China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Oct

Balancing the living with the dead

When something is repeated, it must be important. Here are two Catholic examples: first, Holy Thursday commemorates the Lord’s Supper; the institution of the Eucharist. Yet nine weeks later we have the feast of Corpus Christi. In most places, that feast is transferred from Thursday to the following Sunday, not for a luckier day, but for convenience, so that more people can attend Mass. Secondly, May and October are both months of Marian devotion.

Ching Ming and Chung Yeung

In China, the date of Ching Ming (清明) is determined by the solar calendar. It falls on April 5, and occasionally on April 4 or 6, depending on the leap year, or for more complicated reasons.

Families visit the cemetery, which is usually built on a hillside. They pull weeds, sweep the tomb with a broom (掃墓) and perhaps retouch the faded gold or red paint on the inscription. Then they light incense and place spirit money and fruit for the deceased. They also place special offerings next to the ancestor tablets at home. If the descendants have moved far from the ancestral tombs, then that is the most they can do.

Six or seven months later, after the heat of summer, crowds of people walk up steep hills again. Chung Yeung (重陽, “repeated yeung”) falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, or on October 19 this year.

According to Chinese numerology, even numbers are yin (陰) while odd numbers are yang (陽). Nine, three times three, is the strongest yang number. So similar are the two memorial days that many families select only one of them for a big family reunion, although they are free to observe twice a year with equal devotion. Two differences are that Chung Yeung is linked to the story of a man who escaped disaster by being warned to flee to high ground and drink chrysanthemum wine when he reached the top, and thus Chung Yeung has more of a picnic atmosphere.

Both feasts originated during the Han Dynasty (漢朝), 206 BCE to 220 ACE, although the custom of pouring a little alcohol on the ground seems to be more ancient. In old China, clans were important and families would take a few days to pay respects at the tombs of all branches of the clan. This still continues to an extent in the New Territories.

11-11-11: a lucky time?

Before smiling at Chinese numerology, consider Europe in early November 1918. Germany was obviously losing World War One. German troops were retreating all along the Western Front. Faced with unrelenting artillery fire and infantry assaults, the German High Command sent some officers carrying a white flag to talk surrender. But the Allied generals looked at the calendar and told the delegation, “Not so fast, gentlemen! Another day or two, let’s say November 11 at 11.00 am. Yes! The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – that’s when the guns will fall silent.”  So the Allied offensive continued until the “lucky” hour came. In the meantime, at least a thousand soldiers were slaughtered for nothing. In any country, numerology is a dangerous feudal superstition (封建迷心).

Tomb versus. cenotaph

After World War One ended, cities and towns erected stone memorials to the fallen troops. A tomb is a structure which contains mortal remains. But often, the remains are elsewhere – buried overseas, lost at sea, or God-knows-where on the battlefield. Then the monument is called a cenotaph, Greek for “empty tomb.” On Hong Kong Island, there is a military cenotaph in Central, another between Happy Valley and Repulse Bay, at the crest of Stubbs Road, and a third near St. Stephen’s beach.

By 1930, there was high unemployment in United Kingdom. An editorial cartoon showed a worker in frayed clothes resting at the base of an expensive marble cenotaph and looking upwards. The illustration was captioned, “The dead remembered, the living forgotten.”


In traditional China, a widow was not supposed to remarry, out of loyalty to her late husband. But it was no shame for a widower to take a new wife. During the Qing Dynasty (清朝), the government praised poor widows who steadfastly refused to remarry, by erecting a decorated archway, paifang (牌坊). When the widow was alive and hungry, the local magistrate would not give her any food, but after she died of starvation, he wrote to Beijing for funds to erect a paifang in her honour at the entrance to her neighborhood. Korea also had Chastity Arches. This bad custom was widely condemned at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Costly funerals

Expensive funerals occur around the world. In rural societies, the more people are invited to a lavish banquet after the funeral of an elder, the more prestige for the sponsoring family. Many families go deeply into debt to impress their neighbors. How much of this is genuine grief, and how much a fear of losing face?

In 1963, a book, The American Way of Death, generated anger by detailing how funeral directors in the United States of America (USA). sold luxury coffins to grieving relatives. The cheaper models were dismissed as expressing less love for the deceased.

In Hong Kong, a coffin with shiny bronze rails and several coats of varnish likewise costs enough to bankrupt some families. Guilt for neglecting grandmother or grandfather in their final years, combined with worry about what those attending the wake will say afterwards, is enough to sell the most expensive coffin.

It is better for the family to discuss the arrangements far in advance and thus save money for the survivors. But even in the 21st Century, many people feel it is bad luck to mention this topic.

New China strongly discouraged lavish funerals. Tombs occupied needed farmland, and cremation was cheaper.

In 1967, during the height of the Culture Revolution, Red Guards smashed every pre-1949 tombstone in China, since they all had some religious inscription or image carved on them. But in recent years, elaborate funerals and showy tombs have made a comeback.

One official recently paid a hefty fee to a geomancer, a fung shui expert (風水士), for advice on where to relocate his parents’ graves. Burying the ancestors in an auspicious site with a lucky view is supposed to ensure a successful career for their filial descendant. Instead, the cadre lost his job for misspending public funds.

Catholic funerals

The Catholic Church has traditionally favored burial as a sign of hope in the resurrection. In recent centuries, some sceptics deliberately opted for cremation, as a way of saying publicly, “Hah! Let’s see if God can put these ashes back together into a body.” In response, the Church became more opposed to cremation. But, to protect public health, cremation was allowed during an epidemic.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the prohibition has been removed and cremation is permissible for a good reason, such as the shortage of land in Hong Kong.

Choosing the right time is still a critical step in planning a funeral. Catholics should not go to a fortune-teller to ask about the day and hour, but if other members of the family insist on a specific time, then to preserve harmony, the Church needs to be as accommodating as possible.

The tension between Catholic and traditional elements in a funeral has existed in China since the late Ming Dynasty (明朝). It featured prominently in the Rites Controversy (禮儀之爭).

Grieving takes time. Catholics pray for the living and the dead, and many families request a memorial Mass 40, 49 or 100 days, or one year later. Sometimes that date has already been booked and the best the parish can offer is a day or two earlier or later. Those making the request need not feel offended, nor worry that their loved one will derive less benefit from Mass at another time. The grace of God is not restricted by the calendar. St. Paul warned the Galatians not to become enslaved to observing particular days, months, seasons and years (Gal. 4:10).

Three comments on death

Someone asked Confucius (孔子) about the dead. He replied, “You do not yet know life, so why ask about death?” Missionaries later commented that the sage lived before Christ, so he could not have been expected to know the revelation about life after death.

St. Monica prayed for the conversion of her older son. She prayed for years before he became St. Augustine. In 387, they were in Italy, ready to sail home to what is now Tunisia in North Africa. St. Monica developed a high fever and everyone knew her end was near. Her younger son expressed hope that she would get better so she could board the ship and return home to die. St. Monica rolled her eyes in annoyance at the worldly suggestion. Then she said, “Bury me wherever you wish. Do not let my body be a burden to you. All I ask is that you remember my soul at the altar.”

Another Catholic, Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones, 1837-1930) struggled for several decades for coal miners and child laborers. She was a fighter, a strike organizer and an agitator for social justice in the USA. Mother Jones saw the need for balance in her life. She repeatedly said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”