Death in the Modern City
It’s no exaggeration to say that death played a fundamental role in the formation of Chinese society. Confucian classics such as the “Rites of Zhou,” the “Book of Rites,” the “Rites of Yi,” and the “Zhuzi Jiali” all established rigid norms for grief.
During the dynastic period, funerary rituals comprised no less than three stages: sang (“mourning”), zang (“interment”), and ji (“ritual offerings”). In the sang period, relatives expressed their reluctance to part with a loved one by tying the deceased’s clothes into knots, climbing onto the roof of their home and waving the clothes around as they called back the person’s spirit. After the obituary was posted, the family would wash the dead and cover them in a shroud as a means of preserving their purity and decency. In some regions they might also carry out a “food swallowing” ritual in which they placed cereals or shellfish into the deceased’s mouth to provide them with sustenance in the afterlife. Then, the deceased was dressed in funerary clothes corresponding to their social status. Finally, there was a ceremonial procession during which relatives and neighbors made offerings to the deceased.
At this point, the body was finally ready for interment. This process could not be undertaken lightly: Relatives had to employ divination to determine an auspicious time and place, as well as prepare a range of items to be buried with the dead.
Once the deceased had been laid to rest, the third stage — ritual offerings — could begin. Relatives observed a lengthy mourning period during which they honored the dead by wearing special clothes, crying, fasting, watching their language, even altering their living arrangements. They also held regular memorial ceremonies at the gravesite or family ancestral hall.
Unsurprisingly, these traditional practices are not always feasible in China’s modern megacities. Over time, Chinese funerals have gradually been made to adapt to the constraints of contemporary life. In Shanghai, for example, municipal regulations stipulate that relatives must notify a funeral home within 24 hours of the deceased’s passing; after which the body must be transported away within 12 hours.
Some of the reasons for this policy are obvious: With a population of nearly 25 million crammed into dense apartment blocks, dead bodies pose a sanitary hazard. But the funeral process has also been streamlined to account for other factors. Under current policy, workers generally receive between one and three days of bereavement leave, meaning the mourning process must be accelerated to match.
One side effect of this is the shift of funeral practices from private residences to funeral parlors. This process dates back to the Republic of China (1912-1949), but it was only after a series of funeral reforms were enacted in 1956 that it spread nationwide.
Decades later, parlors have their business down to a science: Services are meticulously organized, and nothing is left to chance. In downtown Shanghai, funeral parlors can have as many as a dozen differently sized halls. Services are held from nine in the morning to six in the evening, each lasting no longer than one hour. The moment one comes to an end, another begins.
To keep things moving along, strict rules are enforced. Services consist of a period of silent mourning, a eulogy, an offering flowers to the deceased, the expressing of condolences to the family, and finally, the laying of a wreath on and sealing the casket. Staff make sure that each step takes 10 minutes on average so that the service doesn’t run over time. This efficiency and standardization reflect a certain idea about death and how it should be dealt with — that is, funeral rites need to be uniform and equal, even depersonalized, in the interests of upholding social order.
Of course, simplicity doesn’t have to mean insensitivity. In recent years, Shanghai funeral parlors have drawn inspiration from their counterparts in Japan and Taiwan in an effort to refine their aesthetics and optimize their services. For example, many parlors now offer intricate ikebana flower arrangements as a way of adding sophistication and dignified artistry to memorial services.
Others are reviving Chinese traditions. Out of consideration for the psychological needs of the bereaved, some parlors now provide in-home services such as grief counselling. Others respect the traditions of allowing a person’s descendants to hammer the coffin shut or offering body-washing services. If family members’ calligraphy isn’t up to scratch, there are staff who can write customized wanlian, or elegiac couplets, for them that take into consideration their respective ties to the deceased. And if the deceased’s body is being temporarily stored at the parlor, relatives can also rent a separate mourning hall from a private funeral services company so that they can keep vigil close by, in keeping with tradition.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A woman holds a bouquet of flowers on her way to her family tomb, Shenyang, Liaoning province, April 1, 2023. VCG)