Ancient Chinese traditions that have existed since 1,556 B.C. inform a cultural thinking that the souls of the dead exist in another world, but that they can visit the Earth by resting in their graves. In a sense, a grave becomes a home away from their new home. This basic line of thinking has led the Chinese to develop a system of attitudes and customs towards burial and funerals that is both fascinating and has left a huge impression on their current culture.
The Chinese Funeral
Although economic conditions in China throughout the years have significantly changed their style of funerals, the traditional funeral involved lavish extravagances intended for their dearly departed ones. Gold, silver, bronze, pottery, and other objects of opulence or beauty would be buried for the dead, which has led many modern scientists to estimate that there are more than 70 million historic relics in China that are completely unearthed. Artifacts of tremendous value, enough to fill many hundreds of museums, are all resting peacefully and undisturbed along with the deceased.
For example, the mausoleum of Emperor Qin, which covered an area of 56 square kilometers making it one of the largest in the entire world, houses more than 50,000 historical relics. An emperor is of course a special case, but considering that these customs would have dictated objects of special importance be buried alongside land owners or nobility, there could be countless underground museums quietly preserving specific moments in Chinese history.
Types of Burials
Another facet to the attitudes towards the funeral in China is the thinking that the burial brings peace to the deceased. It is an important rite because the soul of a passed loved one does not simply return to the grave to visit, but also comes back once they are at peace to protect their descendants. Inhumation is the primary form of burial that will bring an ancestor the peace they need, but some customs also call for water burials, burials within a tree, within a cave, or even a “sky burial” in which vultures are allowed to eat the corpse. While some of these customs might seem gruesome to western attitudes, it is important to remember that attitudes of protecting future generations outweigh the grimmer aspects of death.
While the Chinese certainly mourn their departed, the symbol of the coffin lacks the grim connotations it has in the western world. The Chinese word for coffin: longevity wood implies their belief in a continued role within their families after death. Many people might even prepare their coffin and clothing for the grave in advance, expecting the time when their spirit will continue to protect their loved ones.
Both funerals and burials in China might seem unusual to our eyes, but they serve the beautiful purpose of keeping the deceased present and relevant to future generations. The Qinming Festival allows for family member to pray directly to their ancestors for protection and luck. Both young children and successful business-/persons alike take it very seriously because they continue an attitude of great respect, honour, and praise toward the dead. These facets give China a beautiful and profound culture built around their ancestors and their passing.