Chinese Funeral Customs

Interviewer:  Are there any practices in your culture that revolve around life transitions, like funerals, weddings, or birthdays?


Informant:  So at Chinese funerals there is often a viewing beforehand where it’s like a reception and people make speeches and you bow and pay your respects to whoever has died.  And then before you sit down for the service you are given a red envelope that already had money and candy in them.  They are usually prepared by the immediate family of the deceased and then handed out to guests.  And when you go up to casket after the speeches in a specific order depending on family and friends, we did it that way because we didn’t know everyone that had come so we just wanted to have an orderly way of doing it.


Interviewer: So who are the envelopes for and what do you do with them?


Informant: The envelopes are made of the guests.  You don’t give the envelopes to the deceased or the family of the deceased they give them to those who have come to pay their respects.


Interviewer: And what do the envelopes symbolize?


Informant: Well I haven’t been to a lot of funerals but I believe my grandparents said that it was for good luck and a way of spreading prosperity.


Interviewer:  Do you do anything else?


Informant: After the viewing you get into your cars and drive to the cemetery.  At the cemetery then you say more things as the casket is getting lowered.  We also put fake money in the grave with the caskets and we bowed again, and said a prayer.  Some people depending on their relationship to the person who has died, they get different colored ribbons based on the placement of that person in the family.  And then once you get to the cemetery you take off the ribbons and put them in with the casket.  SO my mom wore a ribbon at my great aunt’s funeral but my brothers and I did not.  After everything is done at the cemetery, it is customary to go and visit another place before going home from the cemetery.  You have to spend the money you are given and eat or visit some other location as a way to not lead the spirit back to your home.  And then once everything has passed, the newly dead become part of other festivals like the Ching Ming festival.


Interviewer: So in a way everything is connected! That’s actually really cool. Thanks again for sharing.


Background: The informant is a Junior at USC studying human biology and a roommate of the interviewer.  She is a second generation Chinese American and is also half Italian.  Her grandparents immigrated from China when they were young and had her mother and uncle.  She has two brothers as well.  For her this piece was also a learning experience because she has only been to a few Chinese funerals and was especially new to taking on a role within the funeral customs.


Context: This interview was done during an afternoon in our apartment.  The context of the informant experiencing this custom was when her great aunt died in the previous year on her mother’s side. It was the first time someone relatively close to her had died and she had to take on certain roles like passing out envelopes and where her mother had to engage in the custom of wearing a colored ribbon.


Analysis: This piece extremely interesting because I had never heard it before.  It also provided a lot of context for other festivals that the informant had shared with me. Being able to better understand the cycle of a culture’s beliefs made the pieces less like random facts and more like I was truly learning about my roommate’s culture and traditions and where they came from.