6 Surprising Ways Funerals in China Resemble Weddings in China

When John’s Grandpa passed away earlier this year, the last thing I ever expected was to imagine the happiest of all life events. But in many ways, his funeral ended up reminding me of weddings in China.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

The Chinese phrase hongbai xishi (hóngbáixǐshì or 红白喜事, literally “red-white happy events”) links these two drastically different life celebrations in the same breath, with the “red” symbolizing weddings and the “white” funerals. There are even companies in China who exist solely to supply folks with just about everything they need to put on either a wedding or a funeral, advertising themselves as “hongbai xishi” specialists. Who would have thought a wedding planner could be a funeral planner at the same time? But in China, it’s possible.

Well, here are 6 surprising ways that Grandpa’s funeral resembled the weddings I’ve attended in China:

(NOTE: None of the following photos came from the funeral itself. The family specifically asked that we not photograph anything and, as fascinating as it would have been to share those pictures, we obviously needed to respect those wishes.)


1. Banquets, banquets and more banquets

Anyone who has ever attended a wedding in China or tied the knot themselves knows what the real star attraction is for the event – the sumptuous food. Dish after succulent dish of such incredible delicacies (which, incidentally, have without exception made all of the food I’ve ever dined on at weddings in America look like something out of a high school cafeteria line).

Well, based on my experience at John’s grandpa’s funeral, if you’re attending a funeral in China, prepare to chow down at lots of banquets.

When we arrived at Big Uncle’s home that first evening, we discovered his entire first floor had been converted into a huge makeshift banquet hall, complete with the kind of tacky red plastic table covers I’ve come to associate with weddings in John’s rural hometown. In the four-plus days we spent during the funeral, the vast majority of our participation involved crowding around one of these tables with distant relatives or friends, downing the local dishes while battling with the elders for our sobriety (yes, like weddings the alcohol flows a lot!).

We literally sat down to at least seven banquets that week (and there were at least one or two we even missed because we arrived late and left early).

One thing, though. I don’t know if this is true for every funeral in China, but the food we dined on was definitely NOT the best we’ve ever tasted. But let’s face it – this is a funeral and nobody’s coming just for the food, right?

(photo by ChinaKFC via Flickr.com)
(photo by ChinaKFC via Flickr.com)

2. Giving money

In China, attending a wedding has its own “entrance fee” if you will. A good guest will always present the happy new couple with one of those infamous hongbao – red envelopes stuffed with an auspicious amount of cash that serve as a wedding gift.

When I caught my father-in-law doing “accounting” one afternoon following a banquet, I soon learned that funerals in China also demanded a little financial support from guests.

That’s right – if you attend a funeral in China, be sure to give the family some cash, just like you would for a wedding.

I’m no expert on how much to give, but I can tell you that guests attending Grandpa’s funeral gave amounts ranging from 200 RMB to 1,000 RMB. By the looks of how many pages were filled in on my father-in-law’s accounting book, I’d say the family did pretty well (except, of course, the fact that no amount of money will ever bring Grandpa back…sigh).

See the floral wreaths in this photo -- they're very similar to those we carried in Grandpa's procession. (photo by 曹鹏 via Flickr.com)
See the floral wreaths in this photo — they’re very similar to those we carried in Grandpa’s procession. (photo by 曹鹏 via Flickr.com)

3. Processions

Traditionally, Chinese weddings always included a lively procession. The bride would be lifted into a dazzling sedan chair decked out in red silk followed by a parade of her dowry items, with the whole thing accompanied by the jubilant sounds of horns, drums and cymbals.

While there was no rejoicing over Grandpa’s funeral, the procession to his tomb in the hills was more striking and vibrant than I ever expected.

For example, white wasn’t the only color on display. Sure, this traditional color of mourning in China figured prominently in the event, with a number of family members wearing white caps on their heads and everyone wearing a white ribbon like a necklace. But there were also brilliant floral wreaths made up of flowers from every color on the rainbow. We carried these eye-catching arrangements on the way to the tomb and it made the procession look quite beautiful.

The sound of drums and cymbals also accompanied us on our short journey to Grandpa’s tomb. John said the instruments struck a mournful tone in comparison to what you’d hear in a wedding procession – but just having them in the background was quite the contrast to the staid and quiet Catholic American funerals I’ve attended back in the US!


4. Firecrackers

Nowadays, every modern wedding is an explosive experience – literally – with lots of fireworks and firecrackers.

If Grandpa’s funeral is any measure, China clearly wants to send their deceased off with a bang.

Of course, there were the obligatory explosions right near the tomb and before they started the big procession to Grandpa’s tomb, but that’s not all. Big Uncle’s family actually used firecrackers to announce all of the banquets that week. (By the time we were ready to leave, I swore I was almost having this strange Pavlovian reaction to the sound of firecrackers – where that booming noise made me feel hungry!)

The guests at Grandpa’s funeral dressed a lot like these folks. (photo by Steven Yu via Flickr.com)

5. People dress in surprisingly casual clothing

As I’ve written before, don’t even think about trotting out your best cocktail dress and suit and tie when you’re attending a wedding in China. Well, by the looks of Grandpa’s funeral, I’d say don’t even bother donning the kind of funeral outfits you’re used to in the West.

While most people generally stuck to muted colors as well as black and white, the styles were all over the map. My sister-in-law, for example, spent the entire funeral wearing a jean skort so short and tight I was stunned – a look that seemed more on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard than mourning a relative.

Most people wore shorts and T-shirts, sneakers and old loafers; only a small handful of women had on casual dresses and not a single man in attendance sported a necktie.

(photo by kenji via Flickr.com)
(photo by kenji via Flickr.com)

6. The experience will exhaust you

The one thing people never tell you about participating in Chinese weddings – something you only learn through experience – is just how incredibly exhausting it is to be the bride and the groom. You’re on your feet almost the entire celebration, you spend so much time toasting all the guests that you don’t even have time to dig into the amazing food, and then just before it’s all over you have to take part in the embarrassing ritual of roughhousing in the bridal chamber.

Well, if your dearly departed is close family – like Grandpa was for us – get ready for a marathon experience yourself. His funeral lasted from Sunday through Thursday evening, five entire days of remembrances, rituals and banquets.

Just thinking about that makes me feel exhausted all over again.

But the real exhaustion lies in the details – and in particular, a certain ritual called shouling (shǒulíng or 守灵). This tradition requires that a family member keep vigil on the deceased’s coffin at all times, even through the night. Many relatives sacrificed their sleep night after night to fulfill their duty and accompany grandpa – especially Grandpa’s children, like my mother-in-law. Well, she paid a steep price for staying up late several days in a row: it sent her straight to the hospital following the funeral.

While her example is pretty extreme, the whole experience of Grandpa’s funeral left everyone feeling a little fatigued. At times, it seemed like taking care of Grandpa (through the traditions) mattered more than having the family members left behind actually take care of themselves.

Still, the fact that John’s oldest brother complained about the length of the funeral – and the fact that it put his mother in the hospital – tells me that there’s still room for a happy medium that respects the culture and the needs of the attending family members.

What do you think? Have you seen similarities between funerals and weddings in China?

13 Replies to “6 Surprising Ways Funerals in China Resemble Weddings in China”

  1. A fascinating post!
    My mother-in-law and my dad died only a few days apart. She died in Singapore; my dad died in the US. So my husband and I went to two separate funerals and left the kids with a friend. Although I wasn’t at my MIL’s funeral, I believe it was much shorter and simpler than what you describe. Do city-dwellers in China have simpler funerals than people in rural towns?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Wow, that must have been extremely difficult dealing with two funerals at the same time.

      I would imagine funerals in the cities here would probably be simpler than rural funerals. In the city, who has time to attend a celebration lasting four days (or more) with the obligations of work and family?

  2. Wow it does sound exhausting! Luckily I have never had to attend a funeral in China, but when I was in Vietnam (in Ho Chi Minh City) someone had just died in the house in front of our hostel and the coffin and the funerary music were there for several days!

  3. That sounds like quite the event. It’s interesting that it’s such a boisterous (the drums and cymbals threw me for a loop!) event and yet the dress code is so casual.
    I know the vigil of the body is an important aspect in Japan as well and goes on for 1-3 days (perhaps there are instances where it’s longer, I’m not sure).
    I’ve been lucky as I’ve not needed to attend any funerals in Japan so far, but I have participated in a memorial service. It was quite low key.
    Thank you for sharing your experience, it was quite enlightening. I hope your mother-in-law recovered quickly. It must have been quite a burden to have such physical exertion during a time of emotional upheaval.

  4. Though sorry for your loss, I really appreciate you sharing this. It is one side of China I haven’t gotten to see. I guess, luckily, most of us don’t. My husband’s uncle passed away several years ago, but I was in the States at the time.

    It’s very interesting to hear about the different practices. I’m curious what funerals are like in the city compared to the countryside. I often see huge wreaths (like those pictured) outside. I recently saw someone ring them and set them outside a local supermarket. He than started yelling things through a microphone. Some sort of protest? He left once the police came. It was very odd.

    I have spotted funeral processions a few times. Often they are very noisy with the widow (I presume) crying very dramatically in front.

  5. “Hongbaixishi” reflects the Chinese’ attitude towards life and death, life and death are just like the two sides of a coin.

    The Chinese culture is a mixture of Konfucian, Daoist and Buddhism, you can always find it out in your daily life when you are in China.

  6. The most surprising thing my husband told me was that after his inside grandma’s passed away people during the meal people were playing mahjong … O.O

  7. My brother wedding lunch receiption is in 1 month time but my paternal grandfather pass away at age 100. Should i attend his funeral whereby we are chinese? In traditional chinese, we are not suppose to do so. Any good advise asap?

    1. I don’t know well about the traditional Chinese way, so I can only tell u that, if I were u, I will attend my brothers wedding lunch.

    2. Joejo, I would ask your brother or other family members for advice in this situation. Each part of China has different customs regarding weddings and funerals and they would be the best people to advise you.

  8. How interesting! I have not attended a Japanese funeral but one feature about giving money is it must be old and used versus wedding money that must be new.

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