China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2004/Nov

Where Love Awaits

In Christian belief, death is not the end of human existence. “Life is changed not taken away.” It is, however, the end of our earthly pilgrimage. It is the end of the time that God in his mercy and through his grace has given us to work out our eternal destiny. In the Middle Ages, it was common to speak of death primarily as a punishment for sin. Vatican II in its Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, takes a more positive view. Death is seen as: “endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption, won for us by the death and resurrection of Christ. Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from this gospel, they overwhelm us.” [No. 22]

In spite of this hopeful explanation, Christians, as well as all other human beings have an underlying fear of death with its mystery and its inevitability. Death forces us to confront our powerlessness and our vulnerability, and nothing but faith can calm our anxiety about death.

Universal attitudes towards death

Since the fear of death is a universal human emotion, and since there are elements of superstition and magic in the death rituals of all cultures, many are of the opinion that attitudes about death vary little throughout the world. They think that people relate to death, dying, suicide, mourning and grief in similar ways. Attitudes towards death, however, are very much culturally conditioned and consequently, they take on specific aspects particular to each cultural group.

In this article we will look only at a few of the death rituals and customs observed in whole or in part, even by Chinese Christian families, just about anywhere in the world. The Chinese, unlike other denizens of the planet, relate to life and death through a convergence of contradictory elements of various sources of belief that include Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and popular religion. Sociologists generally maintain that many of the socio-cultural concepts flowing from these sources are so deeply rooted within the social behaviour of the Chinese that they continue to mark people’s attitudes towards life and death even among those who have lived a long time under the influence of Western culture. Chinese religious rituals relating to death are, on the whole, very different from those found in Western cultures.

In talking about death, we are, in fact, doing what is taboo in the Chinese culture.

The Chinese do not like to talk about death. Since the mere mention of the word death can bring bad luck, death is not an ordinary topic for conversation. It is definitely taboo. The members of the Chinese family who wish to plan in the event of the death of one of its sick members usually meet with resistance and discomfort. Death is more comfortable covered up, forgotten and ignored. For some, even talking about buying a burial plot, or making out a will, can mean bad luck.

Honouring ancestors

The different attitudes and beliefs regarding ancestors are widely known and have caused no small amount of trouble for Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts. For most Chinese, influenced by Buddhism where death is not the end, but life continues in the afterlife and the dead may even return, ancestors are very much “alive” and play an important role within the existing family circle. Most Westerners, even those who believe in the communion of saints, think of death as the end in the sense that the dead person no longer mingles into the daily life of the family. All ties are broken.

Although all peoples throughout the world wish to remember their dead relatives with affection and reverence, the Chinese have an added dimension to their need to honour, venerate and remember their ancestors. They wish to ensure ongoing blessings for the family and its enterprises. The spirits of the dead are living in some other place, but they roam around making their presence felt among the living. Some Chinese maintain that any misfortune that happens to the family has something to do with the displeasure of the dead ancestors. This kind of thinking is quite foreign to the Western mind.

Within Chinese culture, the living members of the family, imbued with the Confucian concept of filial piety, wish to maintain the centrality of the family system, with its obligation to maintain the hierarchical societal structure. The family, especially the son, has the obligation of filial piety. Filial duty, if left undone, can bring bad luck not only to the immediate family but also on the whole extended family. How else can we explain the ubiquitous presence of all those ancestral shrines with their carefully inscribed tablets and their perpetually burning lamps?

A person walking in any Chinatown throughout the United States or Europe and, of course, just about anywhere in Macau, Taiwan or Hong Kong, does not have to search very hard to notice the many shrines in their place of honour in a shop and visible to all passers-by.

Proper funeral ceremonies

An important component of filial piety, which is needed to keep the dead happy, is to make sure that the dead are given a proper funeral and that the burial site is the best. This usually means that in order to ensure that the dead will rest in peace, many things must be carefully planned: the soil where the corpse is to be buried must be good and the direction in which the corpse is laid must be favourable according to the fung shui. Funeral ceremonies must be elaborate enough to denote respect for the dead and loud wailing is looked on favourably since it adds a dimension of devotion.

Many Chinese, whether in China or abroad, also often make sure to burn incense and to burn paper money and clothes by way of ensuring that the soul is cared for properly in the other world. This comes from the influence of Daoism with its fear of the hungry ghosts and the need to maintain family integration and harmony.

Differing attitudes and observances

Attitudes towards death are obviously varied and very culturally conditioned. Customs at the funeral parlour differ significantly from one culture to the next. Western Christians are generally observed looking carefully at the dead in the coffin. The Chinese, however, will often turn their backs on the coffin for fear of bringing some bad luck on themselves. Some will not even look at the corpse. Westerners expose their dead for all to see, to stop and look and for believers, to pray. The corpse is usually absent from the room where the Chinese gather to pay their respects. They prefer a photograph of the dead person rather than the dead body. Some will not even look at the cars in the funeral procession going to the cemetery or the crematorium. Here again there is the element of superstition that the spirit of the dead can bring harm to the onlooker.

Many even think that the dead must be kept comfortable and warm. As a result, beautiful wool blankets are often found hanging on the walls in the funeral parlour above the many wreaths of flowers carefully placed to show the hierarchy of relations and friendship. Blankets are meant to keep the deceased warm as they travel to the other world. Blankets are even, at times placed over the deceased in the coffin.

Period of mourning

A period of mourning is carefully observed. Some mourners will not even enter other people’s homes for fear of the contagion of death. Celebrations such as birthdays and weddings are usually put on hold until the period of mourning has passed. In some cases, this can be as long as 49 days.

Death of children

Another significant difference between the Chinese and their Western counterparts is the attitude towards the death of children, which is particularly problematic for the Chinese. Children must not die before their parents, it is contrary to the nature of things. When a child dies, Chinese parents tend to think that, in some way, they have done something wrong and are being punished. Many will not attend the funerals of their children. This would be unheard of in Western culture.

Expressing grief

Just as the Chinese do not like to speak of death, neither do they like to speak of grief. Grief is a private affair and people will not talk about it. As one young Chinese living in the West said, “In Western society, you put your emotions out. In Chinese culture, the grieving process involves more showing respect for the deceased. Except for the immediate family, people do not expect to see a lot of emotion.”

No matter who we are and regardless of our culture, we all hate to say goodbye to those we love. We all find different ways to keep our loved ones with us and different ways of wishing them eternal rest and eternal peace where Love awaits them.