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Chinese Attitudes About Death

Throughout the history of mankind, “death” has always been a fascination.


People have always wondered about the causes of death, the aftermath of death,
and whether it could be stopped. Among these people were the Chinese, who like
many other people, believed there was life after death. They performed certain
rituals ” to help them along their way.” Chinese attitudes toward death are
reflected in funerary rituals, Buddhist philosophy and reverence for the
deceased. Death is a very important issue to the Chinese people. The son of a
family has the obligation to give his parents a proper funeral. “This includes
such essential elements as; a large coffin, a funeral procession, a well-chosen
gravesite, gifts and offerings to the soul of the deceased, a period of
mourning, and keeping an ancestral shrine. If a Chinese son fails to follow
these obligations, he has committed a serious offense against society.”1 The
Chinese believed in giving a proper funeral to their elders because when the
elders were alive, they had shared their experiences and knowledge with the
young. The Chinese followed the requirements to a proper funeral because they
believed in remembering the dead, who were once close to them. They wanted to
remember the dead by praying to them daily and making them offerings. The
Chinese believed that there were certain rituals that were necessary for certain
events. For example, during a wedding, the Chinese believed that the couple must
bow to the parents and offer them tea. Only then, can the couple be happily
married. Because the Chinese believe in performing certain rituals for certain
events, anyone who doesn’t give his parents a proper funeral would have mocked
traditional beliefs. This son would be considered as a pariah in his village and
looked upon as “dirty” by his neighbors. To the Chinese, being buried in a
coffin was very important. Chinese people wanted to bury the dead in coffins to
preserve their bodies, protect them from decaying as fast. Although the soul of
the person was to move on, the Chinese wanted to save the body as a way to
remember the elderly. To some people being buried in a coffin is so important
that they rather spend their money on a coffin than on necessary provisions.


Although burial in a coffin is preferred, cremations also take place. A
cremation is when a corpse is placed on a pyre and burned to ashes. In the
cities of present day China, because of the great overpopulation and lack of
usable land, the government has made cremation a necessity. Cremation is also
encouraged in rural areas in efforts of saving arable land for farming. Since
the people living in the rural areas are farmers who can provide their own
necessities and are independent of the government, they are more concerned with
their traditional beliefs and practices than the concerns of the government. In
the villages, peasants begin saving to buy coffins for themselves after they
pass the age of sixty; which was considered the number of years a life cycle
should be.2 People have claimed that if a person died before turning sixty years
old, he/she was a “short-life devil.” Because of this belief, the people
that died before turning the age of sixty years old were not buried and left
wherever the happened to “drop.”3 To show how important burying the dead is,
the Chinese hire elderly people who are familiar with the ancient wisdom of
feng-shui, or the spirits of “the wind and water.” This type of ancient art
was also called geomancy. The reason why the Chinese hire elderly people is
because they want someone who is experienced in the field, not someone who’s
new and had recently learned it from books. The Chinese believe that the more
experience a person has, the more reliable is that person. The geomancer helped
the dead select favorable sites for graves.4 These favorable sites not only had
to be affordable to the family but had to bring good luck to the family and
ensure that there will be no evil spirits haunting them. Like the traditional
matchmaker, the geomancer is respected for his wisdom and experience in life.


Some similarities between the jobs of the matchmaker and geomancer are those of
which they both check the social statuses of their clients. The matchmaker has
to make sure that he does not match a rich young lady to a poor young man, and
the geomancer has to make sure that he picks a gravesite that is affordable to
the family. The matchmaker and the geomancer also have to ensure that the
matches and graves that they choose will only bring good luck to the families
and not bad luck. Calculating the ages of the people involved and comparing to
the stars of the sky does this: astrology. In foreign countries like France and
Spain, during funerals the undertakers, mourners, and pallbearers are supposed
to wear black. The black clothing shows their grief and also protects them from
evil spirits and ghosts that night be hovering nearby. Also used during funeral
processions are wreaths, which reflect their heathen beliefs. The many circles
of a wreath are designed to keep the spirit of the dead with in bounds.5 During
Chinese funerals, the mourners are supposed to wear unbleached, unhemmed, white
clothing. White was considered the color of death to the Chinese people because
they believe that white represents pureness. They believed that since the dead
were moving on, they should wear something reflecting innocence to show how the
deceased had lead a life of good deeds and charity, therefore moving on to a
better place. It is an offense to wear such flashy colors as red, yellow, or
green. 6 Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism influence Chinese attitudes towards
death. The Chinese tradition usually discourages anxiety about death. Since
Taoism is rigidly aligned with nature, death is considered a natural part of the
life cycle. Confucianism taught the people that showing grief after death was
appropriate. They believed that grieving for the dead was a sign of respect, a
sign of how they will miss the guidance and help of their elders and loved ones.


Even though Confucianism encourages the grieving of the deceased, they also
believe that it should not last too long-because all things have an end.7 The
religion that has the most influence on Chinese attitudes towards death is
Buddhism. The reason that Buddhism has such a great influence is that it
provides a “correct” way to a funeral. There are certain dos and do nots
that must be followed. In other beliefs such as Taoism and Confucianism, there
are no rules, no exact way in which a funeral should proceed in. Because there
are no exact rules in Taoism and Confucianism, the people often fear that they
might be doing the wrong thing, therefore hindering the proceeding of the
deceased to nirvana. Buddhists believe that people should celebrate death as a
way to pass to the next incarnation and move closer to nirvana (heaven). To
Buddhists, the way in which a person dies is very important. They believed that
a person’s last thoughts along with his accomplishments while alive determined
what his next life would be like. The goal of most Chinese Buddhists is to have
followed the eight-fold path and to die without fear or regret.8 Buddhist
funerals are very much like noisy celebrations. There is a lot of chanting,
banging of gongs, and incense burning. The reason for the noise, is to tell
everyone that this person was dead and moving on to the next life.9 The noise is
also used to express to the dead that they were all happy that the person is
free from the pressures and sufferings of life, which are stated in the Four
Noble Truths. After the traditional funeral, most Buddhists are cremated. They
believed that by being cremated, their soul will be released from the body and
move on to the next incarnation. “The funeral pyre is usually sprinkled with
consecrated oil and other offerings wrapped in white scarves.”10 Since white
was the color of death, the Chinese believed that by wrapping items in white and
burning them, the dead people will get these items in the other realm. These”items” are the things that were most cherished by the deceased. For
example, they might give a teddy bear to a child because he loved it so much.


The reason the Chinese people give such items to the dead is to give them
comfort, so that they will not be afraid and feel lonely while they are
travelling to their next life or nirvana. The Chinese also believe in spirits
and ghosts. Generally, ghosts are understood as the spirit of some deceased
person appearing in visible form. In China, a ghost is the spirit of someone who
has died an unusual death. “Ghosts of bandits were believed to linger close to
the site of their execution. If a pregnant woman passed this spot, the ghost
might later try to wrest out the child’s soul during birth and be born in
instead.”11 Among the many beliefs and attitudes about death, the Chinese also
believe in ancestral worship. They believe in remembering the deceased elders.


They would have tablets with the names of the deceased on them put upon shrines
and burn incense and pray to them daily. The Chinese have great respect for
their elders, honoring them regularly with offerings of roasted pigs and other
foods they had loved, and praying to them. These practices contribute to a sense
that death is an everyday part of daily life.12 The Chinese people have great
respect for their elders. They believed that since the elders were experienced
and wise, they should be respected for their knowledge and guidance. The Chinese
people believed that even though the ancestors are deceased, their spirits will
always live on, watching over the descendants. In honor of their dead, the
Chinese have set holidays, one holiday is Qing Ming This is in the early April
of the American calendar and is one of the most important traditional Chinese
festivals. ” During Qing Ming, the people are supposed to visit their family
graves to ?sweep’ or clean them of weeds.” 13 In present day China,
because of the introduction of Communist beliefs, the traditional beliefs and
attitudes have been changed. Communists believed that religion and the “old
ways” were not important, that believing in the government and the nation as a
whole was important. Because of this, Chinese people no longer buy their coffins
at the age of sixty, buy they do still pray to their ancestors for protection
and guidance, mourn their parents, and sweep the family graves at the spring
festivals To the Chinese, death will always remain a mystery and they will
always be fascinated with it- just as the rest of the rest of the world has
been. Even though dying means losing some one close in this world, the Chinese
will always celebrate deaths, because only through death, can you be one step
closer to nirvana. Endnotes 1) John S. Major, The Land and People of China (New
York: Harper ; Row Publishers, Inc. 1989) p. 14. 2) My mom told me this. 3)
Fox Butterfield China- Alive in the Bitter Sea (New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982) p.


256. 4) Fox Butterfield p. 256. 5) Constance Jones R.I.P.-The Complete Book of
Death ; Dying (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997) p. 120. 6)
Constance Jones p. 163. 7) Constance Jones p. 12. 8) Constance Jones p. 20. 9)
My mom told me this. 10) Constance Jones p. 20. 11) Constance Jones p. 129. 12)
Constance Jones p. 12. 13) Fox Butterfield p. 257. Bibliography – Butterfield,
Fox. China- Alive in the Bitter Sea. New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982. – Jones,
Constance. R.I.P. The Complete Book of Death ; Dying. New York: Harper
Collins Publishers, 1997. – Major, John. The Land and People of China. New York:
Harper ; Row, Publishers, Inc. 1989. Throughout the history of mankind,
“death” has always been a fascination. People have always wondered about the
causes of death, the aftermath of death, and whether it could be stopped. Among
these people were the Chinese, who like many other people, believed there was
life after death. They performed certain rituals ” to help them along their
way.” Chinese attitudes toward death are reflected in funerary rituals,
Buddhist philosophy and reverence for the deceased. Death is a very important
issue to the Chinese people. The son of a family has the obligation to give his
parents a proper funeral. “This includes such essential elements as; a large
coffin, a funeral procession, a well-chosen gravesite, gifts and offerings to
the soul of the deceased, a period of mourning, and keeping an ancestral shrine.


If a Chinese son fails to follow these obligations, he has committed a serious
offense against society.”1 The Chinese believed in giving a proper funeral to
their elders because when the elders were alive, they had shared their
experiences and knowledge with the young. The Chinese followed the requirements
to a proper funeral because they believed in remembering the dead, who were once
close to them. They wanted to remember the dead by praying to them daily and
making them offerings. The Chinese believed that there were certain rituals that
were necessary for certain events. For example, during a wedding, the Chinese
believed that the couple must bow to the parents and offer them tea. Only then,
can the couple be happily married. Because the Chinese believe in performing
certain rituals for certain events, anyone who doesn’t give his parents a
proper funeral would have mocked traditional beliefs. This son would be
considered as a pariah in his village and looked upon as “dirty” by his
neighbors. To the Chinese, being buried in a coffin was very important. Chinese
people wanted to bury the dead in coffins to preserve their bodies, protect them
from decaying as fast. Although the soul of the person was to move on, the
Chinese wanted to save the body as a way to remember the elderly. To some people
being buried in a coffin is so important that they rather spend their money on a
coffin than on necessary provisions. Although burial in a coffin is preferred,
cremations also take place. A cremation is when a corpse is placed on a pyre and
burned to ashes. In the cities of present day China, because of the great
overpopulation and lack of usable land, the government has made cremation a
necessity. Cremation is also encouraged in rural areas in efforts of saving
arable land for farming. Since the people living in the rural areas are farmers
who can provide their own necessities and are independent of the government,
they are more concerned with their traditional beliefs and practices than the
concerns of the government. In the villages, peasants begin saving to buy
coffins for themselves after they pass the age of sixty; which was considered
the number of years a life cycle should be.2 People have claimed that if a
person died before turning sixty years old, he/she was a “short-life devil.”
Because of this belief, the people that died before turning the age of sixty
years old were not buried and left wherever the happened to “drop.”3 To show
how important burying the dead is, the Chinese hire elderly people who are
familiar with the ancient wisdom of feng-shui, or the spirits of “the wind and
water.” This type of ancient art was also called geomancy. The reason why the
Chinese hire elderly people is because they want someone who is experienced in
the field, not someone who’s new and had recently learned it from books. The
Chinese believe that the more experience a person has, the more reliable is that
person. The geomancer helped the dead select favorable sites for graves.4 These
favorable sites not only had to be affordable to the family but had to bring
good luck to the family and ensure that there will be no evil spirits haunting
them. Like the traditional matchmaker, the geomancer is respected for his wisdom
and experience in life. Some similarities between the jobs of the matchmaker and
geomancer are those of which they both check the social statuses of their
clients. The matchmaker has to make sure that he does not match a rich young
lady to a poor young man, and the geomancer has to make sure that he picks a
gravesite that is affordable to the family. The matchmaker and the geomancer
also have to ensure that the matches and graves that they choose will only bring
good luck to the families and not bad luck. Calculating the ages of the people
involved and comparing to the stars of the sky does this: astrology. In foreign
countries like France and Spain, during funerals the undertakers, mourners, and
pallbearers are supposed to wear black. The black clothing shows their grief and
also protects them from evil spirits and ghosts that night be hovering nearby.


Also used during funeral processions are wreaths, which reflect their heathen
beliefs. The many circles of a wreath are designed to keep the spirit of the
dead with in bounds.5 During Chinese funerals, the mourners are supposed to wear
unbleached, unhemmed, white clothing. White was considered the color of death to
the Chinese people because they believe that white represents pureness. They
believed that since the dead were moving on, they should wear something
reflecting innocence to show how the deceased had lead a life of good deeds and
charity, therefore moving on to a better place. It is an offense to wear such
flashy colors as red, yellow, or green. 6 Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism
influence Chinese attitudes towards death. The Chinese tradition usually
discourages anxiety about death. Since Taoism is rigidly aligned with nature,
death is considered a natural part of the life cycle. Confucianism taught the
people that showing grief after death was appropriate. They believed that
grieving for the dead was a sign of respect, a sign of how they will miss the
guidance and help of their elders and loved ones. Even though Confucianism
encourages the grieving of the deceased, they also believe that it should not
last too long-because all things have an end.7 The religion that has the most
influence on Chinese attitudes towards death is Buddhism. The reason that
Buddhism has such a great influence is that it provides a “correct” way to a
funeral. There are certain dos and do nots that must be followed. In other
beliefs such as Taoism and Confucianism, there are no rules, no exact way in
which a funeral should proceed in. Because there are no exact rules in Taoism
and Confucianism, the people often fear that they might be doing the wrong
thing, therefore hindering the proceeding of the deceased to nirvana. Buddhists
believe that people should celebrate death as a way to pass to the next
incarnation and move closer to nirvana (heaven). To Buddhists, the way in which
a person dies is very important. They believed that a person’s last thoughts
along with his accomplishments while alive determined what his next life would
be like. The goal of most Chinese Buddhists is to have followed the eight-fold
path and to die without fear or regret.8 Buddhist funerals are very much like
noisy celebrations. There is a lot of chanting, banging of gongs, and incense
burning. The reason for the noise, is to tell everyone that this person was dead
and moving on to the next life.9 The noise is also used to express to the dead
that they were all happy that the person is free from the pressures and
sufferings of life, which are stated in the Four Noble Truths. After the
traditional funeral, most Buddhists are cremated. They believed that by being
cremated, their soul will be released from the body and move on to the next
incarnation. “The funeral pyre is usually sprinkled with consecrated oil and
other offerings wrapped in white scarves.”10 Since white was the color of
death, the Chinese believed that by wrapping items in white and burning them,
the dead people will get these items in the other realm. These “items” are
the things that were most cherished by the deceased. For example, they might
give a teddy bear to a child because he loved it so much. The reason the Chinese
people give such items to the dead is to give them comfort, so that they will
not be afraid and feel lonely while they are travelling to their next life or
nirvana. The Chinese also believe in spirits and ghosts. Generally, ghosts are
understood as the spirit of some deceased person appearing in visible form. In
China, a ghost is the spirit of someone who has died an unusual death. “Ghosts
of bandits were believed to linger close to the site of their execution. If a
pregnant woman passed this spot, the ghost might later try to wrest out the
child’s soul during birth and be born in instead.”11 Among the many beliefs
and attitudes about death, the Chinese also believe in ancestral worship. They
believe in remembering the deceased elders. They would have tablets with the
names of the deceased on them put upon shrines and burn incense and pray to them
daily. The Chinese have great respect for their elders, honoring them regularly
with offerings of roasted pigs and other foods they had loved, and praying to
them. These practices contribute to a sense that death is an everyday part of
daily life.12 The Chinese people have great respect for their elders. They
believed that since the elders were experienced and wise, they should be
respected for their knowledge and guidance. The Chinese people believed that
even though the ancestors are deceased, their spirits will always live on,
watching over the descendants. In honor of their dead, the Chinese have set
holidays, one holiday is Qing Ming This is in the early April of the American
calendar and is one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals. “
During Qing Ming, the people are supposed to visit their family graves to
?sweep’ or clean them of weeds.” 13 In present day China, because of the
introduction of Communist beliefs, the traditional beliefs and attitudes have
been changed. Communists believed that religion and the “old ways” were not
important, that believing in the government and the nation as a whole was
important. Because of this, Chinese people no longer buy their coffins at the
age of sixty, buy they do still pray to their ancestors for protection and
guidance, mourn their parents, and sweep the family graves at the spring
festivals To the Chinese, death will always remain a mystery and they will
always be fascinated with it- just as the rest of the rest of the world has
been. Even though dying means losing some one close in this world, the Chinese
will always celebrate deaths, because only through death, can you be one step
closer to nirvana.


Bibliography
1) John S. Major, The Land and People of China (New York: Harper & Row
Publishers, Inc. 1989) p. 14. 2) My mom told me this. 3) Fox Butterfield China-
Alive in the Bitter Sea (New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982) p. 256. 4) Fox Butterfield
p. 256. 5) Constance Jones R.I.P.-The Complete Book of Death & Dying (New
York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997) p. 120. 6) Constance Jones p. 163. 7)
Constance Jones p. 12. 8) Constance Jones p. 20. 9) My mom told me this. 10)
Constance Jones p. 20. 11) Constance Jones p. 129. 12) Constance Jones p. 12.


13) Fox Butterfield p. 257. Bibliography – Butterfield, Fox. China- Alive in the
Bitter Sea. New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982. – Jones, Constance. R.I.P. The Complete
Book of Death & Dying. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997. – Major,
John. The Land and People of China. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.


1989.