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35: Funerals

Of all their cherished ceremonies, there are none the Chinese observe with more scrupulous exactness than those connected with death and mourning. We have just heard of the Governor of Kiangsu going into retirement because of the decease of his mother; and so he will remain, ineligible to any office, for the space of three years. He will not shave his head for one hundred days. For forty-nine nights he will sleep in a hempen garment, with his head resting on a brick and stretched on the hard ground, by the side of the coffin which holds the remains of the parent who gave him birth. He will go down upon his knees and humbly kotow to each friend and relative at their first meeting after the sad event--a tacit acknowledgment that it was but his own want of filial piety which brought his beloved mother prematurely to the grave. To the coolies who bear the coffin to its resting-place on the slope of some wooded hill, or beneath the shade of a clump of dark-leaved cypress trees, he will make the same obeisance. Their lives and properties are at his disposal day and night; but he now has a favour to ask which no violence could secure, and pleads that his mother's body may be carried gently, without jar or concussion of any kind. He will have her laid by the side of his father, in a coffin which cost perhaps 100 pounds, and repair thither periodically to appease her departed spirit with votive offerings of fruit, vegetables, and pork.

Immediately after the decease of a parent, the children and other near relatives communicate the news to friends living farther off, by what is called an "announcement of death," which merely states that the father or mother, as the case may be, has died, and that they, the survivors, are entirely to blame. With this is sent a "sad report," or in other words a detailed account of deceased's last illness, how it originated, what medicine was prescribed and taken, and sundry other interesting particulars. Their friends reply by sending a present of money to help defray funeral expenses, a present of food or joss-stick, or even a detachment of priests to read the prescribed liturgies over the dead. Sometimes a large scroll is written and forwarded, inscribed with a few such appropriate words as--"A hero has gone!" When all these have been received, the members of the bereaved family issue a printed form of thanks, one copy being left at the house of each contributor and worded thus:--"This is to express the thanks of . . . the orphaned son who weeps tears of blood and bows his head: of . . . the mourning brother who weeps and bows his head: of . . . the mourning nephew who wipes away his tears and bows his head."

It is well known that all old and even middle-aged people in China like to have their coffins prepared ready for use. A dutiful son will see that his parents are thus provided, sometimes many years before their death, and the old people will invite relatives or friends to examine and admire both the materials and workmanship, as if it were some beautiful picture or statue of which they had just cause to be proud. Upon the coffin is carved an inscription with the name and titles of its occupant; if a woman, the name of her husband. At the foot of the coffin are buried two stone tablets face to face; one bears the name and title of the deceased, and the other a short account of his life, what year he was born in, what were his achievements as a scholar, and how many children were born to him. Periods of mourning are regulated by the degrees of relationship to the dead. A son wears his white clothes for three years--actually for twenty-eight months; and a wife mourns her husband for the same period. The death of a wife, however, calls for only a single year of grief; for, as the Sacred Edict points out, if your wife dies you can marry another. The same suffices for brother, sister, or child. Marriages contracted during these days of mourning are not only invalid, but the offending parties are punished with a greater or lesser number of blows according to the gravity of the offence. Innumerable other petty restrictions are imposed by national or local custom, which are observed with a certain amount of fidelity, though instances are not wanting where the whole thing is shirked as inconvenient and a bore.

Cremation, once the prevailing fashion in China, is now reserved for the priest of Buddha alone,--that self-made outcast from society, whose parting soul relies on no fond breast, who has no kith or kin to shed "those pious drops the closing eye requires;" but who, seated in an iron chair beneath the miniature pagoda erected in most large temples for that purpose, passes away in fire and smoke from this vale of tears and sin to be absorbed in the blissful nothingness of an eternal Nirvana.