Ancient China Funeral Customs, Arrangements, and Rituals

The earliest recorded funeral rituals in China are those of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, three to four thousand years ago. Later in history, based on the amendment and supplement to the previous laws and regulations, the Confucian funeral rites, which continue to be used at present, were finally established. Among the rites of passage, they were the most solemn and complex. There were many rituals involved, from the beginning of a funeral on the first day, through dressing a corpse on the second day and putting the corpse in the coffin on the third day, to a series of other processes to go through in the first three months. The ceremony would not be ended until the deceased’s sons places the memorial tablet in the ancestral temple, and observes mourning for three years.

Chinese funeral Customs and Culture

When a person loses a loved one, it is inevitable that they will feel sad, so according to the feudal moral code of etiquette, they should express their sorrow. However, excessive sorrow will certainly damage people’s health, which goes against normal human emotions, so it must be restrained by the discipline of ethics. Therefore, a funeral played a role in guiding people to express their emotions abstemiously. That is why funerals, as a ritual, came down continuously to modern times.

Just like other important events, a funeral was regulated by its relative ritual system. People in the hierarchical society would be buried according to a burial system, which described in detail mortuary arrangements based on the deceased’s grade: whether to bury one alone or with one’s spouse, whether in a family tomb or in a public cemetery, the choice of mortuary objects, the sizes of the coffin and the coffin pit, and so on. The expressions of death also differed. For instance, the death of an emperor, a feudal lord, a senior official, a scholar, and an ordinary person was referred to as beng(崩), hong(薨), Zu(卒), bulu(不禄) and yi(殁) respectively. Other expressions resulted from how or when a person died: dying young was called yaozhe(夭折), dying of old age at home was called shouzhongzhengqin(寿终正寝), dying away from home was called kesi(客死), and dying of accident called xiongsi(凶死).

In Ancient China, bodies were mainly buried, in which case, a body was put into a coffin and then buried in a hole dug in the ground. In the very beginning, bodies were only buried in a coffin pit. But afterward, a tomb mound was built with a grave door and a gravestone. Inhumation, referring to this way of handling the dead, was rooted in the agricultural civilization, reflecting Chinese people’s close relationship with the land. In Chinese eyes, the land was the ultimate destination and people could find ever-lasting rest when buried in the ground. Cremation was popular among ethnic minorities, resulting from their unstable nomadic lifestyle. But it was resented by Hans who believed that such a way could not express good wishes for the reincarnation of the dead and was not in line with the Confucian culture that any part of the body was forbidden to be hurt. Only those special ones who died of foul disease or who died of severe birth defects should be cremated in order to remove disease and ill omen.

In China, when the dead were buried, they were usually laid facing up, for this sleeping posture, which was in line with the Chinese belief that a dead person was having a restful sleep, facilitated the deceased’s communication with the living on the land.

Following the Chinese tradition, the family cemetery that had the greatest impact and the longest history was not only a place to bury the dead but also a sacred family property. If expelled from one’s family for doing things detrimental to the interests of the family, one could not be buried in the family cemetery after death, which was seen as a great punishment and humiliation.

The beginning of a funeral

Chinese people were well prepared for natural death, with clothes and coffins readymade. Natural death, the death of people over 50, whether dying of old age or disease, was referred to as xisang (喜丧, literally happy funeral in Chinese). As a rule, dying people would be carried to another place to facilitate the following arrangements. When one died, one’s relatives would go up to the top of the house or to a higher spot to call back one’s spirit toward the direction of their ancestors. After that, the deceased’s pulse was checked and the bereaved began to cry. They burst into tears in deep sorrow, informing the neighbors of the news. In most places, money or jewelry or something like that would be held in the deceased’s mouth.

Putting the corpse in the coffin

The term Zhuanglian (literally “to dress” and “to put in a coffin”) referred to dressing a corpse and laying it in a coffin. In average families, a corpse would be dressed up and put into a coffin in time according to temperature conditions. Usually, the dying would be dressed just before death and laid into a coffin on the next day. The reason for dressing on the deathbed was because the body would become stiff after death and not easy to dress, which was thought to be inauspicious as one would be in another world naked. A padded shroud was generally made of cotton, and shoes must be made of cloth. Fur garments could not be worn, for otherwise the deceased would possibly become an animal in the next life. Silk was not used as clothing material, for it was pronounced in Chinese as duanzi, which also meant “breaking off brood”. When the dead was laid into a coffin, his or her family must stay aside and small mortuary objects would also be placed in. What followed was to wipe the corpse’s face. Chopsticks were used, usually by the oldest son of the dead person, to take a cotton ball to wipe his or her eyes, ears, mouth, and finally face. After that, he would hold a small mirror before the corpse’s face for it to show up in the mirror and then turn around to throw it onto the ground. At that time, the whole family cried bitterly to make a farewell, for it was the final time for them to see the deceased.

The next step was to nail the coffin’s lid, when the deceased’s sons must cry out, “away from nails” so that the spirit would escape. Meanwhile, the sons coiled hair around the nails to associate the deceased with the living people.

Giving an obituary notice

Just as a symbol was hung out when a person was born, information concerning one’s death, mourning and funeral should be given to one’s relatives and friends when one died. First, a white marker, either a paper streamer or a cloth streamer, written with the deceased’s name (in red if in the Manchu ethnic area) should be hung out on the door, and related people should be informed so that they might return before the corpse was put in a coffin. Obituary notices could be made orally or in writing. In modern times people usually put an obituary in the newspaper. The deceased’ son responsible for giving news must wear a white mourning dress or a mourning hat, with a mourning belt at the waist. He should not enter other families’ houses but had to kowtow to anyone who answered the door, whether old or young. Ordinary families usually gave obituary notices orally, while wealthy families would send written notices. Anyone who received the obituary notice must go to the deceased’s family in time to attend the funeral.

Wearing mourning

The bereaved must put on mourning clothes in strict compliance with rites, of which the basic one was the system of five classes of mourning clothing. That system, formed basically as early as two to three thousand years ago in the Zhou and Qin Dynasties, provided what could be worn and how long it should be worn based on people’s relationships to the dead. Therefore, a glance at one’s mourning dress would tell one’s relationship to the deceased. In addition to their relationships, also regulated by the system were the rights and obligations of the relatives, which had been accepted through common practice. The deceased’s children must wear the coarsest hemp garments with rough selvedge and be all in white. Meanwhile, they were entitled to inherit assets after having observed mourning for three years. Furthermore, one should wear clothes made of wrought hemp with the border stitched. If grandparents on one’s mother’s side died, there should be a blue cloth piece in one’s clothes. In case of the father’s parents’ death, one should have a red cloth piece in one’s clothes. As for great-grandsons, there should be two red cloth pieces in the clothes. This ritual clarified personal relationships and had a great influence on later funerals. It is still in use, though possibly with a little simplification.


All kinds of people, after having received the obituary, came to offer condolences according to rites based on their relationships with the deceased. For close kin, deep feelings must be expressed. First, they mourned by crying at the news and asking about the cause of the death. Then they would hurry back for the funeral regardless of anything and would cry towards their hometown when approaching home. Married daughters must cry all the way home, and kneel down crying in front of the temporary memorial tablet immediately after arrival, and would not stop until others came to soothe them. Sons in mourning must greet and accompany the coming relatives and friends, who would pray to the memorial tablet, with a salute returned by the sons, and then present gifts at the accountant’s office. The gifts varied between districts and between nations, including money, cloth, food like steamed bread, wreaths, and so on.

Sending off a spirit on the third day

Traditionally, the Chinese believed that ghosts formally went to the nether world or heaven three days after death. Then monks would be invited to recite scriptures to atone for the deceased’s crime so that they might be allowed to go to heaven. The ceremony, called jiesan or yingsan (迎三, literally “welcoming three” in Chinese), was imprinted with a religious mark of Buddhism and Taoism. Its customs differed from locale to locale but stayed the meaning roughly remained the same.

Finishing the stroke on the memorial tablet referred to the ceremony at which a person was specially invited to put the finishing stroke to the inscription of the wooden memorial tablet. At the solemn ceremony, sons of the deceased must kowtow to extend a salute, and the deceased’s virtues and achievements would be eulogized after a person of important status put the finishing stroke to the wooden memorial tablet. The mourning dress must be taken off before the ceremony and put on again afterward.

Carrying the coffin to the burial and burning paper house

The bodies were not easy to preserve over time and would of course be buried after basic rites. Before a coffin was raised up, there were a series of farewell rituals, such as scattering wine, reading funeral oration, offering incense, and kowtow. After that, the coffin would be carried to a cemetery for burial when the funeral procession was ready. As a custom, the eldest son held a white band of mourning in the front of the procession, the second eldest son following with a memorial tablet in his arms, and the others with sticks wrapped with white paper in hand. After a pillow of the dead person was burnt, the first heir smashed to pieces the brazier for the use of a memorial ceremony and the coffin would be lifted right away and carried to the burial site.

However, big differences existed between funeral processions for the rich and for the poor, whose lengths ranged from several kilometers to less than twenty or thirty meters. An average funeral procession consisted of a drum band, a wreath-carrying group, a group carrying the elegiac couplet, a group of friends and relatives, the coffin, and a funeral convoy. They walked while scattering paper made to resemble money. On the roadside were tea sets with tea prepared by relatives and friends, arranged for the sons to have a drink and for offering sacrifices to the deceased. The first thing to do after arriving at the burial site was to arrange the coffin pit by putting in funeral objects like long-life lamps. Footprints must be cleaned up before the coffin was placed in. Then the sons formed a line and began to fill up the pit. After that, a mound was made with a grave door built or a tombstone erected towards the south. The final step was to burn up various paper burial objects, such as paper-made wear, housewares, horses and carriages, money, household furniture, and even servants and yards. Those objects were meant for the deceased to take away.

Observing a period of mourning

This ritual was based on one’s filial piety and feelings for the deceased. Owing to the death of their family members, living people restrained themselves from something in their daily life within a period of time to lament for and think of the deceased. The deceased’ sons were required to keep in mourning for three years, which was thought to be the best way filial piety was expressed and a test to the son. In accordance with the ritual system, one could not serve as an official or live at home during the mourning period, but live near the tomb of his parent and have a simple diet, no meat, and no alcoholic drink. He was also forbidden to marry a woman, have sex, listen to music, have a bath, have his hair cut, or change clothes. Any violation would be condemned and sneered at by the public and lead to the offender’s guilty conscience.

During this period, many taboos associated with the rites and customs should be observed. For instance, the Spring Festival couplets should not be made of red paper but of blue paper, and people should stay home during the Spring Festival without going out to pay a New Year’s call.

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