic beliefs, it is the responsibility of humans to maintain the harmony and balance of the universe through moral conduct, part of which involves making sacrifices to establish a reciprocal relationship with gods, spirits, and ancestors. In the Taoist view, reciprocity ensures an equitable balance and respect between the parties. In China, a shared meal, giving a gift, or a business transaction are ways of establishing a reciprocal relationship. Hence food, incense, and money are the typical offerings used to bribe, plea, or strike a bargain for mercy, miracles, or good fortune. Reciprocating rituals are cause-and-effect devices used by humans to manage their interactive existence with nature, gods, and ancestors. Divination, magic, and mediums are also employed to advantageously manipulate these nonhuman entities and to divine their intentions (Overmeyer 1986:13, 51, 72, 85-86; Yang 1961:40, 109-10).

The gods and spirits are subject to negotiations like people in society because the Chinese spirit world is modeled to mirror the material one. Heaven and its pantheon of gods are organized like China’s imperial government headed by the emperor and his bureaucracy of civil servants, and it must be approached systematically. Gods and spirits, having human responses and needs, require offerings to sustain their existence. Even beggar spirits must be paid off to leave the deceased alone at funerals. Because life in the spirit world requires the same items as life on earth, ritual money and paper replicas of houses and goods are burned at funerals for the deceased’s spirit (Overmeyer 1986:52; Schipper 1993:36).

Death and its airs are considered evil, unclean, and dangerous, and anything associated with it should be feared and avoided. Death airs have two polluting aspects: the passive pollution of corpse decay and the active pollution of a dangerous spirit. Corpse contamination from the pollution of decaying flesh requires symbolic protection or a rite that will transfer away the evil. The volatility of a disembodied and confused soul hovering near the body is in risk of wandering off and corrupting society with chaos. The soul must be appeased until it is safely dispatched and ritually situated in its proper locations (the grave, soul tablet, paradise, or reincarnated form) (Lai 1983:30-31; Li 1996:135; Naquin 1988:56; Thompson 1973:168; Watson 1982:158-59, 161; Yang 1961:33-35).

Death pollution is a natural consequence of life, but it must be ritually managed. Offerings of food, ritual money, and entertainment solicit the soul, preoccupy it, and keep it near the body. The soul, responsive to the ritual succor of its caring family, is controllable with ritual entreaties. For instance, when the body is moved, music is played and the deceased’s name is called out. Stylized wailing by the family or hired professionals entreats the soul to come back to the living and lets the deceased know that he or she is missed and not alone. A paper spirit pennant or soul name banner helps to tether the confused soul to its former host. Another precaution is taken by consulting an almanac to divine the most auspicious day and time to place the body in the coffin, begin the procession, and bury the corpse. Such rituals to secure the soul are as much a demonstration of the family’s responsibility to the community as they are for the making of an ancestor (Lai 1983:30-31; Li 1996:135; Naquin 1988:56; Thompson 1973:168; Watson 1982:158-59, 161; Yang 1961:33-35).

The classic belief of the soul is that it has two major aspects: the hun, or heavenly god-soul (yang), and the p’o, or earthly demon-soul (yin). The funeral process prepares the soul for two basic contexts: the hun for heaven and the p’o for the grave. The transcendent hun is capable of becoming a higher spirit form (shen) and ancestor. It is this soul that travels through the Buddhist courts of hell, is reincarnated, and then resides in the part of Heaven called the Pure Land by Buddhists or the Western Paradise in the classic literature, where ancestors dwell. In the Taoist view, this hun has three celestial spirits, one of which resides in the spirit tablet. The p’o or earthly aspect, associated with the solid bones of the body, resides in the grave. The p’o demon-soul has seven terrestrial spirits, which are destructive and can become evil ghosts. Thus the number 7 is often considered fiendish in nature and associated with death (Harrell 1979; Overmeyer 1986:41-45; Schipper 1993:34-37; Teiser 1996:34-36; Tu 1988; Yang 1961:125).

Once situated, souls depend on the living for offerings to sustain them as family members. Spirits of the dead who have no family to ritually care for them or who have died prematurely by accident or suicide can never become ancestors. Like the homeless beggars or orphaned poor of society, these souls drift about menacingly as disinherited souls (ku-hun) or ghosts (kuei) who resent their ill fate and seek vengeance against society. Unless they are curtailed by divine or ritual intervention, they will seek a substitute soul to exchange places with them. The unstable souls of the recent dead are easily usurped by these disenfranchised ghosts (also referred to as hungry or beggar ghosts or evil spirits), making prophylactic rituals necessary at funerals (Li 1996:138-39; Overmeyer 1986:63-66; Schipper 1993:37).

Generally for the Chinese, corpse condition and comfort is connected to soul satisfaction. The classic and Confucian regard for ancestors and the family view the body as the biological wellspring of the family. The procreating body with itsyin flesh and yang bones is the regenerative source for the lineage. For Buddhists and Taoists, it is also the source for the internal cultivation of the person’s moral and spiritual consciousness and the power of its energies. The body, then, is the ritual center for dispatching the soul after death. A well-appointed body, buried whole and comfortably settled in the coffin, then placed in a well-located grave, will have a contented soul that can evolve into an ancestor. Hence mortuary rituals surrounding the corpse are concerned with its condition, treatment, and placement (Watson 1982:164, 180).

In Confucian China, the patrilineal family structure of descent through its males dictates the ritual procedures at funerals. Family members performed rites in the order of males first according to generational seniority. The eldest son or chief mourner started first, then the other sons, then the daughters-in-law, then the daughters. The eldest grandson was next, and so on. When an offering was made to the deceased, the family member, in a prostrated position, bowed three times, with the forehead touching the ground. The offering was concluded with a single bow. Today, many Chinese simply stand and bow from the waist with hand palms placed together in front (Kiong 1990:97; Kiong 1993:136; Yang 1961:39).

For the traditional Chinese, the family is revered, its order valued, and its continuity essential. As an enactment of familial loyalty, funerals are a family concern. Not only does the final disposition create an ancestor, the execution and largesse of the funeral are statements of the family’s social status and filial devotion. According to Confucianism, the physical act of performing the mortuary rituals is a necessary regimen that asserts the hierarchical family order, the obligations of its members, and the family’s social conformity to the group-centered culture (Yang 1961:44-45).

Cultural and Ritual Eclecticism and Diversity

Chinese funerals are diverse and may incorporate a range of different religious and local cultural elements while still remaining recognizable as culturally Chinese. Given China’s large geographic expanse, many dialectal, ethnic, and regional cultures exist within the general cultural fold. The Chinese worldview on death, society, and the spirit realm is a well-systematized, inclusive one that tolerates a wide variety of mortuary ritual interpretations without major ideological conflict. When European influences became a steady presence in parts of 19th-century China, for instance, the Chinese began to incorporate some foreign cultural features into their funerals as well (Li 1993:113, 119; Naquin 1988:46-53, 58-59, 63-66).

Funeral styles may vary with the age of the deceased. The elderly who have grandchildren are candidates for being a beneficent ancestor and are given the best funerals affordable. Adults with children also have community status and are worthy of a good funeral. Young people and children whose lives have contributed little, have simple funerals unless the family is well-to-do. Infants under a year old rarely have any ceremony forms (Ahern 1973:121; Gallin 1966:219; Naquin 1988:52).

The financial status of the family also determines the ritual extent of the funeral. The funeral process is traditionally in increments of 7 days, with 7 times 7 or 49 days being the ultimate tribute, affordable only by the rich. Each day of the funeral involves rituals, offerings, and the feeding and entertaining of guests. The poor may bury their dead in 1 or 3 days. Funerals of wealthy families may include all the ideal features, whereas those with lesser means may skip some features or present them in truncated forms (Naquin 1988:41; Watson 1982:165; Yang 1961:31).

Variation in the use of ritual items is partly attributable to the variation in symbolic meanings attached to word sounds or characteristics that may differ according to a group’s language, dialect, or custom. Items are selected for their association to something desirable. For instance, construction nails are symbols of posterity because their name, ding, is a homonym for “descendants.” Oranges are a common offering because their golden color is associated with gold and good fortune. Similarly, certain items are avoided for the same reasons (Kiong 1990:94; Thompson 1973:162).

Despite their spectrum of differences, Chinese funerals share common ideological themes and structural features that identify them culturally as Chinese. The funeral features to be discussed list the basic elements that may be found in a contemporary Chinese funeral. The mourning families select the features of their choosing and may abbreviate or interpret them according to their own custom or needs. Many features become mixed or reformulated with other cultural forms such as Moslem rites, Christian sermons, or Western bands. The selections and their forms depend not only on the economic circumstances of the family but on the expectations of their social peer group and the intensity of their religious beliefs. There are also numerous specific rituals that have not been described that may be the practice particular to a local area or social group. As it is, the basic rites have numerous variations.

The Funeral Structure and Its Key Elements

Generally, the mortuary process of the traditional funerals described during the late imperial and modern period (roughly the mid-19th to late-20th century) of China and among the Chinese in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and North America, includes the following basic structural features.


Upon a death in the family, the community and the gods of the underworld are notified. Outside the home, blue lanterns or white banners announce death. Written messages are burned to alert the underworld guardians of the death. Loud wailing by the family also warns those nearby. Obituaries are sent to friends and relatives to inform them of the death and to invite them to the funeral procession and mourning feast. A large showing is important to demonstrate the extensiveness of the family’s social network and to have the support of many friends. Gifts of condolence scrolls, banners, and floral wreaths are displayed at the home and mortuary and are carried in the procession. Other funeral gifts may be money, lengths of cloth, white candles and incense, special pastries, and baskets of food, depending on the local custom. Although modern Chinese use Chinese cultural greeting cards for various occasions, there are no Chinese-style sympathy cards. Typically, money gifts are inserted into a plain white envelope with a note (Gallin 1966:221, 228; Kiong 1993:135; Thompson 1973:161, 162; Watson 1982:160; J. L. Watson 1988b:12; L. Wong, personal communication, April 1996; Yang 1961:37).

Young children, pregnant women, and newlyweds should not attend funerals. The souls of youngsters and fetuses are believed to be undeveloped and vulnerable to ghost spirits and death airs, and because, associatively, births and weddings are auspicious “red” life affairs that should not mix with unlucky “white” death affairs and be sullied by them. Menstruating women also do not attend funerals because their polluting condition will corrupt the corpse and spirit (Kiong 1990:92, 96; Watson 1982:158; J. L. Watson 1988a:112).

Setting Up the Preburial Ritual Area

The body usually lies in state at home, in its main room, courtyard, or out front under a canopy constructed for the purpose. An altar is set up before it with a paper or wood spirit tablet, an incense burner, a picture of the deceased, candles, and food offerings. A cosmic ritual space may be created by a Taoist priest (Kiong 1990:92-95; Schipper 1993:76; Thompson 1973:161).

Most Chinese wish to die at home surrounded by their family. Efforts are made to prevent the dying person from expiring in his or her bed. When death is impending, the main living room is cleared of furnishings to avoid pollution and to prepare a place in the center set with raised boards for the dying person. The person is carried by the sons to this place and at death, a red blanket, often with a white lining, is draped over the body. A cloth or straw mat is hung over the door to keep the deceased’s soul from wandering out, malicious ghosts from wandering in, and to alert outsiders of death in the home. The altar for deities and ancestral tablets is covered for protection, and scrolls and pictures are turned around (Gallin 1966:220; Kiong 1990:92; Kiong 1993:132; Naquin 1988:48; Thompson 1973:160-61; Watson 1982:167).

Assuming Mourning Status

The traditional mode for the immediate family to demonstrate their grief and devotion to the deceased is by wearing coarse, off-white mourning clothes and hoods of sackcloth and straw sandals. The pigmentless cloth represents lifelessness and close contact with corporeal decay. By donning such garments, the family signifies the intimacy of their mourning and pollution status, and separates themselves from the rest of society. The colors for mourning worn by those in grief but not in lineage closeness with the corpse, are dark blue or black. The family may transition to these dark colors after the burial when the exposure to pollution and its danger has passed. Green symbolizes regeneration because of its association with spring, growth, and fertility. Red is for life, the color of blood with its life-giving energy. Depending on local custom, colorcoded accessories may be worn to indicate the lineal degree connecting the mourner to the deceased. These may include head wear such as hoods, bands, or wool yarn hair ornaments; sashes; colored yarn strands hung from armbands; or patches on the sleeve or breast (Gallin 1966:223, 229; Watson 1982:160, 174; Wolf 1970; Yang 1961:36).

An example of the lineal gradations indicated by mourning clothes is the practice of the traditional Chinese in Singapore whose elaborate mourning garments indicate relations for five grades of patrilineal descent. The first order of mourners (deceased’s sons, eldest grandson, daughters, and daughters-in-law), wears coarse straw tunics over white shirts and trousers. The second order (deceased’s sons-in-law) wears white mourning clothes, and the third order (deceased’s siblings) wears black. The fourth order (the deceased’s daughters’ children) wears blue, and the fifth order (great-grandchildren) wears green (Kiong 1993:137-38; Watson 1982:174).

An example of the abbreviated and symbolic version of the color-coded mourning clothes is the practice in contemporary San Francisco Chinatown. Dressed in Western clothes, a widow, her daughter, and daughter-in-law may indicate their relational status by wearing an armband, a small net veil on their heads, and a white yarn bow in their hair that is changed to a blue one after the burial, then changed to a red one after 3 days. The granddaughter wears a green yarn bow in her hair that is changed to a red one after the burial. The sons wear a black belt and armbands, and the eldest son or chief mourner is distinguished by the giant incense stick he carries in the procession. Not all families or American Chinatowns share the same interpretation. In New York’s Chinatown, the female relatives of the deceased wear yarn flowers in their hair instead of bows and no veils. Sometimes, in lieu of a yarn flower, a pomelo leaf (for protection) is worn instead. The grandchildren wear blue (a yarn flower for the girls’ hair, a simple bow pinned to the boys’ clothes or armband), which is later changed to red. The fourth generation of great-grandchildren wear green. The deceased’s spouse and great-grandchildren wear white sashes, and the rest of the family wears white sashes and black armbands. Sometimes a white towel is tied around the arm (to wipe away tears) (Crowder 1999:38; Crowder 2002:77-78, 212; Watson 1982:166).

Washing and Preparing the Corpse

Corpse preparation involves washing and dressing it, adorning it with ritual talismans and money, and placing personal items with it for a safe and smooth journey. Washing may vary from a vigorous scrubbing to a symbolic daubing of the forehead. The chief mourner and inheritor, who is also responsible for offering perpetual rituals to the deceased, “buys” the wash water from the river or well god. Depending on the local custom, the burial clothes may be the deceased’s wedding garments or a new set of clothes. In many regions, clothes made from animal fleece are avoided lest the deceased be reincarnated as those animals. Special burial clothes may be commissioned, consisting of odd numbers—seven, nine, or more layers—and may be embroidered with longevity symbols (cranes, peaches, evergreen branches, or the stylized ideogram for longevity). Longevity in the death context refers to lineage perpetuity and fecundity through ancestors and descendants. Metal fasteners, believed to weigh down the corpse, are replaced with cloth ties. Blankets are often placed on the corpse as an act of caring—a red or a red and white one being typical, or for Buddhists, a gold-colored one (Crowder 1999:41; Crowder 2002:124; Kiong 1993:133; Li 1993:114; Naquin 1988:39; Thompson 1973:161-62; Watson 1982:170-71; J. L. Watson 1988b:12).

Precious gems (jade, gold, silver, or a pearl) or a coin are placed in the deceased’s mouth or hands to ensure his or her prosperity and to have bribes ready for the guards and judges of the underworld. Rice may be placed in the mouth to avoid hunger (Kiong 1990:93; Kiong 1993:133; Thompson 1973:163; Yang 1961:31).

Personal items are placed in the wood coffin, along with ritual money, talismans, clothes, blankets, and supplies to meet the deceased’s needs on his or her long journey. A mirror or flashlight to show the way, a sack of grain, a rice bowl, ashes from burnt offerings, food (eggs and rice in a sealed crock), and nails and beans (symbols of fertility and lineage perpetuity) are the types of items added. For corpses intended for disinterment and a second burial, a brick identifying the person is sometimes placed in the coffin in the event the headstone or marker is lost. Tea, herbs, and wood ash are sometimes strewn at the bottom of the coffin to absorb moisture and to protect the corpse from evil (Kiong 1993:133-34; Overmeyer 1986:63).

Offerings and Preparations for the Spirit Journey

Preparation to aid the soul’s journey through the courts of hell to paradise include rites of protection, supplication, and dispensation. Chants, incantations, and prayers are said to ask the gods for mercy, assistance, and powers for the soul. Ritual paper money of various types is burned as well as placed in the coffin. A common type is jin zi, square sheets of paper stamped with gold foil in the middle, for gods. Its silver counterpart, yin zi, is for ghosts. Folding them to resemble ingots increases their value. Hell bank notes in huge denominations, drawn from the Bank of Hell, resemble dollar bills. Plain spirit money, mai lu qian, or “money to buy the road,” is worth cents and is for lowly ghosts. Yellow chant paper, over which priests have prayed, is burned for the spirit to hear the prayers (Kiong 1993:147; Thompson 1973:165; J. L. Watson 1988b:13).

Paper models of servants and of practical goods such as houses, clothes, cars, mountains of gold and silver, a bridge to cross over to the spirit world, a television, and even karaoke machines and boom boxes are burned to transfer them to the deceased for his or her spirit use. At some traditional funerals, the family kneels in a circle around the pile of paper goods with bamboo sticks. As the goods burn, they beat their sticks on the ground loudly to frighten away ghosts who might steal the goods. Other families may burn the goods at the cemetery in specially provided incinerators or cans (Kiong 1993:140-41; Thompson 1973:167; J. L. Watson 1988b:13; Yang 1961:31).

A passport to identify the deceased to the underworld guardian is burned at the mortuary or home, and the ashes or a copy of the passport is placed in the coffin. Candles and incense are also burned because their smoke conveys the rituals to the spirit world. The funerary items mentioned can be purchased from religious specialists or at stores specializing in religious paraphernalia (Naquin 1988:51).

Cooked food (typically roast pork, rice, boiled chicken, or vegetarian fare) and drink (tea, wine) are offered to the deceased’s spirit for it to partake of its essence. Because food offerings are a shared meal that creates indebtedness for the god or spirit, most ritual offerings will include food (cooked for gods and uncooked for ghosts) (Li 1996:141; Overmeyer 1986:68, 70; Watson 1982:156; Yang 1961:40).

Other rites of preparation might include helping the soul pass over the Bridge of Sighs that separates the earthly and spirit worlds. The chief mourner carries the spirit tablet of the deceased up and down a paper or wooden bridge 13 times (the number of bridges to reach hell) as Buddhist or Taoist priests chant salvation scriptures. Another service assists the soul through the 10 courts of hell whose judges assess the deceased’s earthly deeds. Each court discharges punishments for specific sins, and the 10th, the Court of Reincarnation, determines whether the soul will be reborn as an animal or person or permitted to enter Heaven where ancestors dwell. A priest carries the spirit tablet or other soul symbol from court to court, the outcome usually being favorable. A ritual for reincarnation may also be performed to accompany the spirit’s progress toward its next form. This involves the hanging of an elaborately decorated paper pagoda that is spun by the priest. While it is spinning, the priest prays and chants. When the pagoda stops, the soul will have assumed its new incarnation (Gallin 1966:226; Kiong 1990:97-99; Yang 1961:32-33). Daily offerings each morning and evening to feed and “wash” the soul meet the needs of the deceased as if he or she were still alive at home. These rituals are conducted to keep the body and soul together during the transition period (Li 1996:135-36).

Creating the Soul Tablet

A soul tablet is prepared to install an aspect of the deceased’s soul. The tablet, a small wooden stela, is ritually consecrated by a Taoist master or dignitary with a red dot or dots made by a writing brush dipped in blood or red ink. The brush is made animate by the family members who breathe their life energy (ch’i) on it. The soul must have a written Chinese name to participate in rituals. Once the tablet is imbued with the soul of the deceased, it becomes an object of reverence. During the funeral process, the tablet is placed on the altar before the corpse, taken through soul journey rites, carried in the procession, set at the grave during burial, then taken home to the family altar or a temple. The soul may reside in an incense burner or occupy a soul chair during the funeral. Sometimes a temporary paper spirit tablet is used until a permanent wooden one is made after the funeral (Harrell 1979:522; Kiong 1993:134; Schipper 1993:37; Thompson 1973:166, 168, 169).

The Ritual Use of Money and the Hiring of Death and Ritual Specialists

To properly settle the affairs of death, an exchange of money for essential mortuary services is required. Money is the medium for transferring the pollution of death away from the community to lowly outcaste or fringe citizens who remain apart from it. These death specialists are hired to construct the coffin, prepare the corpse, place it in the coffin, carry it in the procession, dig the grave, perform exhumations, wail, or play funeral music (Naquin 1988:53-56; J. L. Watson 1988a; J. L. Watson 1988b:14).

Religious specialists, a fringe group not affected by the contamination, provide the intervening services for the soul. If the family can afford it, Buddhist monks or nuns and Taoist priests are hired to perform daily religious rites. Although a funeral may be led by either Buddhist clergy or Taoist priests, most will typically incorporate both. The Buddhist clergy are garbed in simple somber robes. Their rituals for mercy are more verbal and personal, with many readings of scripture, chanted recitations of the names of the Buddhas, and quiet prayers. Taoist priests, costumed in colorful vestments, recite magical incantations to channel the power of celestial star gods to the event. Their rituals are elaborate, theatrical affairs with clouds of incense smoke; a small orchestra of Chinese violins, clarinets, bells, and drums; stately dances; complex hand movements; and the chanting of mysterious invocations and commands (Crowder 2002:119-26; Li 1993:118-19; Naquin 1988: 59-62; Overmeyer 1986:72; Schipper 1993:41, 103; Teiser 1996; J. L. Watson 1988a:117-20).

Coins (li shi or lucky money) are given to guests and helpers at various stages of the funeral in exchange for their exposure to the airs of death. The red color of the paper wrapping symbolizes life and is a prophylactic against death airs. Another coin to absorb the death airs is wrapped in white paper (the color of death) and is sometimes given together with the red-wrapped coin. In New York, only the white li shi, provided by the mortuary, is offered. These coins should be spent immediately, preferably on something sweet to remove the bitter taste of death and to transfer out the pollution (Crowder 2002:76-77, 212; Watson 1982:163).

The Use of Music

Music is critical in funeral rites. It gives the event a sense of occasion, accompanies the corpse, and settles the soul and guides its direction when the corpse is moved. The rhythmic beating of bells, cymbals, and gourds accentuates Buddhist prayers and Taoist invocations. The loud, high-pitched piping from the di-da (an oboelike instrument) and drumming during the corpse’s movement warn people of death’s presence and set a mournful mood. Ceremonial music marks the ritual space and announces the import of the ritual’s mission. Western brass band music in processions also keep the corpse and spirit company and add status to the event (Li 1996:135; Watson 1982:160-61; J. L. Watson 1988a:122-24).

Both the Western brass band and the Chinese pipes and drums used in the processions stem from the military traditions of both cultures. Carrying loud, shrill, and heart-pounding portable instruments into battle stirred the courage of the warriors and instilled fear and apprehension in the enemy. Their use in military ceremonies and the funerals of high state officials dignified the events as commemorations associated with field valor, bravery, and service to country. Civilian Chinese funerals adopted Western bands in their funeral processions from their exposure to the Europeans who had concessions in parts of late-19th-century China and from the colonial governments in Southeast Asia (Li 1996:137; Kiong 1990:102).

Sealing the Coffin

Considered by many to be the most important funeral feature, sealing the coffin finalizes the situation of the corpse for burial. Packed with ritual money and personal items to keep the body from moving, the wood coffin is secured airtight with calking and nails. Hammering the nails (symbol for descendants) is ceremonially performed by the eldest son or a dignitary as a blessed gesture for many sons—a form of prosperity. It is unlucky to watch the coffin being closed or to have one’s shadow or tears trapped in it (Kiong 1990:94; Thompson 1973:164; Watson 1982:161-62; J. L. Watson 1988b:14-15).

Dark, solid wood is preferred for coffins because of its warmth of feeling and texture. The best affordable is obtained because it is considered the deceased’s last home. The importance of the coffin is such that many traditional Chinese will save to purchase their own coffin to ensure that they will have a suitable one. When metal caskets are chosen, dark colors (dignity) or copper (similar to gold and therefore representing good fortune), are selected, but none that are too shiny: A reflection from such a death source is bad luck. Shiny surfaces of any kind are avoided at funerals as inappropriate (Crowder 2002:162-63, 213; Li 1993:114-15).

The Procession and the Expelling of the Coffin

Because it is a public spectacle and a dangerous transition for the soul, the procession to the grave is as extravagant as the family can afford to display its status and please the soul. It may include drummers, puppet figures, banners, floats with scenes and figures from the classical or Buddhist literature, sedan chairs, palanquins, standard bearers, the picture of the deceased and his or her soul tablet, Western and Chinese bands, and monks and priests in addition to the coffin carried on a bier and mourners. Along the way, firecrackers may be lit to scare off bad spirits or bits of red paper thrown for protection. More often, spirit money is strewn to pay off beggar spirits that block the road. These plain, off-white bills have curved slits cut into them. When they are tossed into the air, beggar spirits chase after them and slip through the curved slits. Because spirits travel only in straight lines, they become disoriented and diverted away from the cortege. This is similar to tossing out cheap copper coins to pestering beggars to clear the road in imperial China (Crowder 1999:39; Ku 1981; Ma 1988:138-39; Rawski 1988:245; Thompson 1973:164-65; Yang 1961:37-38).

The procession stops at altars on the roadside erected by friends to give offerings to the soul to entice it to stay in the procession. At intersections and bridges where ghosts are believed to congregate, offerings are made to pacify them. In cities such as San Francisco where the cortege does not have to go through Chinatown to reach the cemetery, processions are a choice. Detours are made to stop at the person’s home, workplace, or clan association for the spirit to pay a final visit and where offerings are sometimes made to the spirit (Crowder 1999:39; Naquin 1988:43, 49).

The Burial

Grave burial is the general practice, but local customs of its treatment vary widely. The corpse should be buried facing west, the direction where ancestral souls dwell. Whenever possible, the placement of the final grave or tomb is determined by the principles of feng shui or geomancy to locate the earth’s positive flow of cosmic energy. If a grave lies along this flow, the bones, as receptors, will harness the energy for the benefit of the family (Li 1993:115, 117; Thompson 1973:165-66; Watson 1982: 155; R. S. Watson 1988:206-7).

Chanting by Buddhist monks to accompany the soul and incantations and rites by a Taoist priest to safeguard the grave from evil are performed. The priest may spray wine from his mouth over the grave and wave a sword over the casket to protect the grave and its contents. Another rite for fertility involves the priest’s tossing a rooster across the grave to be caught by the chief mourner, then cutting the fowl’s comb to spill its blood around the grave for protection and fecundity. More ritual money, paper models, and incense are burned, and food offerings are left at the grave. Grain, coins, and dirt are sometimes thrown into it for good luck and finality. Most families prefer to witness the filling of the grave to ensure that nothing is disturbed. The dead relative is now an ancestor (Crowder 1999:40; Thompson 1973:166; Thompson 1988:88-91).

In some regions of south China (Fukien, Kwangtung, Hong Kong) and in Taiwan, secondary burials are the custom. The bones are exhumed after a period, cleaned and polished, placed in a ceramic jar and then secured in a family tomb. In imperial China, high-status families often kept the coffin in the home for months, even years, as a mark of respect (Ahern 1973:203-5; Freedman 1966: 118-54; Gallin 1966:229-30; Potter 1970; J. L. Watson 1988a:113-34; J. L. Watson 1988b:16; Thompson 1973: 168-69; Thompson 1988:103-4).

The Funeral Feast

Also called the “longevity banquet” or “traditional supper,” the funeral feast follows the burial, either at the grave, the home, or a restaurant as a way of thanking friends for their attendance and to give closure to the events. Some groups restrict the number of courses to seven, the number associated with death, and set up only odd numbers of tables for the simple memorial repast that is void of life-affirming dishes such as a whole fish (completeness) or noodles (earthly longevity). Other groups have elaborate celebrating banquets that welcome the new ancestor back into the family. Sweet rice or other sweets are served to guests to recall the sweetness of life. The Chinese name for the funeral feast, gaai wai jau (Cantonese) or jie huai jiu (Mandarin), means “to wash away sorrow” (Crowder 1999:40-41; Kiong 1990:106-7; Li 1993:117).

Dispersing the Ritual Area and Eliminating Pollution

Anything associated with the funeral is destroyed or must be purified. Mourning clothes and funeral items are either burned or buried with the deceased. In the Cantonese villages of San Tin and Ha Tsuen, for instance, the termination of mourning on the 7th day after the burial is marked by a ceremony known as “putting on the red” in which the mourning family exchange their white clothes for red ones (Watson 1982:165-66). Rooms that have been occupied by the corpse are purified with smoke, rice, or salt. If a sacred cosmic space was created, the priest disperses it. Funeral guests make a detour on their way home to leave the death airs elsewhere. Like the mourning family, they might purify themselves by stepping over a fire or ritually washing themselves with water infused with purifying red pomegranate seeds or pomelo leaves before entering their homes (Schipper 1993:77; Thompson 1973:167-68; Watson 1982:164-66).

Taboos regarding death are taken seriously, even in the modern urban context. Mortuaries in American Chinatowns are virtually closed during Chinese New Year. This life-affirming festival is a time of renewal for everyone to make a fresh start. Any mention of or activity regarding death is bad luck and will cast a pall over the coming year. To go directly to someone’s home from a mortuary is inconsiderate. For the elderly especially, it is culturally inappropriate to ask them what type of funeral they would like or to show them something related to death. Even going to a florist and seeing a funeral wreath being assembled is considered bad luck, and to accidentally bump into it is worse. Some Chinese will make a detour to avoid passing a cemetery. Most will go to a funeral expecting to receive some good luck charm (red-wrapped money, a piece of red thread) or will carry something with them for protection (garlic or scallions wrapped with bamboo in a pomelo leaf or crucifixes) (Crowder 2002:397; Watson 1982).

Postburial Rites

One or three days after the burial, the family returns to the grave to thank the earth and make simple offerings. Mortuary rituals are held again 100 days or a year later. Offerings are made at the grave on anniversary dates of the deceased’s birth and death and at seasonal festivals such as ching ming, the spring grave-cleaning festival. Throughout the month of April, everyone visits their family graves with offerings. Participation ranges from private sacrifices to grand clan ceremonies at the tombs of the founding ancestor and other illustrious members. Its fall counterpart, chung yeung, is similar but smaller in magnitude due to the less favorable weather. At the Hungry Ghost or Feast of Souls Festival in August, many families burn paper goods for the comfort of their dead relatives. This community festival is society’s effort to appease and comfort orphan ghosts with food offerings, the burning of incense, and the reading of Buddhist scriptures (Gallin 1966:229-30; Li 1996:138-39; Overmeyer 1986:63-66, 87; Schipper 1993:37).

At home (or if placed at a temple), the spirit tablet is offered incense and food on a daily basis. These ongoing offerings sustain the family’s relationship with the deceased, perpetuate him or her as an ancestor, and remind the living members that their roles, together with those of the dead, constitute the clan’s organization (Kiong 1990:107-8; Yang 1961:29).

The structure of the Chinese funeral methodically transitions the deceased out of the world of the living to the spirit one in a process that acknowledges and contends with all elements of existence, positive and negative. Nothing is dismissed or left to chance. Efforts are made ritually to manage and control all aspects of the life and death cycle in a mode that is balanced and even.

Modern Variations

North America

Chinese mortuary practices outside China have persisted in culturally hybrid forms, incorporating Western elements and the local customs of their overseas locales. In the major Chinatowns and Chinese communities of North America, funerals generally are conducted at mortuaries, and traditional practices often become modified by the constraints of urban lifestyles, liability concerns, and regulatory laws. Most funerals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver are structured into two major preburial parts: (a) the visit or wake in the evening where the corpse and soul preparations rites are performed and (b) the formal funeral service on the following day, which is typically Western style with a Christian minister. Both feature an open casket and last about an hour. This dual structure enables many Chinese Americans to represent their multicultural heritage without conflict.

The most frequent ritual performed at the visit is the blanket ceremony. In San Francisco, the eldest son and his wife place a white blanket on the deceased followed by a red blanket. Subsequent blankets offered by the other children of the deceased may be of any color or print or number. In Boston, the red blanket is placed first and in New York, one mortuary supplies caskets that include a blanket: a white or cream colored one for men and a pink one for women. The next blanket after that is always red, then any color or print after that (Crowder 2000:456; Crowder 2002:211-12).

San Francisco’s Chinatown still has processions with one or more Western brass bands playing Christian hymns, European elegies, and funeral marches. The picture car follows it. This is a convertible car that carries a giant picture of the deceased wreathed in flowers. Held by two male relatives, the picture wreath honors the life of the deceased who has now departed from the community (Crowder 2000:457-58).

Most families ride in limousines, but some walk on foot dressed in traditional white mourning clothes accompanied by Taoist priests. In the walking procession, the eldest son may carry items such as a giant incense stick, the soul tablet of the deceased, an incense urn, a spirit flag, a thin bamboo rod (symbol of a staff used to support someone weak with grief), and a cypress branch (the green leaves symbolizing the ever-continuing life of the family). A traditional Chinese band may join the procession and play traditional Chinese funeral music simultaneously with the Western one. Instead of marching, the five musicians sit on chairs in the back of a pickup truck to play their instruments (Crowder 1999:39-40; Li 1996:133; Li 1993:117).

Within Chinatown, spirit money may be tossed as a concession to tradition, but outside Chinatown it is considered littering. When stops are made, such as at a home, the back door of the hearse is opened and the picture wreath is removed from the picture car and set down adjacent to the casket. The hearse and picture car drivers and the funeral directors stand in a row next to the picture wreath facing the home. They bow three times and then toss spirit money into the air. The picture wreath is placed back into the convertible, the hearse door is closed, and the procession continues. Because of the influx of Chinese immigrants into San Francisco, the procession custom has emerged in the city’s other Chinese neighborhoods (Crowder 1999:39).

Los Angeles Chinatown also has similar processions with a brass band, but they occur less frequently than in San Francisco. In other major Chinatowns such as those in New York and Vancouver, these processions are no longer a common practice because of problems with traffic congestion and work schedules (Crowder 1999:44).

In New York, the funeral motorcade drives through the main streets of Chinatown, but there is no marching band. Bands are still hired, but they play standing out in front of the mortuary as the family and casket leave the building, then wait to play on a street corner for the motor cortege to pass on its way out of Chinatown. Instead of a picture car, New York mortuaries use a flower car. This is a hearse with its back cut out to allow for a flatbed. It looks like a cross between a hearse and a pickup truck. The picture wreath is slid into a special brace on the outer backside of the cab to show the portrait of the deceased, and the floral wreaths are laid down on the flatbed. As a part of the procession, this unique vehicle publicly displays the quantity of floral tributes offered to the deceased—a status symbol to be noted. Walking processions are reserved only for very prominent, key citizens (Crowder 2002:214-15).

In Hawaii, where there is a large Chinese population, processions have been abandoned altogether because of a lack of demand, and instead of two separate services (visit and formal), a single but longer formal service is held that includes a visitation time. Most funerals are Western style (Crowder 2002:217-18).


In modern urban Singapore, most traditional Chinese funerals are typically held in a public place and remain in the care of the family rather than a mortuary. Most Chinese prefer to die at home surrounded by their family who will prepare the corpse and coffin it. With the limited space of most high-rise residences, the frequent practice is to move the coffined corpse to an empty deck of a government housing building for the funeral. A three-sided canopy is set up over the casket and altar table. There, the family maintains a vigil and conducts the preburial rituals which last for 3, 5, or 7 days—always odd numbers (associated with the spirit world or to signify continuity, according to different interpretations). Burial is often on a Sunday for the convenience of guests to attend. If that Sunday is an even-numbered day, the casket is turned around once to signify the passing of a day. To protect the public from death airs in the vicinity, pieces of red paper are placed along the route from the funeral place to the deceased’s home (Kiong 1990:92-101).

On the final night of the funeral before burial, a series of elaborate rites are held to assist the soul’s journey. A deities altar is set up, and on each side are hung lanterns inscribed with the age of the deceased, increased by 3 to 7 years to indicate a long life. Three priests chant prayers accompanied by musicians. A papier-mâché donkey with the deceased’s name, birth date, and death date is burned to inform the gods that rituals are being conducted for that person. After more chanting, two pairs of papier-mâché phoenixes are burned to invite the gods to attend the funeral. The bridge-crossing ceremony and reincarnation rite are also performed (Kiong 1990:96-101).

Among the Singapore Chinese, a special rite is performed by the sons of a deceased mother: They drink her symbolic blood while the priests chant about the childbirth process. It is a gesture of ingesting a polluted corporeal substance that will regenerate the lineage through the procreating sons (Kiong 1990:98-99).

The procession to the cemetery or crematorium is led by one or more bands of musicians dressed in military uniforms. The casket is conveyed on an elaborately decorated truck that is symbolically pulled by friends holding onto two long ropes attached to the truck front (Kiong 1990:102-3).

Because of land shortages in Singapore, cremation is a common practice, and most crematoriums are managed by Buddhist temples. The day after the cremation, the family returns to collect the bones from the ashes, using chopsticks to avoid contact with the remains. They place the bones in their anatomically correct order, feet first, in an urn, which is then sealed and covered with a strip of red cloth. The urn is niched at a government columbarium or shelved at a Buddhist temple (Kiong 1990:104-6).

After the burial or cremation rites, the family returns home to change into colorful clothes for a party. With rice wine, they raise a toast to joyously welcome home the soul of their new ancestor. Food and wine are offered at the family altar where the soul tablet is placed for the installation of the deceased’s soul by a religious specialist. The ancestral spirit now resides in the tablet and with the family (Kiong 1990:106-7).


Chinese funerals in Taiwan typically reflect the traditional customs of the mainland province of Fukien, the ancestral place of many Taiwanese Chinese. In Taiwanese rural villages, the family prepares the corpse, coffins it, and conducts the preburial rituals at home. A complete version of a Taiwanese funeral lasts 7 weeks but most last a day or two. Wealthy families may extend it as a display of status. The funeral preparations, as in most Chinese villages, are typically a communal effort. Help, logistical support, and representative attendance are obligatory. The many funeral proceedings will be viewed by most of the villagers, who as onlookers provide an audience of critical peers for the ritual performances. This situation pressures the mourning family to provide their best and do the right thing to “save face.” The natural gathering at a funeral is an opportunity to instruct the young on tradition and filial piety. It also creates a need to provide entertainment for the attending crowd in honor of the deceased’s spirit. Consequently, the long process of multiple-day funerals is often broken up with amusements by professional entertainers and parable skits with comic relief from the Taoist priests. Chinese funerals overall are theatrical in nature and public ritual performances that are as much spectacle as they are rites of transition (Gallin 1966:221-27; Li 1996:132; Watson 1982:161).

Along with the rites of protection and those that provide opportunities to teach and amuse, many of the more unique rites of Taiwan’s traditional Fukien-style funerals have to do with family continuity, connectedness, and fecund regeneration. One such rite is “releasing the fingertip money,” which distributes the corporeal element of the deceased to his or her survivors in the form of coins. The coins are placed in the deceased’s sleeve which, when shaken, drop out into a wooden rice measure or tau (representing family, fertility, and abundance). The coins, divided among the family, are keepsakes symbolic of the bounty and blessings from the regenerating corpse (Thompson 1973:161).

In another rite of separation and shared pollution from the corpse’s regenerating decay, the family takes hold of a long hemp rope attached to the deceased’s sleeve. A priest cuts off the rope portion held by each member who then wraps his or her piece in a sheet of silver ritual money and burns it to separate the deceased from the living. In some Canton villages, a white cord is affixed to a coffin nail instead. In other villages, a coin substitutes for the snipped cord and is distributed in white envelopes to funeral participants (Ahern 1973:171; Thompson 1973:163; Watson 1982:162-63).

Burial clothes for the deceased consist of multiple white “grave” or “longevity” jackets. They are worn ceremonially by the eldest son first, another gesture of life transference in the family. Outside the house, the son sits on a stool with a winnowing basket under it, wearing a conical hat with a fillet around it holding two small red candles. With his arms outstretched, a hemp rope is placed across his shoulders. A venerable woman places the jacket, inside out, on the son who is then fed “longevity noodles.” The jacket is removed by pulling on the two ends of the rope and then placed on the deceased. For those deceased who are young, 3 jackets are used; for middle-aged, 7; and for elderly, 11. Nine jackets are never used because the word for nine sounds like the word for “dog” in the local dialect (Thompson 1973:162).

When the coffin is delivered to the house, rice is pressed onto its cover to repress its evil influences. The children of the deceased kneel to meet and salute it, wail, burn ritual money, and follow it into the house. The coffin is positioned with its head to the south and feet to the north. At the bottom of the coffin is fitted a board with seven carved holes representing the Great Bear constellation. Ritual money and wood ashes are placed on this to protect the deceased (Thompson 1973:163).

The body is placed in the coffin and given a paper hat and boots. Ritual money is added to the sides of the corpse to keep it from shifting. If a young person dies, a cooked egg, a stone, and salted beans are placed in the coffin to symbolize birth, transformation, and sprouting. Relatives witness the coffining to ensure that there are no irregularities and that the coffin is nailed shut. If the coffin is not buried immediately, it is oiled every few days to seal it (Thompson 1973:163).

Typically, five Taoist priests are hired, along with musicians, to conduct each stage of the funeral and its many rites. They begin by beating a drum and setting off firecrackers in the family courtyard, chanting prayers to funeral music, and centering their activities around the paper soul tablet and picture of the deceased, which is set up on a table. The lengthy ceremonies, well attended by villagers of all ages, are made entertaining and educational with clowning, magic tricks, and vivid allegorical storytelling. Professional jugglers or acrobats, hired by the deceased’s married daughters, entertain the spirit. The priests hang up streamers of moral sayings and scrolls depicting the scenes of hell, the main Taoist and heavenly gods, and the 24 filial acts from the classic literature. Displayed publicly, these hangings serve as visual aids for moral instruction (Gallin 1966:221, 223; Thompson 1973:164).

One ritual conducted outdoors that is designed to entertain is the sending of a letter of forgiveness to the underworld. Prepared and read aloud by a priest, the letter describes the deceased’s life and character and asks for clemency. Acting as the forgiveness governor, the head priest carries the letter, and with his three assistants, chases after a papier mâché horse on a pole carried by the fifth priest. The head priest catches the horse, rides it to the underworld, and presents the letter to the gods. With each priest carrying a lit torch and running through the crowd joking with the children and jostling with each other, the ritual is a hilarious romp to the underworld. After its delivery, final preparations are made for the spirit journey. Large amounts of ritual money are burned, the Bridge of Sighs is crossed, and the journey through the 10 courts of hell rites are performed (Gallin 1966:225-27; Thompson 1973:167).

The procession has some distinctive features. It is led by a deity figured into a paper and bamboo man who clears the road. In the figure’s hollowed middle are hung pig innards. The deity is carried by derelicts to the grave where the men then run off with the innards without looking back. After the procession has proceeded for a couple of streets, it comes to a halt and the mourning family turns to the guests, thanks them for coming thus far, and gives them permission to leave. The important procession feature is the soul sedan chair, which carries a rice measure, a symbol of fertility and family prosperity, and the paper soul tablet. In the return procession, the eldest grandson, in new clothes, sits in the sedan chair carrying the rice measure in the hopes that through him, the lineage will have progeny. No music is played because the body and soul are now settled, the pollution expelled, and the family power and authority has been transferred to the younger generation. The corpse burial is referred to as the “unlucky burial,” and the secondary entombment of bones in an auspicious place, the “lucky burial” (Gallin 1966:228; Li 1996:137; Thompson 1973:164-65).

Remnants of these traditional rituals may persist in urban Taipei in modified forms. Commercial ritual stores offer service packages of music ensembles, sets of mourning attire, and ritual items and instructions. Mortuaries are used, and cremation, made prevalent due to space limitations, is viewed as a means of accelerating corpse decomposition to retrieve the bones for its secondary “lucky burial.” Columbaria provide altars for sacrificial rituals on which urns are placed to receive offerings and then returned to their niches (J. Lee, personal communication, June 2002; Li 1996:139-40).

A contemporary Taiwanese homage to the deceased that also entertains guests and encourages them to attend the funeral is the hiring of stripteasers. The performers operate from the back of a pickup truck that has been converted into a curtained stage. They are also occasionally contracted to perform at temple festivals for the gods and crowds (F. Allio, personal communication, November 2000).

Hong Kong

In densely populated and tropical urban Hong Kong, the dead are typically buried within 48 hours because this is the maximum time the law permits a corpse to be held at a funeral parlor. A choice of two types of corpse removal services are available: (a) an undertaker who is not affiliated with a mortuary establishment or a (b) funeral parlor that has facilities for services on its premises (Wilson 1961:116).

If an undertaker is enlisted, he will come to the home, prepare the body and coffin it there, and remove it directly to the cemetery or a government depot to be held overnight. The law forbids undertakers from taking a corpse to their establishment. The government depots have a courtesy farewell pavilion where ritual services of any type can be held (Wilson 1961:117).

If a funeral parlor is called, the staff will remove the body to their premises where it can remain for a longer period than overnight, be prepared and coffined away from the home, and be given funeral services. Embalming is not the general practice because burial is within a short time after death. The establishment provides a farewell room where the mourning family usually maintains a vigil until the corpse is taken to the cemetery or crematorium. If the family decides to wear traditional mourning clothes, the funeral parlor usually provides them. Some funeral parlors occupy floors in high-rise buildings and feature a viewing parlor in which mourners see the deceased in another room through a glass window. Because licensed funeral businesses are regulated by law to abide by the 48-hour holding stipulation, a family may decide to arrange the preparations themselves and keep the corpse longer before burial. With exceptions, funeral processions have all but stopped because of traffic congestion in the crowded city (B. Steiner, personal communication, April 1996; Wilson 1961:116-18).

Given the high price of private plots on the small island, the free public cemetery is the popular choice. Public cemeteries have mandatory exhumations after five years to recycle the plot. The family may either exhume the grave privately and place the remains according to their wishes, or if the government does the exhuming, it will re-inter the remains in the cemetery’s urn section (Wilson 1961:122-23).

Mainland China

On the mainland, the communist government with its anti-imperial and atheistic ideology has negated the practice of traditional rituals as wasteful and superstitious. Cremation and memorial meetings are the accepted urban practices. The surreptitious transporting of corpses out of the city for burial in the countryside, however, has been known to happen. In the rural village areas where there is less political scrutiny, grave burials and simple traditional customs have been performed discretely. Since the liberalization of Mao’s dictums, traditional funeral practices have seen a quiet revival. The rise of private wealth has enabled people to realize some of the ritual ideals for the dead and has generated a social status consciousness that can be manifested in mortuary rites (Overmeyer 1986:14; L. Sun, personal communication, May 1982; Whyte 1988).

Overseas or in modern contexts, Chinese cultural identity persists most evidently in the performance of mortuary rituals. Despite political changes, urbanization, or Westernization, some form or element of Chinese cultural tradition, however modified or minimal, usually persists at funerals to mark Chinese identity. At Chinese Christian funerals in Hawaii, for instance, where there are no traditional Chinese rituals, a red wrapped li shi coin is still given out as a concession to Chinese custom. The funeral is an exceptional forum for performing traditions of cultural identity that would not otherwise find expression in other areas of the family’s lives.


Traditional Chinese funerals are dynamic, sensory-inundating ritual performances that impress on the mourners the importance of the interrelationship between the living and the dead to the family order and of the need to sustain this order with reciprocating, cause-and-effect rituals. They engage the family in a collective pursuit that is demonstrative of their filial devotion, sense of social responsibility, and social status as a group.

The discourse of Chinese funerals continues to incorporate and define the deceased in group terms, structurally and morally, to an extent not found in the West. Funerals function to safely create an ancestor rather than to primarily memorialize the deceased and to comfort the living, as is typical in Western societies. Unlike most Westerners, the Chinese believe that the living influence the fate of the soul after death and that the dead have consequence in determining the welfare of the living.

Chinese mortuary rituals have basic themes that are concerned with the management of pollution, the regeneration of the family, and the restoration of order that has been disrupted by death. Pollution is managed with prophylactic and placating rituals that protect the living from the evils of spirit danger and corruptive death airs. The family is regenerated spiritually by controlling the active pollution of the spirit and transforming it into an ancestor. It is also regenerated biologically by assuming the passive pollution of the corporeal decay to produce descendants. The family also lives on through the memory of the ancestors that is sustained daily by the offerings made at the family altar. Its order and continuity is ensured by the funeral rituals that sanction the transfer of inheritable property to the eldest son. Order is also reinstated by ritually situating the decomposing body and displaced spirit in a secure and propitious place. Harmony and balance are restored by the successful transition of the deceased through its unstable, liminal phase between being a living person and a living ancestor.

There is a Chinese saying that out of crisis comes opportunity. Death is a disruptive crisis that forces open a gap between the earthly existence and the spirit one that is bridged by rituals. Death is also the opportunity to transition a family member from a biological propagator to a spiritual benefactor. As the “white” affair that alternates with the “red” affair of birth, death creates the cyclical change that regenerates the life process. Red and white, life and death, are necessary complements of each other. Symbols of regeneration (the symbols of nails, green, the rice measure) and the color red, for the vitality of life, are always present at funerals to balance death by instating its connection to the life, spiritual and physical, that will continue from it. For the Chinese whose identity is group centered around the family, death is a regenerative element to family perpetuity rather than a final end.