“Characteristics of an Asian funeral can be as unique as the life being celebrated. Tradition is important in Asian cultures and our caring experts can help you plan a service that will honour your loved one in the best possible way. Whether the service is traditional or non-traditional, we can show you how to incorporate small or larger details that will honour your heritage.”
Characteristics of an Asian funeral
Asian families span a vast geographical, ethnic and religious area, and they may follow Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Muslim, Christian or other religious practices. In general, Asian funerals are known for length, dignity and solemnity. It’s common for Asian families to plan a solemn and beautiful event as a display of respect for their loved ones.
Respect for elders. A deep reverence for elders is a cornerstone of Asian culture, and an important part of Asian funerals. Keeping the casket open is considered respectful to the elders and to the person who has passed away. The family plays a key role in organising the funeral, along with the help of a monk, priest or other clergy member who reflects the family’s chosen religious practices.
Dress code and colors. At Chinese funerals, white or yellow mums are appreciated, as white chrysanthemums symbolize lamentation or grief. Traditionally, Asian families wear white at the funeral and opt not to wear any jewelry. Red is considered the color of happiness, so the family does not wear any red clothing or accessories. Western influences have made black attire more acceptable at Chinese funerals, but in some instances, people who wear black will add a white armband to their outfit.
Honour. It’s common for Asian families to honour their loved one with three full days of visitation prior to the funeral. During this time, they prefer not to move their loved one. If facilities allow, the family may choose to stay with their loved one throughout the visitation period, even preparing meals on-site.
Use of incense. The grieving family may burn incense or paper money at the gravesite as a symbol of helping their loved one along on their journey to the afterlife.
Cultural funeral traditions may vary depending on where a family is from. For example, Korean funerals vary widely depending on the economic status and religious preferences of the person whose life is being honored. In Japanese funerals, cremation is generally chosen, and the memorial service follows Buddhist or Shinto customs depending on the family’s religious preferences. Filipino funerals have become westernised in many ways, but they are still characterised by a public wake held for three to seven days.
Buddhism is Asia’s most widespread religion, Buddhist funeral customs vary from country to country, but Buddhists often choose cremation. It’s common for Buddhist memorials to include an altar with a portrait of their loved one, where friends and family can bring offerings of candles, incense, flowers and fruit. A Buddhist service may be presided over by a monk, and an image of Buddha could be placed near the altar.
Planning an Asian funeral
If you are seeking to plan a funeral that will honour your family traditions and the wishes of your loved one, Gardenia Funerals professionals can help. It’s important to choose a funeral home provider that is familiar with Asian funeral traditions and able to assist you in planning a fitting tribute for your loved one. We specialise in honouring family customs while adding personal details where appropriate. Our funeral homes offer cremation services, and many include a private witness room where the family can gather to pay respects and reflect on the life being honored.
Whether you need help selecting appropriate flowers, setting up an extended visitation or creating a solemn and beautiful event, turn to us for compassionate care.
The Buddhist funeral
The Buddhist funeral is simple, solemn and dignified, typically taking place within a week after death. Many Buddhist funerals occur in a funeral home, not a temple. A viewing takes place for only one night, generally the evening before the funeral, and typically includes the ambiance of candlelight and incense.
During visitation, the family sits at the front of the room and greets those who have come to show support. Visitors offer their condolences, then go to the casket and bow as a sign of honour and respect. They may then either stay for a while or leave, according to personal preference. Visitors will often make a financial donation to the family.
Adhering to Buddhist funeral traditions, the funeral service is typically held the following day and is conducted by a monk. There is almost always an open casket allowing attendees to say goodbye. Guests are expected to bow slightly toward the loved one as a sign of appreciation for lessons regarding impermanence of life. There may be a period of meditation, a traditional Buddhist custom, during the ceremony to reflect on the person’s life and honour their memory.
After the ceremonies are completed, the casket is taken to a burial ground, often on a hillside for better feng shui. When the casket is buried, the family turns away from the grave site to show respect.
Depending on their beliefs and preferences, Buddhists may also choose cremation. For some Buddhists, it is a traditional funeral custom for the family to witness the cremation.
Because Buddhist funeral practices can vary based on preference, we encourage individuals to make their wishes known ahead of time.
Chinese funeral superstitions
Superstitions fill Chinese culture and drive some Chinese funeral traditions. The Chinese believe that certain acts, objects and numbers bring good luck or bad luck, and they abide superstitions in many areas of life to increase their prosperity or happiness.
Here are a few superstitions related to funerals.
The closing of a casket can trap the soul of a living family member.
Traditional Chinese visitations and funerals feature an open casket. At the end of a service, the casket is closed, but if family or friends are present, they may turn their backs. This is because they believe the souls of those who see a casket being closed will be trapped inside.
At a graveside service, family and guests may turn their backs on the casket as it is lowered into the grave for a similar reason—so as not to risk having their souls trapped with the dead.
A spirit may follow you home.
Often mourners who leave a funeral service won’t go straight home. Instead, they’ll make a stop or two. Why? They believe a spirit at the funeral home or cemetery could follow them, and they’re trying to lose the spirit along the way. Similarly, a family might take a different route home from their typical route so that the spirit of their loved one doesn’t follow them home.
Some Chinese families present funeral guests with a bit of red thread to take home and tie to a doorknob to ward off spirits.
Bad luck may befall your family if you attend a funeral at a certain time.
The first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20. The seventh month of the lunar calendar is known as Ghost Month, per Chinese tradition.
Some Chinese may avoid funerals or visits to a cemetery during those periods, so as not to attract spirits. If a loved one dies around the Chinese New Year, the family may wait until after the holiday to hold the funeral. Similarly, friends may avoid visiting the family of the deceased during Chinese New Year to prevent bad luck from passing from one family to another.
Newly engaged couples or someone who is pregnant may opt not to attend a funeral in order to avoid inviting misfortune into the marriage or onto the child.
The deceased need money for a comfortable afterlife.
Many Chinese believe that when a loved one dies, they go to a world filled with earthly possessions. To ensure those they love are not empty-handed and left wanting in the afterlife, they may burn joss paper—paper representing money, credit cards, checks, clothes, houses, cars, electronics and more. The belief is that the deceased can use the money to buy what they need to be comfortable and have a positive influence on the fates of those still living.
Chinese people believe that funeral customs and traditions must be followed very strictly or else bad luck may befall the family.
The role of the family
Traditionally, Chinese families are known to host lavish funeral ceremonies for their loved ones, as elaborate funerals help determine status in society. The family plays a key role in organising the funeral. They may enlist the help of a monk, priest or another clergy member who reflects the family’s religious traditions.
The traditional mourning period, called 守喪 (shǒusāng) is one year, and for the first-born son up to three years, though modern Chinese families observe a period of 49 days. During that time, the family prays for their loved one every week.
Before the funeral
When a loved one dies, there are many arrangements to be made. Among the first things a Chinese family may do is contact a feng shui 風水 (fēngshuǐ) master to choose the day and time for their loved one’s funeral and burial. If a gravesite hasn’t already been chosen, they will ask the feng shui master to help them choose cemetery property with location and orientation in mind—often on a hill and never under a tree.
It’s common for Chinese families to honour their loved ones with three days of visitation before the funeral. The loved one will be dressed in his or her best clothing or a traditional white burial robe. Only loved ones who lived to be 80 or older can be dressed in red or other colorful clothing.
If facilities allow, the family may choose to stay with their loved one overnight, even preparing meals on-site. This is called 守夜 (shǒuyè).
The day of the funeral
At the end of the visitation period, the casket is sealed. If family members are present, they will turn their backs because they believe that the souls of the people who see a casket being closed will be trapped in the coffin. Likewise, at the gravesite, family and friends turn their backs on the casket as it is lowered into the grave.
During the funeral ceremony, the casket stays open. This is considered respectful to the elders and the loved one who has died.
Chinese funeral flowers
White or yellow mums are most often used for Chinese funerals, as white chrysanthemums symbolise grief. The white iris is traditional for families from certain regions of China. However, in the case of an elder who lived to be 80 or older, red flowers—and often a red casket interior—will be chosen. Both the visitation and funeral may include many large wreaths and sprays of flowers, 花圈 (huāquān). In fact, it’s not uncommon for flowers to fill a room.
Women in the family often wear mourning flowers in their hair. The color depends on their relation to the loved one:
- White–wife, daughter, daughter in law
Burning incense and joss paper
A grieving family may burn incense, 香 (xiāng), throughout the funeral service. They may also burn joss paper, 香紙 (xiāng zhǐ), also known as ghost or spirit money, though it’s often also paper houses, cars and other objects. The tradition helps ensure that the loved one will have the things they need to be comfortable in the afterlife.
The family may also burn incense or joss paper money at the graveside ceremony and upon returning to the gravesite a few days later.
Gifts of money to the family
Chinese funeral guests can be expected to give the grieving family money, 奠儀 (diàn yí), at the funeral or one day prior. The traditional gift is an odd dollar amount, IE: $101, in a white envelope. It may be handed to a family member or put into a donation box. The person giving the gift can write his or her name on the envelope or leave it blank.
After the funeral service
After the funeral, there is a procession to the gravesite or crematory. Tradition calls for the loved one’s oldest son or grandson to lead, carrying a large portrait of the loved one and the incense holder. Other family members follow the leader. Friends and other guests walk behind the family.
Once a loved one’s casket has been lowered into the ground or taken into the crematory, the service ends.
If the family is of Cantonese origin, they give red (for loved ones over 80) or white envelopes containing candy and coins to their guests. Leave the bad luck at the funeral, and bring good luck home. In Chinese culture, red is the color of good luck, and the coin represents fortune. Before guests arrive home, they should eat the candy and spend the coin to seal their luck.
Families in other regions may present guests with a red thread instead. Guests are to take the thread home and tie it to a doorknob to ward off evil spirits.
What to wear to a Chinese funeral
Traditionally, family and guests of a Chinese funeral wear plain white and brown burlap clothes, 披麻戴孝 (pī má dàixiào). A son or son-in-law will wear a black armband. Western influences have made black attire more acceptable at Chinese funerals, so if you want to wear conservative black dress clothes, you can feel free to do that.
There’s an exception to this tradition, however. If the loved one died naturally at 80 or older, the funeral event is a celebration of a long life, and guests may wear pink or red to show their happiness.
Different Chinese cultural traditions
Chinese families follow a variety of religious practices, including Hindu and Taoist.
Buddhism is Asia’s most widespread religion, funeral customs vary, but it’s common for Buddhist services to include an altar with a portrait of their loved one, where friends and family can bring offerings of candles, incense, flowers and fruit. A Buddhist service may be presided over by a monk, and an image of Buddha could be placed near the altar. Chanting, 誦經 (sòng jīng), is the most important aspect of a Buddhist funeral, as it helps ensure the loved one reaches enlightenment in death.
What is a witness cremation?
Chinese people equally accept casket burial and cremation. The choice is a matter of personal preference, and some families choose to watch or even participate at the beginning of the cremation.
During a witness cremation, which is also called a cremation viewing, family members are brought into the crematory to watch as their loved one is moved into the cremation chamber. In some cases, a loved one may be permitted to press the button that starts the cremation process.
Not every crematory is set up to accommodate a cremation viewing, but it is becoming more common. If this is important to your family, be sure to bring it up early in the funeral planning process.
Chinese funeral etiquette
If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese funeral customs, you may wonder about proper etiquette. After all, funeral traditions can vary from culture to culture, and not everyone knows what’s expected at a Chinese funeral.
Colours to wear
White is the traditional Chinese mourning colour—but it’s reserved for immediate family members of the deceased. In general, only the parents, children, spouses, grandchildren, brothers and sisters of a loved one wear white to a Chinese funeral. Other family members and friends often wear black, navy or other dark colours.
Avoid prints and bright colours—especially red—with one special exception. When celebrating the life of someone over 80 years old, it’s traditional for guests to wear red or pink as a celebration of a long life.