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.


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.


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.

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).

On my first funeral in China, and the loss of my first close Chinese family member

When you’re married to a Chinese national, you’re privilege to a lot of things the average expat in China would never experience. The opportunity to be a Chinese bride or groom in an incredibly big, red wedding celebration (emphasis on the “big” and “red”). Spending that explosive holiday of Chinese New Year’s in the family home (where you get to see exactly how folks light those fireworks or learn how to make his mother’s homemade tofu). Watching your sister-in-law raise her only months-old infant and all of the pomp and circumstance this new addition to the family brings with her (such as the 100 days old celebration for my niece).

But then, there are the experiences you get to be privilege to — and wish you weren’t. Like a funeral in China.


How could I have been married to John for nearly 10 years (yes, that’s right, nearly a decade) and never experienced a funeral in China? Luck, perhaps. Or great genes. Sometimes, after seeing many of my close relatives pass away earlier before his — like my paternal grandfather in 2003, and my maternal grandfather in 2011 —  and remembering how I lost my own mother at the tender age of 17, I would think of his family somehow like a giant, extended version of the Energizer Bunny that just kept going and going. Of course they would always be there when we returned. Of course everyone would be fine. John’s family was somehow different. (Or at least, I wanted to kid myself into believing that was true.)

But then this morning, our smartphone rang and on the other end was John’s oldest brother, with the news that would usher in my unwanted invitation to this one experience I had never had before (or wanted).

John’s maternal grandfather — his only remaining grandfather — just passed away.

Grandpa at far right, along with Grandma and a cousin.

But shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Once the 2014 horse year galloped into our lives, grandfather kept trotting in and out of hospitals month after month. First it was that Chinese traditional medicine hospital near one of his daughters’ homes. Then it was the hospital in the county seat, where John’s grandmother — who has a heart condition — also joined him for a week or two. Then both of them once again went back into the hospital in the county seat for several weeks in May, only to return to their home the very afternoon before we moved to Hangzhou.

I remember squeezing in that last minute visit only two weeks before to Grandma’s house (Grandma was always the more talkative one, cracking jokes and her lovable grin, so we aways associated the place with her). It was just like any other visit in the past few months, where we found Grandpa lying in his bed in the far corner, looking a little beaten down from his many health concerns (heart, lungs, even his stomach) but still kicking and having survived yet another stay in the hospital. He only flashed us a weak smile from beneath the covers, with his leg akimbo. I told him, “Don’t worry, Hangzhou is so close to here. We’ll be able to visit you often!” Did I see relief in his eyes? A sense of comfort knowing we cared about him? Or maybe just the exhaustion from his time in the hospital? I couldn’t tell. But more importantly, I never realized that this would be the very last thing I would ever say to him, and the very last time I would ever see him alive.

Deep down, a sense of dread surrounds me with each passing moment. A part of me wants to believe it’s my fear of the funeral itself — that I’ve never before experienced a funeral in China, in the custom of my husband’s hometown. That my husband has only shared tidbits and small anecdotes that never even began to paint a picture of what it means to participate in a funeral. But I know that truthfully, what I fear the most is what that funeral signifies — that Grandpa is officially no longer with us.

Grandpa and Grandma, knitting hats one summer (a local industry) to earn some money.

And even though I’ve never felt as close to him as Grandma, I worry about her as well. We’ve all watched her health falter throughout the year and breathed a sigh of relief every time she returned home with the same grin and the same unexpected quips and jokes in her local dialect. But what now? How will she cope with an empty home? Will this be the experience that breaks her as well?

I remember how she told us earlier in the year, “I don’t want to die this year.” She’s 81 and for whatever reason, passing away at this age is somehow inauspicious. Personally, I think any passing is inauspicious and especially the people closest to us, the people we love most.

Grandpa’s passing has summoned us back once again to John’s hometown, just at the very moment when he and I seemed to be settling into life here in Hangzhou. And now I’m on the verge of experiencing a Chinese funeral and the loss that comes along with it.

But I’m also married to John and have the support of his family through this all — people who have experienced many a funeral in their lives. While I can’t say it’s a privilege to go through all of this, it is a relief and comfort to know I’m not alone in this process.

Eating a Grandma and Grandpa’s home during Chinese New Year.