Chinese funeral (part one)

In the mood for the annual Ching Ming or grave clearing ritual, let me impart some Chinese funeral rituals that are getting rarer each day. I bet this is an interesting topic to read! Everyone loves horror stories and stuffs about the underworld. The followings are Taoists funeral rituals.

So, have you ever wondered why some Chinese funerals seem louder, more dramatic than others? Do you know that long, long time ago, people actually hired mourners to just sit at funerals and cry? Not cry but wailing and sobbing, pounding on chest, kneeling on floor and punching the ground? I kid you not. I remembered one neighbour had that kind of funeral when I was a kid. The coffin was made of a whole chunk of tree trunk and it curves at both ends. Spooooky….

When my father-in-law passed away, my hubby just started working and cash were tight. We spent a huge sum on his medical fees and were totally broke by then. Moreover, the filial son and I decided to get married before he died so that he could see his favourite son getting hitched! And he got to drink the ‘sam pou char’ or tea served by the daughter-in-law.

Old man did not leave a single property so we had to foot all the bills. So, old man had a simple funeral but a grand tombstone because he was the first person to be buried in the new burial ground. Sort of like king of the hill.

Mother-in-law was very proud of that ‘king of the hill’ status and lamented that we cannot afford to make the biggest grave for him. It costs us about RM15K (which was the figure we could afford then) but we had the liberty of making as big a grave as we wanted. King of the hill has unlimited land to build his grave but we were poor beyond anything.

When mother-in-law died, we were in better financial position then and in order to please the old lady, I went on splurging for her funeral. I noticed that she actually enjoyed watching other funeral wakes and told me how ‘lau juak (merry) so and so’s funeral was. Since my husband was the main paymaster for the funeral, we were able to make the decisions. (In case you do not know, usually, the next of kins tend to argue over funeral arrangements. Next time, tell them whoever holds the wallet, decide. The rest just follow. Heh.)

We had a Taoist funeral complete with a Chinese opera! It costs us RM4K just for the two hour show ceremony and the huge, paper bungalow, paper Mercedes with paper servants.

Firstly, we had the ‘cure the deceased’ ceremony. It was actually an ‘honour’ meant for the eldest daughter-in-law (dil). I am the last, fourth dil. But for some personal reasons, dil no. 1 and no. 3 weren’t keen to participate in the prayer. (psstt..they didn’t get along with the old lady 🙂 I think)

Here comes the funny part. The Taoist priest conducted a ceremony whereby these two Chinese opera girls went up the hill to pluck herbal medicines for the deceased. This was depicted by them struggling and walking, you know, opera style. The two girls cried and cried till their nose dripped sticky goo! OMG, can you imagine them, peering at me (who was then manning a charcoal fire and boiling water) every few seconds with their sticky mucous almost dropping on my face? I was so worried the goo dropped on my face!

I had to kneel and fan the fire. And I MUST sob! Fuwah, I had cold feet before the ceremony. As I said earlier the task is supposed to be the eldest daughter in law’s. So, at the last minute when both of the elder ones had escaped, I had to do the show filial duty. I admit my mother in law’s death was no longer a tragic occasion by then because she had been in coma for the last 1+ years. Moreover, she was 80 years old.

There I was, facing the whole entourage of my mother-in-law’s descendants. She got 4 daughters, 4 sons, whom most of them are in their 50s and 60s and a string of great-grandchildren. Friends and neighbours were crowding around to see this ceremony as most people do not practice them anymore.

Tension was great as how much and dramatic we sobbed projected how great and grand the old lady was.

So, I kept mustering all the saddest thoughts I could remember just so that I could at least have a tear. And it wasn’t easy. Finally, I imagined that it was my own mother’s funeral and yeah! I broke into tears! (my mom died a few years before mil) Phewss….wipe cold sweats.

The two Chinese opera girls then plucked the herbal medicine, which is actually a sprig of guava plants. They took the leaves for me to be boiled in the claypot. I sobbed and cried and fanned. I tell ya, I probably could outshined Slyvia Chang or Azean Irdawarty (two actress famous for crying scenes) in the crying department.

After I finished cooking the ‘medicine’ it was served to my mother-in-law. From then on, it was supposed to heal the old lady.

Ok, disclaimer – There is nothing funny about someone’s funeral. But what we did then, was more to please my late mother-in-law. Though most of the stuffs were comical to us, we also know that she would have been pleased to know that we gave her a grand send-off. The best that we can afford with our hard-earned money. (gosh, now I remembered my sons intentionally burnt holes in the Taoist priest robe as he was clanging the bells and chanting. His backside was facing us, we were kneeling with joss-sticks in our hands. OMG, it is so funny we almost rolled on the floor laughing our A off.)

– Next, part two : Sons and grandsons sending the deceased to her destination. Involves fighting through some China city and climbing walls. Plus descendants crossing bridges. (roll eyes and almost fall off chair on the comical part of it)

26 thoughts on “Chinese funeral (part one)

  1. I remember seeing some of those in Penang as a kid.
    At one in particular, the old man had died and his 3 wives were already squabbling over his money. My older cousin pointed out to me how those wives were wailing ( they had handkerchiefs with a knot in them and constantly dabbing their eyes) ” Hong Ew lah”

  2. Wow!

    This is very eye opening for a Texas kid. Never studied Chinese funerals before and have not had to attend one yet. *knocks on wood*

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. we had a ‘professional mourner’ at my grand dad funeral too but i think all this is a waste of money & time better spent on children’s needs. dead already dead! why so big deal! when i die, i want to be cremated or buried in an unmarked grave! hehe

  4. When I was a kid, my aunt (living in KL’s chinatown) rented a place in one of those old buildings where the ground floor is a shoplot and the 2nd floor is rented out for residential purpose. The spooky thing is her downstair neighbour was a coffin shop, selling those coffins that looks like ‘yuen po’. I’m always afraid to visit her.

  5. Sounds very elaborate – funerals have so many customs. My cousin opted to just go with Nirwana for my uncle’s funeral as they guided him in everything which was good but I suspect he paid a lot for it.

    Yes, Ching Ming is just round the corner and this year, I better draw detailed road maps and take pixs to remember where gravestones are as my mother wants me to continue the legacy of visiting them. Is there any “pantang” for taking pixs in a graveyard? Will I catch a ghost in my camera?

  6. Thanks for sharing. I missed both grandparents’s funeral and you’re are right, most later generation has no clue in regards to Chinese funeral tradition/ritual.

    boo_licious, if you do get a shot of ghost, please post.

  7. wow! no wonder you are so prosperous now! you did everything right to keep the dead happy. when they are happy, they bless all their decendants to prosper. remember to burn lots of gold and silver paper this year. then you prosper even more!
    this year i’m going to send a mercedez 350 to my parents. with driver and all. hope they will be happy with the gift and make me rich this year.

  8. it sounded like my great grandmother funeral in 1980s… although i was too young to attend.. but we got videotape… and since the old lady lived in the centre of Penang town many curious onlookers come to participate… Gosh.. the funeral is a total of 5 VCR.. swt.. i wonder will the old lady see her own funeral…

  9. when my grandpa died, we have this sort of grand send-off too…
    plucking medicines, going through bridges, walls, city… very good…very dramatic…very ‘grand’…very lau juak..

    very touching and nice too…

    i think everyone…taoist/buddhist/christian should be entitle to a grand-send off….

    and to your sis-in-law 1# and 3#, they are bad…they shouldnt be so ‘calculative’ with the deceased…

    and you, you did a great job as substitute… heehhe

    often i heard my mom said…
    helping the deceased to have a proper funeral is better than most of those good deeds performable…

    and i remember old people told me that….
    borrow your house for people’s funeral is much much better than for people to get married!


  10. Wow, didn’t know that such occasion cost so much money. When my grandpa & grandma died, i think my dad is too poor to go through such funeral. But i have seen it before many occasions with friends’ family. Very well written, auntie.

  11. Here is the funny part of Chinese funeral.
    – There is no HELL in Taoist believe. Hell only appear after Buddism set foot in China.
    – True Taoist don’t believe in forms . So those “Heavy” spending funeral ceremony is actually culture inherit from confucius teaching.
    – True Buddism are forbid to spend too much on ceremony. In fact, too much money spend on coffin/ceremony is consider luxury which is a sin in buddism teaching.

    So Chinese funeral is really rojaks of nothing.

  12. hey, this is interesting. i know that the send off costs a lot of money, but i had no ides it was *this* elaborate!!! can’t wait for the 2nd part, though. the fighting bit has me intrigued… hmmm…

  13. We had this elaborate type of funeral send off for my grandfather too but there was a lot of confusion when the names were called for crossing the bridge cos he had two wives and many descendants!

  14. i remember a troupe of monks doing some acrobatic/gymnastic acts during my gramp’s funeral…and we’re all squatting down with our backs facing ’em coz tis a pantang to look…cud only feel the wind from their swishing robes. LOL

    i guess part two wud involve throwing chickens across the liang kubur??

  15. sooi2 – Yah, that also. LOL. I am glad I went through some of these rituals, sort of seal my Chinese roots.

    MG – Hahaha, you know, things can get ugly ‘cos the descendants wanna share of everything, tit for tat mentality.

    zyrin – The Taoists have more dramatic way of doing things ‘cos it is like a walk through with the deceased soul.

    Jeremy – You so tai chek why sked ghosts? Only beautiful ghosts will haunt you, don’t worry.

    moo_t – Many people nowadays adopt the Buddhist funeral rites. But amongst them, got Taiwan and Japanese Buddhist rituals and that can be pretty elaborate too. Especially the Japanese one.

    king’s wife – You need to read back a few posts on the dilemma I am facing each year. This coming Saturday, not sure yet. Torn between two worlds.

    Prometeuz – The biggest ‘tok loh bak’ (fleecing) are the undertakers. LOL. Everything cost money, lots of them. And they use the scaring tactic to prey on vulnerable, mourning relatives. We have an undertaker for a friend LOL so they are very frank with us on what is necessity and what is ‘for show’ only.

    CLF – Enjoy your trip!

    zberjnak – My hubby is the fav. son so life is much easier for me. hehehe.

  16. little pixie -5 VCRs. LOL. You can sell to National Geo. for documentary already.

    ahpek – Wei, dun say like that. Afterwards people think I do it just to gain favours from the deceased. That’s the kind of mentality some of my relatives have lor. Something that I find repulsive. I mean, people died already, so stop asking them for help la. Correct anot? Every day think of them favourably, practise what they had taught us and not every year buy one pig and expect to strike number mah.

    kc – Yeah, it is our Chinese roots so good to remember them oso.

    boo – Hahaha, yeah, if you really do get, sell to Ghost Hunters (the show). I took a lot of photos of graves, Chinese Christians Hindus etc. So far, no luck yet.

    suanne – Yeah, those coffin really spooky lor. And very expensive and heavy too.

    wuching – Dun la, we must leave some legacy for our kids, if any mah. Like father-in-law bachelor brother, my atm still faithfully go to his grave every year. We don’t even know what he look like, how old when he died and what he died of. His grave is a little broken stone only, so sad. (we cannot re-touch up a tombstone or else the whole descendants will be wipe off the face of the earth)

    SA – You should catch one, it is very, very interesting.

    romantic – Hohoho, filled with hong eu? But hor, some women can cry at the touch of a button and they sobbed and talked. Aiyor, like my sisters in law, hear them oso you also follow and cry. Do you know that the daughters must crawl into the house? I got a shock of my life during my father in law’s death. They weren’t at the home when he breath his last. Suddenly, the daughters all started shouting and crawling into the house, dropping their bikes/cars by the roadside. I was only 24 yrs old then and found it so dramatic. I oso dunno to laugh or cry LOL.

  17. Wuching said; “when i die, i want to be cremated or buried in an unmarked grave! ”
    Are you a member of the Knights’ Templar? Freemasons??

  18. anastasia – Generally, Chinese when daughters married out, they don’t contribute anymore. But my sils did helped a bit. And the other bros aren’t doing that well and only contribute a portion so my atm kena shoulder everything lor.

    Cocka – Hoi, how come you so familiar with Da Vinci Code?

  19. hmm.. sell to National Geographics can earn some money $$$.. Btw, i also have a black and white photo from 1900s of some funarel.. the quality is very bad but some Kodak guy managed to create a reprint and laminate the rotting photograph.. i wonder how much it is worth. the only person i know from the photograph is my great great grandmother… as a child. so said my grandmother… o.O

  20. Thanks for this; it makes me feel better to hear insider’s human personal spin. I am ang mor who married into S’pore Taoist family. Just went thru my first Taoist funeral, my husband’s paternal grandfather. I am wife of #1 son of #1 son. All was very shocking to me, esp. I outrank his daughters and granddaughters and esp. hand-transfer of bones (everyone creamated in S’pore). I don’t think i can do the DIL duties you describe…I slink out like your sisters in law.

  21. Being a grandson & great-grandson of Hakka Taoist funeral directors (my dad never took up the Trade himself), these occasions are generally a time of hustle & bustle. It’s always a case of buy this, buy that, that looks better, says who, says me, over my rotting arse, etc. But yeah, glad to know your mother in law had what sounds like a lavish funeral. Nowadays in Malaysia, a good funeral (includes EVERYTHING) can cost up to 25,000. Not cheap, not cheap at all. Still, it’s a marvel to see these funeral directors do their thing. Here’s some vids of my grandma’s funeral, where my dad’s relatives did the rites:

    Glad to be able to share this with everyone…

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