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Useful Notes / Chinese Funerary Customs

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Depending on the specific subset of Taoism, Buddhism or traditional Chinese beliefs the deceased subscribed to, there are different procedures involved, but there are common elements throughout.

Disclaimer: This section owes itself entirely to personal experience and whatever can be scrounged off the internet. As a result, bits might be off, misinterpreted or just plain wrong.

At the Funeral

At a funeral, it’s important for the entire family to attend. The funeral is led by the oldest male child. However, each person is only supposed to lead the procession once in their life. Therefore, the oldest male child might be ‘reserved’ for the death of the patriarch. Close relatives are meant to wear special white clothes, and depending on exactly how closely related they might wear extra accessories (like rough hemp belts or peaked hoods). Some funeral homes offer black clothing for people who don’t follow traditional Chinese beliefs, e.g. Christians.


Taoist funerals tend to be a bit louder and apparently incorporate pyrotechnics. Buddhist ceremonies involve the chanting of sutras. Either way, there is a lot of respect shown to the deceased, involving lots of bowing and kowtowing in groups of threes. Kowtowing involves getting down on your knees and pressing your forehead as close as possible to the floor, and is not nice to the knees.

After the appropriate ceremonies have been performed, the lid is closed (none of the relatives are allowed to watch the lid closing, as doing so is meant to tempt the spirit to stay and become a ghost) and the body is taken to the graveyard or crematorium. There, there’s another round of bowing with incense offerings, before the body is interred or cremated. The clothes are then taken and burned, while the participants are invited to wash their hands and step over a (small) fire to purify themselves. Sometimes it'll be alerted that those who are born under the years of the horse and the ox to turn their face away during the coffin proceeding.


As you’ve probably heard from somewhere, Chinese funerals are big on burning stuff. Really, really enthusiastic; The Chinese believe that the ashes and smoke carry the spiritual equivalent to the soul of the deceased, and that burning a replica will give the actual item in Hell. For example, burning a paper replica of a gold bar will give the spirit an actual gold bar to use.

Hell Money

Possibly one of the more well known aspects, hell money isn’t quite as sinister as it sounds. They are paper replicas of banknotes, with ridiculously large denominations printed on them, for the deceased to spend in the afterlife. Sometimes, they mimic actual bank notes VERY closely - some shops got in trouble for copying the Hong Kong $1000 bank note too closely. They are often ‘issued’ by the Hell Bank, with a large image of the Jade Emperor on the front, and bear the signature of Yan Wang (also known as Yanluo or Yen-lo-Wang), King of Hell.note 


The smallest denomination is around 1000. They regularly reach into 100 billion. Inflation must be really, really bad. Sometimes, blank strips of paper are burned, along with paper gold bars and gold and silver ingots. Round pieces of paper with lucky charms and incantations on them are also burned. Learning to fold paper ingots is a skill that gets passed down through families, as traditionally they should be folded on the spot. (Of course, you can buy them ready made now. There are also paper credit cards as well.)

It’s not just paper money. Paper replicas of pretty much every household appliance exist. Some larger items are ‘one-off’; these are usually burned at the funeral, such as houses and servants for the afterlife (usually a pair of boy & girl), as well as the traditional mountains made of gold and silver, and a bridge to cross over the river in Hell. The bigger and more detailed the replica is, the more expensive they are. Three storey tall houses, held up by bamboo supports and sporting refrigerators, washing machines and high-def widescreen TVs produce lovely one-storey fireballs.

Some of the more interesting paper items:

  • Paper massage chairs
  • Paper shoes (Adidas, Nike, you name it...)
  • Paper clothing (in bundles. Usually formal wear, like suits and tuxes)
  • Paper Chinese feasts, with roast suckling pigs, shark’s fin soup, roast chicken and fried rice
  • Paper Western pastries
  • Paper beauty products and toiletries
  • Paper yachts
  • Paper smartphones and chargers
  • Paper oh you get the idea.

They’re burned in large furnaces, though some funeral halls have mini-furnaces built into the side of the wall. No, there is no railing. No, there’s no concept of fire safety - often a lit candle is put right next to a cardboard crate of paper ingots. Accidents? What accidents?

There also exist paper ‘sacks’ to put all the goodies in. On the front, you write the name of the deceased, the address you’re sending it from, and the date. This is all done in a very formal style, and sometimes yellow ‘stamps’ will be stapled to them.

Less flammable funerary customs

Every Chinese celebration is accompanied by copious amounts of yellow incense. Each person takes 3 (or 1, or 7, or 9, just make sure it's an odd number <10) incense sticks (also called joss sticks) and bows three times to the ancestor/deceased, then places it upright into a large urn made for this purpose. They range in size, from a few millimetres in diameter up to huge 2cm (1 inch) wide, ~40cm (18 inch) long incense sticks.

Food offerings are often given. They’re placed in front of the gravestone, altar/shrine or the column where the urn is placed and the ‘spirit’ of the food is said to reach them. Three small cups of rice wine are also offered and their contents poured on the shrine, or in a bowl. Then the family eats the earthly shell of the food, which turns to ashes in their mouths, while the spirit of the food, as it were, reaches the ancestors. Sometimes done on Buddhist holidays but especially on Qingming Festival.

Places of Burial

In spacious areas graveyards are commonplace, but in more densely populated areas cremation is a more viable option. The urns are just given a (literal) hole in the wall, covered by a marble slab. Other families decide to keep the urns at home, and might have an ancestral shrine somewhere in the house. There are also those who install an ancestral tablet at home to be venerated daily by incense, believed to help guard over the family or prevent the departed from becoming a wandering, lost soul. There are also some noted unusual burials in China such as Tibetan sky burial, where the corpse is left on a mountain to be feasted on by vultures and the hanging coffins by the cliffside of Chinese ethics.


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