Recently my Chinese grandmother-in-law passed away, while I was in China, so I got to experience a Chinese funeral, at least a fairly traditional Daoist one in the outskirts (semi-rural part) of Shanghai. Since my grandparents-in-law only had a tiny house (just a couple of small rooms) it wasn’t bit enough to hold all the family, which is huge, even my wife’s generation were before the one child policy (though this is now more relaxed than originally). Thus the event was at a location—a couple of spartan rooms plus an outdoor area with pitched tent—provided by the local government. The main mourning period lasts for three days, then often a fourth day, in lieu of an event (being China, this means a big meal) at the five weeks mark, and the full period is seven weeks, though the main focus is the first three days. One the first day the body is simply covered in sheets (red), and then on the second day it’s in a coffin, then on the third day the pall bearers carry the coffin out to a hearse (quite the procession, complete with a brass band, and big round paper constructs with names of family written on). I presume this was something else arranged through the local government. Music is a key feature of the period, with very aditional music using the erhu and dizi on the first and second days, along with the Daoist priests chanting on the first day. In the first week, we all had to wear a white sash around our waists, white being the colour associated with Chinese funerals, and also a black square pinned onto a jacket, which I think has some sort of Daoist significance. Not wanting to put a hole in my good jacket, I pinned it onto the baby sling instead, since I was for the most part carrying around (my youngest daughter) Anna-Rose while my wife took part in most of the ceremonies.
Burnt offerings of money and furniture are given for my grandmother-in-law’s afterlife (not that I believe, but the ritual is important). Everyone also goes to pray in Chinese style, involving hands clasped together and moved up and down, then prostrating oneself in front of the shrine (pictured, obviously not a Jewish or Muslim funeral), which has food and drink for the afterlife. I actually went in a second time to take the photo, and prayed again as I felt a bit awkward taking the photo, not knowing how sensitive people are to that, which I then felt bad about later as the children of the deceased, which includes my mother-in-law, have to do a plaintive cry every time someone prays. So much so, that between that, and keeping vigil over the body in this literally freezing cold location, sleeping on straw in one of the rooms, that my mother-in-law got quite ill. The food and drink aren’t wasted, this being China, and go on to be used for the living. The food eaten (aside from that on the shrine) also varies, from lots of tofu on the first day, with a bit of meat—a new development, this being modern China—to more regular Shanghai-style fare on the remaining days, including lots of pork and fish and rice and vegetables.
Shrine for my grandmother-in-law.
One of the later events is where the ashes were interred, which featured a burnt offering in a drum just outside the very classic style-architecture cemetary building, complete with a ring of salt around it, washed away at the conclusion using alcohol. Chloe, my eldest daughter, didn’t want to pray—the whole thing being a bit scary and mostly meaningless to her, at age 3.5—so I prayed one extra time on her behalf.
The other even I went to was a lunch following transfer of ashes of other relatives to the nice cemetary—in the hope of family members on my mother-in-law’s sisters’ side of the family that this would bring them good fortune. At this lunch, I got to sit next to one of my great-grandfathers-in-law (the one who just lost his wife), who was looking rather frail—he ended up going in to hospital with pneumonia, and also type 2 diabetes was discovered in the tests.
He’s doing much better, frail but with the spark of life, still wearing wedding ring, and went home the other day. That was still, given frequency of visits here, possibly our last time to see him. At the hospital visit (pictured, along with my wife) I got to speak with him in Mandarin, the tiny bit of Wu (Shanghainese) I know, & Japanese—he learnt age 16 during the Japanese occupation of China; I learnt it when I was 16 in high school. He also knows Sudanese as he worked there for a couple of years. He’s always treated me and my daughters really well, despite the language barriers, and I’ll miss him too in due course.
My wife with my grandfather-in-law.