Offerings and funerals in Hunan: long live the dead

Offerings to the dead

The first Chinese emperor had 8,000 life-size terracotta soldiers (and 520 horses) made and then buried to help him out in the afterlife, alongside a river he had dug and then filled with mercury. As in ancient Egypt, a belief existed in China that the dead need their daily comfort and wealth just like the living do. They want sweaters, shoes, toys, status symbols, money, and the odd mercury river, apparently. Destroying these things in a fire (so they could transcend to the hereafter and make the dead people’s death easier), was also a costly sacrifice for the family to prove, not least to their neighbours and friends, how much their deceased relative still meant to them, and just how much stuff they could afford to burn if they put their minds to it.

It was an archaic custom of the silliness you find in all the great religions. Yet since then, most Asians have modified the practice: now they sacrifice symbolic paper (called joss paper, as in fake money and valuables) rather than the real items themselves. Sure, this is even sillier, but much less wasteful and costly, and perhaps the dead never notice the difference.

Today, it is not uncommon to set fire to a photo of the iPhone or the car that the deceased wanted, but could not afford. To the modern Chinese, it’s a personal, well-meant sign of ongoing affection that stretches beyond the grave. Chinese Taoists, atheists, and Confucianists are all fine with it, and the atmosphere around such offerings is often loose and jovial. The more creative people fashion their own models of pets, houses – even private jets, and yell “This is for you, Ma,” as they incinerate a large cardboard Mazda roadster.

You may conclude that the Chinese just really enjoy burning paper. They feed those flames during the Chinese New Year, at funerals, during the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Tomb-sweeping Festival, in temples, and at random family get-togethers, to secure the dead a steady income in their underworld. They offered them food, too, and smoulder through kilos of incense (which denotes prosperity).

During the Chinese New Year, another blaze bonanza that would make Nero jealous, the offerings take on ridiculous proportions: on the ‘ghost money’ alone, easily more than a billion yuan is spent each year (€125 million). You can buy banknotes from the Bank of Hell, or as gold paper which folds in the shape of ingots. (Taiwan, which publishes financial figures on the custom, sees $400 million spent annually on these fake valuables.)For the semi-professional arsonist, there are popular box sets of printed goodies containing a watch, two bracelets, a lighter, a necklace and a ring (for a dead woman – the dead man’s package includes prints of a credit card, glasses, and a belt).

At the Hungry Ghost Festival, during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the doors of hell open and that’s a classic excuse for another paper burning frenzy – the Great Fire of London has nothing on this event. As part of this festival, many outdoor concerts and shows are performed, always with the first row of seats kept empty so that the spirits of the ancestors can enjoy the good seats. The creatures that then visit the living for food and entertainment, are sorry, neglected souls, depicted with long and spiky necks, unable to swallow, not fed enough by their families after they died. They now reside in the dìyù or ‘underworld prison’, and monks throw rice in the air, in all directions, to feed them. The poor souls get to feast a good while and in some places, burlesque comedies are performed to cheer them up a bit, but two weeks after the festival, which is quite literally a holiday from hell, they must return. Then, all over Asia, pretty red water lanterns are lit on paper boats to guide the hungry ghosts safely back, across the waters, to middle earth. With Chinese opera still the festival music of choice, most spirits will have sped back to the underworld by then anyway. During this year’s festival, I will burn some paper earplugs.

Funeral customs

In a largely atheist society, rituals and traditions do not disappear. And superstitions can even flourish. Funeral practices vary enormously within China’s many ethnic regions. About ten million people die in China each year, and almost half of them are cremated these days – a big break with older traditions which prescribed burial (sometimes by suspending wooden coffins off cliffs, a practice known as xuanguan which has to be seen to be believed).

In olden days, the afterlife was firmly believed in, with 12,800 separate hells occupied under the earth; some hot, some cold. At least, Chinese hell wasn’t eternal, but, in stages, led to reincarnation after earthly sins were atoned. At some point, the number was brought down to just ten hells – a nice round number, they must have thought. The accent was placed on helping one’s ancestors who were there, and on the sacrificial infernos, of course. Since Confucius, that hellish belief has slowly receded, and the respect for and memories of the ancestors has become the focus – a view that gels nicely with today’s atheism and humanism of course. Yet even modern funerals are still a superstitious minefield of bad luck with one ritual not heeded perfectly and one’s life can go balls-up for good. Here is a people that manages to fly a rover to the dark side of the moon, but stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice and they recoil in horror because it looks like the incense they burn for the dead.

Out walking around Hunan, I regularly run into large inflatable edifices with white or blue swans on top. Poorer versions are made up of army tent material. Inside, local people gather to spend the evening and the whole night together. There is traditional Chinese music with big drums and flutes or trumpets; people gamble, drink together, and warm themselves around buckets of fire. Incense burns around the place – all in this big tent, which is erected close to the house of the deceased in an alleyway or a backyard. Many relatives are dressed in white, the colour for these occasions; others must wear black, blue, or green (all this is determined by the relationship with the deceased). Other colours are deemed too cheerful, though pink is allowed around people who died older than 80.

The coffin will stand in the courtyard, too, if the departed died while out and about. If he died at home, the wake is taking place around the casket there. Preparations started a week earlier. If possible, the coffin is ordered while the dying person is still breathing. In the house, the family covers or removes all the mirrors (because if someone sees the casket’s reflection, even by accident, another death will follow) and drapes all religious statues in red paper (the lucky colour now needed). Upon the news of the death, those concerned stop speaking for 24 hours as their thoughts go out to their dear uncle or grandfather who has passed on. More preparations are made; white cloth is hung in the doorway, a large gong is erected, and the funeral date is determined by a blind soothsayer, or by the Chinese almanac with its lucky and unlucky dates.

When the day draws near, the people gather in the home or tent, or funeral parlour for wealthier families, and stay awake throughout the night, having yet another go at a controlled family blaze. They have all left a bowl of water and pomegranate juice at home to ward off evil spirits there, while pregnant or engaged people avoid funerals altogether, the latter postponing their weddings by a year at least just to be on the safe side. The group of mourners can count 700 people and the wake can last several days. Latecomers must crawl on their knees to the coffin, where the corpse is lying in their best outfit. All other clothes that the expired person once possessed have already been incinerated earlier; because who would pass up the chance to see how polyester sweaters ignite? A reciting monk is rented. As part of the vigil, many walk slowly around the coffin for three hours in the middle of the night, carrying flags, with only two ten-minute breaks. They must also spend an hour kneeling on the floor. When someone dies in winter, the family is lucky if there aren’t any follow-up funerals shortly after. Understandably, the day after this ordeal is usually free from work.

The Chinese are comb fetishists; everyone has his or her one and only, private comb, which is now broken in two; half of it to be taken into the grave, the other half kept by the family. A white candle is lit and the family starts to sob. Professional mourners can be rented. They are pros who can really squeeze out the tears and the smothered cries at will, these days often wailing into karaoke equipment while dramatically rolling about on the floor. In today’s China, the hired mourners may break into an entertaining belly dance or perform hiphop moves. The bereaved donate money towards the funeral costs, making sure it is an odd amount of yuan, and the bawling intensifies. Finally, the coffin is hammered shut, but nobody is allowed to see it being closed since this would bring catastrophic luck.

Carrying the coffin during the final procession to the crematorium or grave brings good fortune, but if the processions happens to cross water, the deceased, carried head first, has to be verbally informed of this fact. If a slow-moving hearse is used, the pallbearers press their foreheads against the car window. Others carry joss paper and more objects to set fire to later. Exactly a week after the funeral, the deceased will travel to his house as a ghost, for one last look around. The family stays indoors for the day, but have put a red sign up to help their loved one find his way. The whole set of rituals can last from three days for poor people to seven weeks for the Deluxe Buddhist experience.

For the neurotically superstitious, the bad luck risks never wane. After the funeral, envelopes with some coins, and a piece of candy, are supplied to all attendees, who must spend it and eat it before they reach home. They also get a red piece of string which they tie to their finger, warding off any leftover evil shit. Then, still, any night when they dream of snow, or teeth, or when a dog howls, or if they foolishly clip their nails at night, they can still be struck by death personally, or have their family die on them.

Confucian and Buddhist ethics in China rely heavily on the practice of filial piety, outlined in an almost 2500-year-old book of dialogues that obsess about relative age. Under its rules, seniority is important also in funerals, with only younger people than the deceased allowed to pay their respects. Therefore, even today, a young bachelor who dies without younger siblings or cousins, as well as a child, will be buried in silence, and their body will not even leave the funeral home before cremation since no one can initiate the rituals of the vigil. If you want to die young, don’t do it in China.

There; I’ve counted 34 superstitions related to funerals alone. Death must be mightily feared in China. All madness aside, stumbling into these vigil tents with my photo camera, an ignorant alien, I found the mourners friendly, accommodating, and not overly sad. They were eating, drinking, chatting, playing games. The music seemed otherworldly enough, but then, so does most traditional Chinese music. I admired the large circular floral arrangements, displayed like bull’s eyes on easels, with wishes and family names on long, flowing ribbons. To witness these all this right here in the ‘favela’ neighbourhoods, in plain sight, almost welcoming passers-by, placed this ancient custom very much in daily life, of which death is a part of course. That touched me, coming from the West where death is tucked away in all possible ways.

For now, I am looking forward to a lot of paper burning next month when the Year of the Pig starts. Yes, a year of good luck!