Burial Rites and Customs

Funerals are generally sad occasions, or are they? In my life I have attended my fair share, starting with the funeral of my grandfather when I was a young girl of 10. The thing I remember the most was the sadness of my granddad’s passing as well as the joy of family members coming together to say their farewells. Aunts and uncles that I had never met, cousins that I hadn’t seen before, all coming together in a family affair. A memorial service was held at the local church at the time when my grandfather was being cremated and then his ashes were buried in a special part of the garden, which he loved so much. 

My gran had a local craftsman make a stone table that had a dedication to my grandfather inscribed on a plaque in the center of the table. The table was inlaid with pieces of tiles and polished. For years it was a place of solace for both my grandmother and me, when times were tough. Later on, my gran and my dad’s ashes would be buried under that same table. When my dad passed away, all his friends went to the local pub and sang the afternoon away, as he would have done had he been there. In essence, he was there in spirit.

Burial Rites: Tears bring healing

When I was an adult, I attended the funeral of my husband’s grandmother. She died at a ripe old age of 90 and was buried in a grave at the family farm outside Kimberley. We attended the funeral with our four-year-old daughter who was as cute as a button at that age. While standing at the gravesite, everyone avoiding the face of everyone else so as to keep back the tears, my daughter proudly and loudly, asked her father: “Dad, what’s in the box?”

With that everyone started crying and she went around consoling them all. It was the perfect question to allow the tears to flow. Again many family members had gathered for the funeral and afterwards a huge dinner was had by all, with tales being traded of family activities and future plans. There’s a saying that families come together for weddings and funerals, and that has been true in my experience.

In our 10 years of living in Kimberley, attending a church of predominantly old people and belonging to the weekly Bible study, I attended a number of funerals each year. One year I attended and helped with tea at seven funerals across town. Kimberley tends to have many people who live to a ripe age and so there were always large family gatherings at the teas afterwards and again, the exchanging of family stories.

I wouldn’t say I have a preoccupation with death but rather a fascination with the end of life. I have seen people struggle at the very end as they slip in and out of battles of the mind and spirit, and I have seen people simply pass away with one breath, as peacefully as they had lived. And it reminds me that death is a very real and tangible time. Life is very precious.

Burial Rites: Cliffhanger burials

I have also found the celebrations of death an interesting topic. Different cultures view death and dying in various degrees of reverence and awe. When we travelled along the Yangze River on a cruise liner, we elected to go on a shore excursion where a smaller boat went along the Three Mini Gorges. High on the cliff face there were a number of coffins that had been attached to the cliff at impossible places. They are a mystery to most but are believed to have been people of great importance, and hence the chosen site. We also saw a grave in one of the caves that we visited during the trip. It had also been a person of interest or prominence. The grave was deep at the back of a dolomite cave.

China has a festival called Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Festival, where the families of the departed tend and clean the grave sites. Many burn incense and fake money to appease their ancestors and some even place food and beverages around the grave for them. They also place huge colour paper wreaths and flower arrangements at various points. They were beautifully decorated. 

Burial Rites: burial on a cliff

Since moving to Hangzhou, we have witnessed Buddhist funeral celebrations and processions. When a person dies, the family sets up a band under a tent at the base of the building in which the person had lived. Fire crackers are set off periodically and the band plays a healthy tune every time someone comes to honour the departed. There are trumpets and a drummer, sometimes an opera singer sings the off key notes of a song of traditional Chinese opera.

This ritual can go on for about three days or less, depending on the status in society of the person who has passed away. Then at a given signal, the people dress in long white robes and the pall bearers, in procession with the band, march through the streets to the grave site. Along with the procession, each person carries huge round paper wreaths with them. It is really a marvelous sight, full of colour and noise. At various spots along the way the whole group stops and the band plays, incense sticks are waved about and the leading priest prays and chants. Again, it is disrespectful to photograph, even though I would love to capture the colours and mood. It is full of joy and blessing.

Burial Rites

To end, an interesting take on funerals in the Jewish community is that you don’t celebrate the death of a person, you celebrate the life they have lived. By placing rocks on their tombs every year, you remember them.  So we see that death is celebrated with tears and joy, with flowers, wreaths and music and each person processes the death of that loved one in a different and special way.

Click here for more from LeeAnne

LeeAnne Waddell, a South African mom and grandmother who moved to live and work in China in 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *