Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April 13th, 2013
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Mandarin
Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.
Usually the family and relatives would gather for the funeral. The coffin would be in a room where it’s decorated with white flowers. The guest would give the host money in a white envelope to pay for the funeral. Usually Chinese people try not to use white envelope in normal life because white is the color of death…So they use white in this occasion…same as flower, Chinese people tend to give each other colorful flowers. The people attending the funeral would wear black or white.
One of the things I remember the most is that there are always these paper objects for burning. The paper will be folded and made into something like a house, a car, clothes, phone, etc. These things are made of paper so that they can be burned. It is believed that the stuff you burned will appear in heaven for your deceased. There are also gold and silver paper which represents wealth. You burn those as well. Most of the time all the family member would stack of the objects in a big pile and set off a large fire then they all stand around watching it burn….And then, later they would do the gold and silver paper individually. Everyone usually participate.
Also part of a funeral ritual in Chinese culture is that you are supposed to leave the body for seven days before you bury the body so that the soul can be released. If the body is buried before the seventh day then the soul is trapped inside the body. This is also how many of these bodies become ghosts because their soul can’t leave the earth.
The informant said that this is a traditional ritual in Chinese funeral. She learned about this knowledge through her observation after participating in funeral rituals where people emphasize these practices. She said many Chinese funerals take place for seven days, in those different days many of the same repeated and some different rituals occur to lead into the last/seventh day where the body is then buried.
These traditions show the importance of funeral as a life event for both the individual and the family, more for the family since the individual is no longer present at the event. There also many rituals associated with the event that has to be executed correctly. Funeral as an event also shows family ties and connection of the deceased to the community. Those rituals are specific and take times and money.
This shows how the color white is used as morbid rather than in Western culture where it is use in wedding to represent the innocence and the purity of the bride. The white flowers, white envelop, and white clothing shows how white as a color have a negative connotation. This clarified a question I’ve always ponder about why Chinese people give out red envelop at Chinese New Year. Similar to other culture’s where the objects and rituals during funerals are exclusive to the event; in this case the color white is reserved for funeral rituals only.
The burning of paper objects is very interesting to me. It is the idea of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like.” In this particular case the magic is then the transition to transfer those objects from the physical realm to the spiritual realm. I think that this practice also show fear of the unknown relating to the idea of death and the afterlife where the burning of family objects is a way to ensure some certainty in the afterlife. The burning of those paper objects as a ritual reflects how the objects disappear into the air like how the spirit did.
The burial after seven day as a belief is similar to other culture’s origin of ghost where the dead body did not receive proper funeral ritual. In this case being buried too soon would trap the soul in the deceased body. The deceased body and the soul then become a haunting ghost.
The ritual of waiting for seven days resonate the concept of number seven as a reoccurring theme in many Eastern and Western Culture: seven planets, seven days, seventh heaven, etc. It shows how the idea the seven planets as a measure of time and day in the calendar effect many rituals and life events in many culture.