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Life-cycle Events: Funerals

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Winter Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 11, 12, and 28

The Chinese have a saying: The most important thing in life is to be buried properly. They see funerals as ways to send the recently departed off on a journey to the next world in the same fashion as if they were living. What they are saying is that they pay equal attention to the end as they do to the beginning of life. Actually, Confucian believers would go into bankruptcy, some say even give their sons in pawn, in order to accord a proper funeral to a parent. Others such as Mo-ists, that is the followers of Mo Tzu, would rebuke this behavior for its extravagance. They believe in greater frugality.

Customs do vary depending upon believer and where they live. Funerals differ in different parts of China, and they are not the same today as they were in earlier times. None the less, the business of events after death, no matter where or when, are preparations for the journey to the next world; and it is serious business. They treat the dead as if they were still living, and they accord these future ancestors the greatest of respect and attention.

The Greater Record of Mourning Rites offers advice about what is needed and how to behave at the time of death. Included are very few details about what to eat before, during, or after a funeral. Nonetheless, foods are needed for the journey to the next world, which ones should be left at the grave site and at ancestral tablets immediately after burial, and thereafter. What it does not detail are specific foods to use during festivals honoring the dead. There are many such occasions. They include but are not limited to the Solar Festival of the Dead and Sending Winter Clothes, and the most important of all of them, the Qing Ming Festival.

Set on the solar calendar, Qing Ming is always in the beginning of April. Sending the Winter Clothes is in mid-November, and the Solar Festival occurs in-between them. While it does not change dates from year to year, Qing Ming has changed focus from ancient times to today. And there are other ancestor-worshipping holidays.

Modern food practices vis-a-vis funerals and their foods are different at this most important holiday, Qing Ming, and it originally was not a festival about death. Rather, it was one about life, its name then was Day of Clear Brightness. Today, it celebrates the deceased, is a day of ancestor worship, and a day with ceremonial meals enjoyed when visiting the tombs of the ancestors. The Chinese venerate their ancestors. On Qing Ming, they tidy up their grave sites and share a meal with them.

You may recall Lillian Chou’s article titled: Ching Ming and a Walk in the Mountains. It appeared in Volume 10 (2) on pages 8 and 18. Ms. Chou spelled the holiday name differently from the Pinyin transliteration of Qing Ming. Though her article used an earlier spelling, it was about more current behavior. She detailed how her family gathered and tended ancestral tombs. She wrote about how they kowtowed to their ancestors and the picnic meal they shared with them. She did not discuss behaviors and preparations in earlier generations.

Some people in China, especially the Hakka, use water infused with pomelo leaves to wash the deceased as they prepare it for its important ride into the next world. Some have two ceremonies, one where and when the death occurred, another at the cemetery. Some families offer the deceased a cooking pot, grass for fuel, rice and water and some means to light a fire, and they provide salted and/or dried fish for the journey. A very fancy stove was found in one Han tomb; it was illustrated in the hard copy of this issue. Cooking equipment is included with the deceased so that they can cook for him or herself. Money, usually the fake-paper-kind, is given to get other culinary needs and assistance on the way and in the next world, and to offer to any spirits lurking around with less than good intentions.

There are families who provide the deceased with lavish meals before burial. Others only do so on holidays when they visit, honor, and respect them. Still others, before burial cook simple foods and place them near the casket and do so again when they visit the grave site. These people feel that being lavish sends a message of bragging behavior and that is inappropriate. Not everyone in a family gathers at the grave site after the burial. Some only visit there once a year starting a year after death. Yet others send a stand-in to attend to the many acts of appropriate obeisance. No matter who performs these rituals, traditional families provide the deceased with lots of grain foods, such as noodles and/or rice. Some bury their dead with the means to grind theirs as seen in the ancient grain shed found in a Han tomb that was pictured in the hard copy of this article.

For meals at the grave site, it is considered lucky to offer, bring, or share an odd number of dishes. This yang notion is common, as is toting seasonings such as soy sauce and vinegar so the ancestors and those attending can flavor the foods each according to his or her own taste. This keeps the deceased happy, and may relieve guilt among attendees as they enjoy the foods of the moment having exerted extra effort to tote them.

A related item of interest at a funeral is the breaking of a comb or a rice bowl. The comb becomes symbolic of severance to all old ties as one half goes into the coffin, the other remaining outside of it. The rice bowl has several meanings. For some it is broken before going into the coffin as another sign of broken ties. Some put it in the coffin for drinking all water wasted on earth. Still others drill a hole in it so the deceased will waste no more.

Funeral processions are often proceeded with bands playing soulful music and people carrying paper burial wreaths on a pair of long sticks. These are three or so feet in diameter and usually have a white real or paper ribbon, the color white is symbolic of death. These are carried at the front of the cortege, this white streamer identifies their purpose.

This length of white is called a ‘soul cloth’ and it waves as they walk, some say to scare away other lost souls. The principles wear white and the more they cry as they follow the coffin, the more they show how they cared for the person being taken to the cemetery. This is considered an honorific, and is the appropriate thing to do. Particularly sons and daughters are supposed to show this emotion and weep unconsolably and as loud as they can.

There is literature that says the journey to the next world takes forty-nine days. That includes time before and up to the day of burial. In ancient times, no burial took place until all were assured the spirit was in heaven. These days, burials occur soon after death, but still some families hold services every seven days, aiding the spirits on their way to the deceased’s final resting place. During these days, it is said that a person’s spirit has no final resting place so no ancestral tablets can be placed until then or the actual burial. Some families put no food at the burial site until they believe the spirits have arrived. How do they know when that is? A geomancer is called and reckons day and hour when the spirit leaves the body and when it gets to the next world.

Traditionally, after the body is washed an uneven number of times immediately after death, it is dressed in wadding. If the family can afford, they put silk clothes over that, then socks and shoes. If not silk, the finest affordable fabrics make the funeral outfit. Some people prepare their own years before. We learned that women are often adorned with a seven-cornered hat; but we could not learn why.

After the body is dressed and it is placed in the coffin in the hall, head pointing to the door. It is common for it to sit on two stools with a table-altar next to it. Here are put white paper flowers in a vase, candlesticks, food at every mealtime, a bowl of sesame oil with wick burning, and a tablet with the name of the deceased.

Adherence to traditional behaviors are lessening, so not all things are practiced. Different people chose to maintain what they want to do; they discard others. For example, keeping the body at home is rare now, except in the country-side. Observances at grave sites and during holidays are less and less each year.

In ancient China, the day before the Clear Day of Brightness, now Qing Ming, was called the 'Cold Food Festival.' This was discussed in Flavor and Fortune in Volume 9(1) on pages 12 and 18. There, the holiday and why and how cold foods were consumed on that ancestor worship day was delineated.

For reasons not always clear, Qing Ming replaced both of those festival days. It is now the second most important Chinese holiday, after Lunar New Year. The Cold Food Festival and eating cold foods is virtually forgotten. Now it is a time for venerating ancestors. Qing Ming points to China’s main religious belief not rooted in Buddhism, Confucianism, nor Daoism; it is ancestor worship.

Ancestor worship is set in motion long before the day of death. People do prepare their own needs for this auspicious occasion. In some regions of China, they prepare for returning to heaven by buying their own fancy coffin. When considered timely, it is set in the entryway for all to see, months before death. Some visit funeral homes with family members to pick out what they want to insure their trip to eternal peace. They might make a pre-payment, get an actual photograph of the coffin, and hang it in the entry hall, bedroom, or some other prominent location. In a few large apartments outside of main cities in China, we saw several such photographs, two even sitting on tables in the living room. These were in homes of elders, the people were sixty-years or older.

When the day of death does arrive, the deceased is placed in what is considered his or her new home, the coffin. It is left open so spirits do not replace body or soul, and the spirit of food on the nearby table can get to the dearly departed. This food for the spirit and for the deceased is the same as what everyone else is eating. It is often one or more favorite foods of the deceased.

On the funeral and burial day, the family gets together for breakfast and eats jai or 'monk’s food.' You may know this dish by another name, that is as 'Buddha’s Delight.' Families also eat this dish on New Year’s eve to properly start that holiday. Serving it on the day of the funeral starts a new beginning for the deceased. In some families, guests are invited to share this meal, in others it is reserved only for immediate family.

After eating the jai, everyone gets pieces of candy or other sweets wrapped in white paper. They are to temper their sorrow. The paper is torn off and left at or near the coffin, it is their break with the deceased. In other families, distant relatives and friends come to the cemetery where they set foods for the deceased and there they may get food and candy. More recently, people put flowers next to the grave.

Besides necessities such as grain foods and others already mentioned, some families provide other ancient recommendations that include oil and salt, cassia (Chinese cinnamon), celery, and Sichuan pepper. Also included for the afterlife are a person’s prize possessions. All of these are interned with the body. The photographs provided in the hard copy of this issue were taken on a visit to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum; that was discussed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 6(3)on page 12.

They and similar artifacts were buried with the deceased along with red yeast to protect from evil spirits. Peas were sometimes added as a wish for progeny or descendants. Dried pork might be added along with a cooked egg assuring food and future family. In a few regions, peas, beans, and other legumes are used to line the coffin, the body rests on them as a reminder that the living has provided for their future.

After the funeral and burial, for the first year it is common to put an ancestral tablet inscribed with the name of the deceased in a place of honor in the home. Every day, or as needed, a bowl of staple food plus some fruit or vegetable and some meat and wine, are placed in front of it. Other families might put these offerings in front of the ancestral tablet twice a day the first year, morning and evening, and daily for the next two years.

Family spending for coffin, burial clothes, and other necessities is only limited by what can be afforded. One rich deceased person exemplifies extravagances for funerals. During the Han dynasty, a man was buried in a suit made of pieces of jade sewn together. That elegant artifact was discovered in the past fifty years and was on display at an exhibit in Staten Island. A copy of this, too, is in the hard copy of this issue. No one knows what might be unearthed next.

After a funeral and burial, all who attend are invited to a banquet. It is one with the most and best food affordable. Providing this great meal speaks to aiding the deceased’s return to heaven. Those who share this repast often share some of its expense by leaving money on the table to help the family bear its burden. To make it truly the best, they are giving money to the next of kin to help pay for this last extravagance. An inexpensive meal would lack reverence and be a poor final sendoff. Remember, to the Chinese death is one of the most important events in life. It allows for reverence of ancestors and continued ancestor worship.

A few last items. First, for families who believe in cremation, they bury their relatives ashes in a fine urn. This can be placed or buried behind or next to the standard grave site. Second, as to ancestral tablets at home, reverent folk keep them there and kowtow to them daily. Lastly, no matter the depth of belief, jai is eaten on the day of burial, often at New Year’s eve, and sometimes for a plethora of other Buddhist festivals.

Do try making your own, and lots of variations of this funeral and holiday food.
Jai (called Buddha's Delight) II
1 cup bean curd stick, soaked for ten minutes in warm water
1 cup bamboo pith, soaked in warm water for five minutes, hard ends removed
1/2 cup cloud ear fungus, soaked in warm water for one hour
1/4 cup white or snow fungus, soaked in warm water for half hour
8 black mushrooms, soaked in warm water for half an hour, stems removed
1 cup glutinous rice, soaked in warm water for one hour
3 Tablespoons corn or another vegetable oil
1 pound firm shredded tofu noodles, cut into two-inch lengths
1 cup carrots, shredded
1 cup mustard green, ba cai, or bok choy, sliced thin
1/2 cup bamboo shoots, shredded
1/2 cup water chestnuts, shredded
1/2 cup cashew nuts
2 Tablespoons crushed slab sugar, or brown sugar
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy
2 Tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1. Keeping each item separate, drain each soaked item. Cut all but the rice into slivers.
2. Heat a wok, add the corn oil and fry the tofu noodles for one minute, and remove.
3. Add carrots, mustard or other green, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and the cashews, and stir-fry for two minutes, then add all the other ingredients except the sesame oil, including those soaked or set aside, and stir one more minute.
4. Add one quart of boiling water, stir well, reduce the heat to simmer, cover, and cook for half an hour.
5. Remove the cover, stir and place in a heated serving dish. Pour sesame oil over it, and serve.

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