Chinese Grieving Etiquette

by Guy Gardner
Grieving is universal, but differs in etiquette from culture to culture.

Grieving is universal, but differs in etiquette from culture to culture.

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Although similar in some ways to the grieving etiquette practiced in the West, Chinese grieving etiquette also reflects cultural beliefs quite different from those in other countries. Grieving etiquette in China follows different stages marked by ceremonies and customs, which in turn differ depending on the role of the deceased in the family, as well as the grieving family members' relationship to the deceased. In general, the mourning process and grieving etiquette reflect traditional Han Chinese beliefs about family and the afterlife.

Age of the Deceased

Chinese grieving etiquette differs depending on whether the deceased was younger or older than those in mourning. In Chinese tradition, it is only the responsibility of the young to show their respect by holding a funeral -- traditional belief dictates that elders should not hold a funeral for the young. Those who die young and without children of their own are buried without ceremony by their parents. The death of an elder, however, is followed by a traditional grieving process, with prescribed roles for different members of the family.

Family Members

Family members do not wear red clothing or jewelry during the funeral, as both are seen as a sign of happiness. Black, white and blue are traditional colors for grieving. Traditionally, black is reserved for the children and daughters-in-law of the deceased, showing that they grieve the most. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren wear blue, and sons-in-law wear white. The lighter colors signify that they were not as close to the deceased, with white indicating that they are the least close to the deceased. The sons, daughters and daughters-in-law of the deceased are expected to show their grief openly after the death of their parent. Loud crying is common at Chinese funerals, and is expected to be loudest just before the sealing of the coffin.

Period of Mourning

Mourning traditionally lasts 100 days for the family, although the sons of the deceased should not wear red or get married for six months following the parent's death. After 100 days, a final prayer ceremony is held to end the mourning period.
According to ChinaCulture.org, the custom of holding prayer ceremonies after death originates from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, to which most Chinese Buddhists adhere. It is believed that there is a period between death and reincarnation, called "Antarabhava," when prayers and ceremonies can better prepare the soul for a good rebirth. In one tradition, the funeral lasts 49 days, with prayer ceremonies held every seven days. In another tradition, the prayer ceremonies are held 10 days apart for three periods before the burial.

Afterlife

The sealing of the coffin before burial represents the separation of the deceased from the living, and all those present are expected to turn away, as watching the sealing of the coffin is considered bad luck. All mirrors are also supposed to be covered or turned away from the coffin when it is present during the wake, for the same reason. The ceremony follows customs to protect both the living and the dead. Yellow and white paper is pasted on the coffin before burial to protect the deceased from evil spirits.
Chinese tradition holds that the soul lives on after death, and that the spirit of the deceased will return to his home seven days after death. The family is expected to remain in each of their rooms, and a red plaque is placed over the main entrance to show the spirit the way home. Flour or rice is scattered on the floor, so that when the loved one returns home, he will be able to see his footprints.
According to interviews conducted by the University of Indiana, family members are expected to burn paper representing money and other material possessions for the departed after death. Family members also burn this paper during the annual memorial day in April, when they visit the graves of relatives. The money is for the deceased to use in the afterlife.

About the Author

Guy Gardner has worked as a writer since 2007, with work published in "The Prescott Russell News" and on various websites. He is also an experienced academic researcher, teacher and traveler. Gardner holds a Master of Arts in political economy from Carleton University and a certificate in Chinese language from Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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