Funeral Ceremonies

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Funeral Ceremonies


Endings. Death, along with birth and marriage, is recognized as one of the three major events in the course of an individual’s life. In China since classical times the rites for funerals were observed with no less importance than those for birth and marriage. Mourning rites were formalized in the Zhou dynasty (771-256 B.C.E.), but they became more elaborate and were popularized, along with the development of the kinship system, in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Mourning rites exemplified differentiation and generational stratification of the kinship system, characterized by an exogamous Zhong Zu (clan organization). At funerals such generation-age hierarchy showed up in the differences of mourning costumes and in the degrees of grief one was expected to express.

Dressing. The dead were dressed according to their social status. At the ceremony of “slighter dressing” of the dead, an embroidered sheet was used for a ruler’s body; for that of a ranking official, white silk; and for that of a scholar, black silk. At the “fuller dressing” ceremony each of the deceased had two sheets. A ruler had one hundred suits of clothes buried with him; a ranking official, fifty; and a scholar, thirty. The walls of the longest, or outermost, coffin of a deceased ruler were eight inches thick; the next coffin was six inches thick;

and the innermost coffin was four inches thick. The outer shell of a ruler’s coffin was made of pine; a ranking official, cypress; and a student, various kinds of wood. The coffin for an official of the highest grade was eight inches thick and the inner one was six inches; for an official of the lowest grade, the dimensions were six and four inches; the coffin of a scholar was six inches thick. A coffin for a common person was only four inches thick.

Contributions. According to the Liji (Canon of Rites), contributions were made at the time of a funeral and were usually divided into three kinds. Contributions for the dead were called “shrouds,” including such things as sheets and clothes, or were called “gifts,” such as “spiritual vessels.” The value of these contributions depended on the rank, wealth, or intimacy of the contributor. Contributions for the mourner, called “helps,” were usually in the form of money or other gifts. Contributions for both the dead and mourner, for instance, could be silk, carriages, horses, sheep, or other items. These gifts were used both for the obsequies and for financial assistance to the family.

Mourning Categories. There were Wu Fu (Five Mourning Grades), categories of mourning garments and periods that kin of differing relationships with the dead were expected to observe. The deepest mourning was observed in a lineal direction for the longest time for the closest kin, such as one’s father and mother; slightly less-deep mourning was observed for paternal grandparents, and so on, until the least severe mourning was observed for paternal great-great-grandparents (whom few people could ever have lived to mourn). The mourning prescriptions worked similarly in a lateral direction, so that deeper mourning was observed for one’s brother than for one’s first cousin, and the least deep mourning for one’s third cousin. Accordingly, mourning periods were divided into three years, one year, nine months, five months, and three months. The longest period was reserved for the nearest kin. The rationale behind such classifications was given in the Liji: “Why is it that the mourning period for the nearest kin is one year? Because the interaction of heaven and earth has run its round; and the four seasons have gone through their changes. All things between heaven and earth begin their processes anew. The rules of mourning are intended to resemble them. . . . Why should there be three years mourning (for parents)? The reason is to make it more impressive by doubling the period, so that it embraces two round years. . . . Then why have the mourning of nine months? The reason is to prevent excessive grief.”

Special Offerings. The funeral rite was treated as an essential contact between two worlds, for people believed that the afterlife was an extension of present life and that the souls of the dead remained with the family. To take care of the deceased, surviving family members offered special food and incense and burned “spirit money” to transmit life’s necessities to their loved ones in the other world. Though there was a personal, sentimental side to the remembrance of the dead, the most important implications of funeral rites were social and ethical, because they were intimately related to the social demands for filial piety. To be filial to a parent while living was easy, but one’s genuine affection should be best shown when the parent was dead, and hence exhibited in one’s proper treatment of the parent’s burial. This practice therefore became a ritual prop to reinforce family unity.


Norman Kutcher, Mourning in Late Imperial China: Filial Piety and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Yongzhou Qin, Zhongguo She HuiFeng Shu Shi (History of Chinese Social Customs) (Shangdong, China: Shangdong People’s Press, 2000).

Shuang Ren, Tang Dai Li Zhi Yan Jiu (The Rites of the Tang Dynasty) (Changchun, China: Northeast University Press, 1999).