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?
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).
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!
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!)
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.
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?