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).

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.)

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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!

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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!)

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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?

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.

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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.