Chinese Funeral Traditions

Men and women standing around President Wang Daohan's coffin in Shanghai
China Photos/Stringer/Getty Images News

While Chinese funeral traditions vary depending on where the deceased person and his or her family are from, some basic traditions still apply.

Funeral Preparation

The job of coordinating and preparing Chinese funerals falls on children or younger family members. It is part of the Confucian principle of filial piety and devotion to one’s parents. Family members must consult the Chinese Almanac to determine the best date to hold the Chinese funeral ceremony.

Funeral homes and local temples help the family prepare the body and coordinate the funeral rites.

Announcements of the funeral are sent in the form of invitations. For most Chinese funerals, the invitations are white. If the person was age 80 or older, then the invitations are pink. Living until 80 or beyond is considered a feat worth celebrating and mourners should celebrate the person’s longevity rather than mourn.

The invitation includes information about the funeral’s date, time, and location, as well as a small obituary that includes information about the deceased that may include his or her birth date, date of death, age, family members that survived them and sometimes how the person died. The invitation may also include a family tree.

A phone call or in-person invite may precede the paper invitation. Either way, an RSVP is expected. If a guest cannot attend the funeral, flowers and a white envelope with money is traditionally still be sent.

Chinese Funeral Attire

Guests at a Chinese funeral wear somber colors like black. Bright and colorful clothing, especially red must be avoided as these colors are associated with happiness. White is acceptable and, if the deceased was 80 or above, white with pink or red is acceptable as the event is cause for celebration.

The deceased person wears a white robe and white envelopes with paper money are tucked inside.

The Wake

There is often a wake preceding the funeral t may last several days. Family members are expected to keep an overnight vigil for at least one night in which the person’s picture, flowers, and candles are placed on the body and the family sits in wait.

During the wake, family and friends bring flowers, which are elaborate wreaths that include banners with couplets written on them, and white envelopes filled with cash. Traditional Chinese funeral flowers are white.

The white envelopes are similar to red envelopes that are given at weddings. White is the color reserved for death in Chinese culture. The amount of money put in the envelope varies depending on the relationship to the deceased but must be in odd numbers. The money is meant to help the family pay for the funeral. If the deceased person was employed, his or her company is often expected to send a large flower wreath and sizeable monetary contribution.

The Funeral

At the funeral, the family will burn joss paper (or spirit paper) to ensure their loved one has a safe journey to the netherworld. Fake paper money and miniature items like cars, houses, and televisions are burned.

These items are sometimes associated with the loved one's interests and are believed to follow them into the afterlife. This way they have everything they need when they enter the spirit world. 

A eulogy may be given and, if the person was religious, prayers may also be said.

The family will distribute to guests red envelopes with a coin inside to ensure they return home safely. The family may also give guests a piece of candy that must be consumed that day and before going home. A handkerchief may also be given. The envelope with coin, sweet, and handkerchief should not be taken home. 

One final item, a piece of red thread, may be given. The red threads should be taken home and tied to the front doorknobs of the guests’ homes to keep evil spirits away.

After the Funeral

After the funeral ceremony, a funeral procession to the cemetery or crematorium is held.

A hired band resembling a marching band typically leads the procession and plays loud music to frighten spirits and ghosts.

The family wears mourning clothes and walks behind the band. Following the family is the hearse or sedan containing the coffin. It is typically adorned with a large portrait of the deceased hanging on the windshield. Friends and associates complete the procession.

The size of the procession depends on the wealth of the deceased and his or her family. The sons and daughters wear black and white mourning clothes and walk in the front row of the procession. Daughters-in-law come next and also wear black and white clothes. Grandsons and granddaughters wear blue mourning clothes. Professional mourners who are paid to wail and cry are often hired to fill up the procession.

Depending on their personal preference, Chinese are either buried or cremated. At a minimum, families make an annual visit to the gravesite on the Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Festival.

Mourners will wear a cloth band on their arms to show that they are in a period of mourning. If the deceased is a man, the band goes on the left sleeve. If the deceased is a woman, the band is pinned to the right sleeve. The mourning band is worn for the duration of the mourning period which can last 49 to 100 days. Mourners also wear somber clothes. Bright and colorful clothes are avoided during the mourning period.