Chinese Funeral Traditions at the Shanghai Funeral Museum

Do you know anyone who doesn't have a slightly morbid fascination with the rituals surrounding death in other cultures?

My interest in death customs in other cultures and religions was first piqued when, as a medical student working in the remote Thai town of Khon Kaen, I was invited to the funeral of the town's only and very elderly foreigner. I had never met him while he was living, and knew nothing of him other than that he had lived in that remote and beautiful place for many years.  The funeral was so different from the oppressively sombre church funerals I had attended in the past, with mourners dressed in black.

The funeral prayers were conducted by Buddhist monks in an open air pavilion within a luch tropical garden. The body was laid under a heavy white sheet in the very centre of the pavilion, not visible, but the tips of his fingers rested gently in a bowl filled with water lilies and lotus blossoms at his side as though he had just placed it there himself. Friends and family walked by, one by one, and taking a small brass cup, poured water over his hand and into the bowl. It was an act of such gentle elegance and respect and there was a pervasive feeling of lightness.

Then, two years ago, I witnessed a Chinese funeral near Dragon's Backbone rice terraces. It was completely different again and at first I thought I had come across a wedding procession - there were firecrackers, loud music, and raucous singing, but in the centre of the procession were white-clad coffin bearers carrying a brightly painted wooden coffin on poles to the burial ground. Afterwards a massive feast took place in the village with the slaughter of a pig, and much drinking of the local firebrand rice wine. The firecrackers and music continued all through the night.

Witnessing that Chinese funeral raised so many questions about Chinese death customs, so a chance arose to visit the impossible-to-get-into Shanghai Funeral Museum this week, I cancelled everything else to get there. Call me morbid, but it was absolutely fascinating!

A pair of lions, their eyes closed, guard the entrance to the underworld
Chinese people believe that when you die, your spirit is transported across a river to the underworld by underworld spirits (is any of this sounding familiar?). These spirits are terrified of the color red (explaining why, in your Chinese zodiac birth year, you'll be needing to wear red underwear for protection from said spirits) which means you should be dressed for your funeral in blue or yellow. If you wear red, the spirits will be unable to bear you across the river and you'll remain on earth, forever unable to rest.

Funeral robes, Imperial yellow, 10,380 yuan ($1750)
The only exceptions to the burial in red rules are these. Firstly, if you die beyond the age of eighty and have lived a good life, you are considered exempt from first visiting the underworld, and have a celestial 'free pass' straight to heaven. The second exception is rather more macabre - if you die a violent death and your family, mad with grief, wish to seek revenge, they will bury you in red deliberately, so that your spirit will never be able to enter the underworld and you will haunt the earth as a ghost for all eternity, searching for those who harmed you. Gives me goosebumps.

The Funeral Museum is housed in Shanghai's largest and state-run funeral home - pragmatically named Shanghai Funeral Industries. Nowadays, every Shanghai resident is cremated, by law, and the funeral process is very similar to our own. Once a death occurs, you can call the SFI hotline and they will send a pair of mobile funeral consultants to your home to arrange the funeral service. Funeral services can be Taoist, Buddhist or non-religious, and the funeral home provides reception rooms which can be rented by the hour (four hours average) for prices from 50 to 1900 yuan/hr for the VIP room ($8 to $315/hr).

The funeral reception is not a standard service, as we have, but rather a period of time during which guests can visit the family to pay their respects. Sometimes the body is laid out, sometimes not. During the reception monks may offer prayers and chants, and music is usually played (kū chànggē 哭唱歌 - crying songs). We visited a traditionally decorated funeral reception room at the museum.

Vases decorate either side of the table because the word for vase (ping) has the same sound as the word for peace. An offering of fruit, candles and incense is made to the deceased and there are arrangements of white and yellow chrysanthemums. The oldest son will sit on the right side of the room to receive guests, and on the left side of the room musicians will be seated and play traditional instruments.

Once the funeral reception is over, the body is taken away to a secret off-site location to be cremated. I asked why it was secret, thinking that it may have been for spiritual purposes, but the answer was that it would be considered bad luck to live nearby, so the location is kept hidden to protect property prices.

Most people are now cremated in a simple coffin made from bamboo or lacquered compressed paper. Both versions look remarkably like lacquered wood but are more environmentally friendly and apparently preferred. Of course it wasn't always so streamlined. In the past, coffins were elaborate and expensive, according to one's status and wealth, and were often chosen long before old age. I've visited homes in tiny villages where a highly decorative coffin has already been bought sits up on the rafters, waiting for the time it will be needed.

Coffins beraers were known as 'hóng bái gàng' 红白杠 and these 'red white pole-bearers' were skilled at playing musical instruments and carrying palanquins for 'red' occasions like weddings, as well as 'white' occasions like funerals. According to custom the number of coffin-bearers ranged from four to sixteen depending on the social status of the deceased.

Dragon coffin with sixteen bearers
Traditionally the mourning period was long - forty-nine  days - and during the first seven days the family stayed at home and tried not to move anything in the house so when the spirit returned briefly on the seventh day it would recognize the house. 

Mao considered these old customs outdated and China was faced with the increasing problem of a lack of available space for tombs, so under the auspices of the 'Destroy the Four Olds' campaign he just made it law that everyone had to be cremated, and the traditional mourning period was abolished.

It seems it may not have been quite so easy to change entrenched traditions like these, because propoganda posters promoting the benefits of cremation still exist in the museum.

 "The Benefits of Cremation" (huǒzàng de hăochu)

If you choose burial, it will cost this much money - two large bundles of notes.

If, on the other hand, you choose cremation it will cost only this much - three notes. 

The poster goes on to promote the additional communal benefits of cremation - more farmland, and more communal money to purchase tractors and food.

The law was eventually passed in 1964, and since then burial is permitted only for those belonging to ethnic minorities (like that of the funeral I observed in the rice terrace village) and foreigners.  

After cremation, the ashes of the deceased are placed in a decorative wooden box, often decorated with carving, jade, or inlays, and with a small frame where the photograph of the deceased is placed. This box is never brought into the home but remains in thebcare of the funeral home (for a small fee) until the tomb can be purchased.

Now comes the difficult part for most families - in Shanghai and Beijing, the price of tomb sites (tiny plots of ground where the deceased's ashes are interred) has risen so astronomically they are now three times more expensive per square metre than apartments in the Shanghai or Beijing city centre. A Shanghai man created a storm of controversy last year when he decided to inter his parents' ashes in the courtyard of his apartment building - much to the dismay of his neighbours - because he simply couldn't afford a plot.

As a compromise, many people choose a burial site where land is cheaper, like in Hunan Province, or increasingly opt for a scattering of ashes at sea. You can't just take off in any old boat to do this, as we would, but have to book a berth on a Shanghai Funeral Industries Cruise. The waiting time is several months and the cost is high, but cheaper than a tomb site (you're beginning to see why it's called Shanghai Funeral Industries, aren't you? They even have their own magazine.)  

The museum has loads of other fascinating trivia, including the history of the funeral industry for foreigners living in Shanghai, and maps of all the orignal cemeteries in the city, as well as the solid brass coffin chosen by Song Qing Ling (one of the fables Song sisters) then rejected in favour of cremation in the weeks before her death.

Of course, it wouldn't be China, the land of pragmatic commerce, if there wasn't also a museum shop where Funeral Merchandise can be purchased - clothes for the deceased, good wishes cards, white envelopes (for giving a cash gift to the deceased's family). My favourite item has to be the one below, a modern interpretation of a very old funeral custom in the way of a funeral souvenir box, to be handed out to funeral guests.

It contains a bowl and spoon, to commemorate the deceased when family meals are taken together. A towel, to dry your tears. And a Snickers or Dove chocolate bar, to sweeten your grief.

The Shanghai Funeral Museum

Shanghai Bìnzàng Bówùguăn 

210 Caoxi Lu, Xuhui District

Entrance to the museum is by appointment only.

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