The #1 Reason I Struggle With Funerals in China

A little over a week ago, my husband’s grandmother – the one who motivated me to learn the local dialect – passed away.

IMG_20150218_170729-e1424521588297I remember the sense of melancholy that swept through my body when Jun gave me the news. The last time we had seen her was the month before, when we visited her in the hospital. In the usual Chinese custom, we had brought her some fruit – bananas and Chinese haw. And in typical grandma custom, she kept pushing the fruit meant for her into our hands. Despite having to fend her off, we all smiled and had a good time during the brief visit.

We never expected it would be our last.

I loved her for her feisty sense of humor, which I gradually came to understand by studying the local dialect. She made some of the best fried rice noodles I’ve ever had. And despite the fact that visiting her meant constantly warding off her aggressive hospitality (you wouldn’t believe how hard she could shove food into our hands), we liked spending time with her.

First selfie ever with John's grandmother! (We all bust up laughing at how funny we all looked together in this.)

Of course, her passing meant one simple thing – a funeral.

After I had grappled with my feelings of loss for Jun’s dear grandmother, someone we deeply loved, I realized I had another feeling hidden underneath everything.

Stress.

Yes, I was stressed about the forthcoming funeral. But especially, I was stressed out on behalf of Jun’s parents.

A couple of years ago when Jun’s grandfather passed away (he was Grandma’s husband), I experienced a true countryside funeral in all of its glory.

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Grandpa.

There were a lot of things I struggled with at the time, including:

  1. The decidedly non-vegan banquets, which meant I often dined in vain and on one occasion actually retreated back to Jun’s family home to stir-fry my own dinner.
  2. The detestable secondhand smoke at said banquets, which forced me to sit on the edge of the open banquet hall to ensure a little fresh air.
  3. The raucous firecrackers that served as a dinner bell for every banquet.

Honestly, though, all things equal, I could live with the above. Nobody comes to a funeral for the food, and the smoke I could handle with strategic seating. The firecrackers are super-loud, but they don’t last all day long.

But there’s one thing I really, truly struggle with when it comes to funerals in China. They can be exhausting for family, sometimes to dangerous extremes.

One of the customs I learned about during grandfather’s funeral was shouling (守灵). This involves ensuring the coffin is watched 24 hours a day, something family members do in shifts. But during Grandpa’s funeral, many of the late night shifts fell to my mother-in-law. Grandma also stayed up late into the night observing the custom.

This carried on for days, mind you. Grandpa wasn’t laid to rest until four days after passing.

Well, after the funeral ended, this exhausting marathon of late-night vigils watching the coffin sent my mother-in-law and Grandma into the hospital.

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Me and my mother-in-law

Yes, the hospital. (I’m just grateful we didn’t have two more funerals after the passing of Grandpa.)

So this is what I really struggle with – a funeral custom that is harmful to your health, and might even lead to hospitalization or worse.

Of course we want to pay our respects to the deceased. And of course I want to respect the customs of my husband’s hometown. But it’s hard when a custom seems to demand a little too much from the family.

Like Jun’s mother, I’ve been the daughter of the deceased at a funeral. When I was 17, my mother passed away after months of battling with late-stage cancer. It is indeed a stressful time when you’re immediate family of the deceased. You’re expected to make all of these important arrangements at a time when a heavy cloud of grief hangs over your life. It was also a critical time in my academic career, as I was applying to colleges and universities.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we were expected to accompany my mother’s coffin for four nights straight, or more. I think I would have been in even worse shape than I already was.

It’s reassuring that my husband agrees with me on this. After all, as he said, wasn’t the most important thing the time you spent with the person while they were alive, and not when they’re dead? He too worries about the health of his mother.

Fortunately, she didn’t end up in the hospital this time around.

As much as I preach cultural understanding on this blog, file this one under “things I still don’t understand about China.”

P.S.: To Grandma, may you rest in peace and know I’m saying a little prayer for you (in my incredibly limited local dialect) wishing you the best.

We visited relatives in the village, including John's grandma (who enjoyed my foot bath and foot massage).

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24 thoughts on “The #1 Reason I Struggle With Funerals in China

  • October 31, 2016 at 10:25 am
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    I’m so sorry for your loss, and glad that no one ended up hospitalized due to observing this custom! Hope you all are doing well in the wake of losing Jun’s grandmother.

    Reply
  • October 31, 2016 at 11:09 am
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    唵嘛呢叭咪吽!

    E mi tuo fo…

    Peace, love and compassion from us.

    Reply
  • October 31, 2016 at 6:17 pm
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    I’m so sorry for your loss! I know you loved Grandma, you wrote about her in several articles. May she rest in peace.

    I have never been to a funeral in China but when I visited Vietnam there was a funeral just across the street from our hostel… there was funeral music from early in the morning until late at night several days in a row!

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:21 pm
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      Thanks Marta! That funeral you witnessed in Vietnam sounds similar to some I’ve seen here in China. Here in the community where I live, it’s not uncommon for funerals to have music early in the morning and late into the evening.

      Reply
  • October 31, 2016 at 11:02 pm
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    I’m sorry for your and Jun’s loss. It sounds as though you have many fond memories of Grandma to help you and Jun through the grieving process. Hugs from the Great Plains

    Reply
  • November 1, 2016 at 2:12 am
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    sorry to hear about your loss. when i stayed in a small town last year, there happened to be a funeral close to the guest house i stayed in. like Marta experienced in Vietnam, this went on for several days !!!! if there is one thing that the Chinese should change, it is the funeral, make it short and fast, like here in North America.

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:22 pm
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      Thank you Gordon. Yes, it would be nice to have simpler funerals. I’m sure it would make it easier for everyone involved.

      Reply
  • November 1, 2016 at 3:50 am
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    Through your blog Grandma touched many lives. She would have been amazed. May she rest in peace. Sorry for your loss.

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:22 pm
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      Thank you Marion. Yes, you’re right — she did touch many lives. That’s a nice thought. 🙂

      Reply
  • November 1, 2016 at 11:46 pm
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    I’m very sorry for your loss Jocelyn.. I think it’s wonderful you became so close to Jun’s grandmother, and even learned the dialect for her…!!! That is truly impressive.

    Wow, Chinese funerals sound a lot like Chinese weddings (second hand smoke and decadent, non-vegetarian seafood galore), but the shouling thing… wow. That blows my mind. I imagine that it’s not only a physical battle, but also a mental one too. If I had to accompany the coffin of a loved one at the peak of the mourning stage, I would be a mess. Is there cultural background to shouling? Is it to protect the spirits as they pass, or something?

    All I can say is: 辛苦了! I hope you and Jun are doing ok!

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:24 pm
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      Thanks Mary! I have not looked into the background of shouling, but a part me is curious at times. Was it a matter of insuring nobody took the body? To make sure the person was actually dead and not alive? Or to make sure the body remained clean before the funeral? Or something else I cannot think of at this moment?

      Reply
  • November 2, 2016 at 1:21 am
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    I am so sorry for your loss. Grandmothers are special, and I am awed that you learned an entire dialect for her. Surely she was touched. (Also, I feel like a slacker granddaughter-in-law now.)

    Funeral are bad enough even when they are short. Truly, a Chinese funeral sounds like an ordeal. I hope you and your family can manage a modicum of self care during trying times.

    I’d be interested in a post on the reason behind some of the customs, though. Cuz right now it sort of sounds like a funeral’s aim is to beget more funerals!

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm
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      Thanks Autumn! But you should know my local dialect is really limited…like, toddlers could speak it better than me! So I’m really a slacker in that department.

      I’ll have to find out the reasons behind shouling.

      Reply
  • November 2, 2016 at 11:06 am
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    Most of us aren’t involved in funerals very often, so when a family member dies, we’re overcome with sorrow and the only thing to do is to fall back on tradition. I think that’s why customs hang on for so long.

    One fairly universal purpose of a funeral is for the family to show the value of the deceased’s life. In the West we do that by turnout at the funeral and by remembering him in a positive light with one or many eulogies. In China, it seems that not only turnout at the funeral is important but also all the food and drinks and fireworks. It shows that this day is unlike normal days because someone important to us has passed away.

    I’ve read that the original reason the Irish watched over the body and prayed for the soul of the deceased from the time of death until the casket left for the burial was to watch for signs of life.

    My husband’s great grandfather was a very rich man who made his fortune in the Philippines and died there. He had only one son, who took his father’s body back to his village in China and stayed near the grave (according to my husband) for six years, according to custom. While he was away, the godson acquired the name and the wealth of the dead man, and my husband’s grandfather stayed in China and devoted himself to studying for the Chinese civil service exams and becoming a Mandarin. So this was a funeral custom that led to the loss of his fortune.

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:29 pm
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      Thank you Nicki. It’s true, funerals do show the value of the person who passed away — a reminder that they mattered to us. That is interesting regarding Irish custom. Perhaps it is also a reason behind shouling?

      Wow, that is quite a story — sad that a funeral custom led to the loss of your husband’s grandfather’s fortune.

      Reply
  • November 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm
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    I’m really sorry to hear about your Grandmother – she sounded like a wonderful woman. Please look after yourselves at this time!

    I haven’t been to a Chinese funeral yet but that tradition sounds very Chinese. It’s a lovely way to show respect and love to the deceased but very hard on the living (at an especially difficult time when sleep may be difficult at the best of times).

    It seems similar to other aspects of the culture where a good family holiday is to climb a mountain for 5+ hours until people are so exhausted they can’t walk anymore. Very dissimilar to the UK where it seems that self-care and comfort are prioritized.

    I hope that your mother-in-law especially is coping okay. Chinese parents and children always appear so close that a loss like this must be hard to come to terms with.

    Reply
    • November 7, 2016 at 12:30 pm
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      Thank you Miriam! Yes, funerals can be hard on the living. Everyone seems to be doing OK. I haven’t heard anything recently about my MIL which means she’s fine. (No news is good news!)

      Reply
  • November 5, 2016 at 1:05 am
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    I’m terribly sorry to hear of your loss. Look after yourself, Jocelyn. You have been a a great DIL to Jun’s family.

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  • November 5, 2016 at 4:25 am
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    It’s said that losing a loved one will take a piece of us away, until we have nothing left & cease to exist ourselves.

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    • November 7, 2016 at 12:32 pm
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      Thank you Henry. Indeed, losing a loved one is like a loss of ourselves. Let’s hold our loved ones closer to us today and cherish them while they are still with us.

      Reply

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