Funerals are an important part of Chinese culture and tradition. There are many customs and taboos surrounding Chinese funerals that dictate what should and should not be done when someone passes away.
One of the most well-known taboos is to avoid wearing the color red at Chinese funerals. Red symbolizes happiness and is considered disrespectful to the deceased if worn at a funeral. White, black, and blue are more appropriate colors to wear when attending a Chinese funeral.
Everything associated with the funeral, including decorations, flowers, and the deceased’s clothing should not contain red. Red is strictly prohibited. Instead, white, which symbolizes mourning, is the dominant color. White flowers like lilies and chrysanthemums are acceptable funeral flowers.
Chinese funerals are solemn affairs. Any type of celebration is considered highly inappropriate. Things like music, dancing, singing, and laughing should be avoided at all costs. The atmosphere should remain somber and respectful.
Likewise, any festive decorations are forbidden at Chinese funerals. No balloons, banners, or festive lights should be used. Sticking to more muted, monochrome decor is ideal for a Chinese funeral.
Avoiding Gift Giving
In Chinese culture, gifts are usually given at happy occasions like weddings and birthdays. Giving gifts at a funeral is seen as inappropriate and inauspicious. If you do want to bring something to express your condolences, flowers or fruit baskets are recommended.
However, gifts should never be extravagant or over-the-top. Opt for simple, inexpensive gifts that show you care without being flashy. Elaborate flower arrangements or expensive fruit baskets may be perceived as showing off.
Prolonging a funeral is avoided in Chinese culture. The Chinese believe the deceased’s spirit should pass onto the afterlife as soon as possible, so funerals typically happen very quickly after someone passes away.
The funeral is usually held within a week of the death. Any delays are seen as disrespectful to the dead and preventing their spirit from moving on. So funerals are not delayed unless absolutely necessary.
Avoiding Black Clothing
While black is commonly worn as a mourning color in the West, pure black clothing is actually taboo for Chinese funerals. Black is associated with the underworld and evil spirits in Chinese culture, so wearing solid black is seen as inviting bad luck.
Instead, lighter shades like white, gray, blue, or muted purples are recommended. Small black accessories are acceptable, but head-to-toe black outfits should be avoided by both family members and guests.
Taking photographs or video footage at a Chinese funeral is strictly prohibited. Recording someone’s funeral is seen as extremely disrespectful. Photos are reserved for happy occasions, not somber affairs like funerals.
The use of cameras, phones, or recording devices of any kind should be avoided completely. The only exception is professional photographers hired by the family beforehand to take formal portraits for ancestors.
In traditional Chinese culture, mirrors are believed to be portals that allow entry from the spirit world. To prevent spirits from disturbing the funeral, all mirrors are covered or removed from the house.
Mirrors are also covered to prevent the deceased’s spirit from becoming trapped in the mortal world. So no mirrors will be found in the funeral home or procession.
Not Touching the Deceased
In China, there is a strong taboo against physically touching the deceased, especially among family members. Touching the body is seen as polluting to the living and disruptive to the dead.
Family members will avoid contact with the deceased’s remains, including avoiding kissing or hugging the body. Only the funeral specialists are permitted to handle the deceased after death.
Chrysanthemums are popular funeral flowers in many cultures. But in China, chrysanthemums are never used for funerals. White chrysanthemums in China are used exclusively for grieving the dead during Qingming Festival.
As such, it is taboo to bring chrysanthemums to a Chinese funeral. Instead, flowers like lilies and roses that do not have strict symbolic meaning are more appropriate choices.
Not Providing Chopsticks
Providing chopsticks for the funeral meal is prohibited in China. Chopsticks represent good luck and life, so they are avoided during funerals. Other utensils like spoons are used instead.
If the funeral happens to fall on Chinese New Year, when chopsticks are especially lucky, then disposable chopsticks must be used. These disposable utensils are then thrown out to avoid benefiting from their luck.
Avoiding Geomancy Taboos
Feng shui, or Chinese geomancy, influences many aspects of Chinese funerals. Specific feng shui taboos must be avoided based on the date and time of burial.
For example, NE and SW burials may be prohibited on certain days. Unlucky numbers, dates, directions, and astrological signs all dictate what can and cannot be done geomancy-wise at Chinese funerals.
Not Celebrating New Year
If a death occurs within the first lunar month of the Chinese New Year, the family will skip all New Year celebrations. These include decorating, feasting, receiving guests, and other festivities.
Participating in New Year celebrations is considered highly inappropriate within the mourning period. Normal celebrations only resume after the funeral and once the initial mourning period has passed.
Avoiding Recreational Activities
Singling, dancing, playing cards, and other recreational activities are strictly prohibited during the mourning period after someone dies. These joyful activities are seen as disrespectful.
Likewise, attending any lively social events should be avoided until the mourning period is over. There should be no parties or crowds at the family’s home until the funeral has taken place.
Not Giving Condolence Money in Fours
The number 4 is highly unlucky in Chinese culture, as it sounds similar to the word for “death” in Mandarin and Cantonese. So condolence money gifts should avoid the number 4.
Gifts or bunches of money bills arranged in multiples of 4 are taboo. The amounts or denominations given should not have any 4s. Alternate, auspicious numbers are used instead.
Avoiding Medical Procedures
According to Chinese death rituals, any invasive medical procedures like surgery should be avoided during the initial mourning period. Medical procedures are seen as disrespecting the dead by trying to improve life while mourning.
Emergency medical care is allowed if needed. But any non-essential medical treatments should be postponed until the mourning period is over to honor the deceased.
Not Talking About the Deceased
Openly talking about the deceased, especially using their real name, is traditionally frowned upon in the initial mourning period. Doing so is considered bad luck and inviting ill fortune.
Instead, euphemisms like “the person who has passed” are used. Speaking directly of the dead is avoided until mourning rituals releasing the spirit are complete. Only then can the deceased’s name be spoken.
Avoiding Temple Visits
Visiting temples and other religious spaces is prohibited during the funeral preparations and initial mourning period. Religion and funeral rituals are kept separate.
It is believed that the family’s grieving and funeral duties should take precedence over religious worship. So temple visits resume only after the funeral and immediate mourning duties are complete.
Not Preparing Food
Cooking or preparing food is not allowed in the home where a funeral wake is being held. All food arrangements are handled by outside vendors and delivered to the home.
This avoids contaminating the kitchen with negative energy and spirits. The home’s kitchen is not used until purification rituals are completed after the funeral.
Avoiding Fresh Fruit
Fresh fruit platters are not appropriate offerings for Chinese funerals and should be avoided. Fresh fruit is given only at times of celebration, so it has no place at a funeral.
If fruit is given, the fruit plate should contain cut, dried fruit. Dried fruit has an association with death in China, making it an acceptable funeral gift.
Not Staying Overnight
It is taboo for anyone, including close family, to stay overnight in the home where the body is kept. The body must never be left alone overnight before burial.
If family has to travel from afar, arrangements are made to have the body moved to a funeral home. But overnight guests are prohibited in the home out of respect to the deceased.
Avoiding Rearranging Furniture
The layout and furniture arrangement in the home should not be changed once someone passes away in the home. All furniture stays exactly as is.
This avoids upsetting the newly deceased person’s spirit and energy still lingering in the home. Rearranging is seen as disruptive and can bring bad luck if done before burial.
Not Taking Showers or Baths
Bathing and showering are believed to wash away protective luck and energy needed for funeral rituals. So bathing is avoided starting from the death until after burial.
If a bath is absolutely necessary, protective charms, herbs, or battled water may added to counter the ill effects. But showers are ideally postponed until mourning duties end.
Auspicious Things to Do
While many taboos dictate what should be avoided, some auspicious and protective rituals are encouraged at Chinese funerals:
|Auspicious Funeral Custom
|Burning incense and joss paper
|Guide the spirit to the afterlife
|Wearing a hemp mourning suit
|Show grief and loss
|Prevent trapping spirits
|Providing seeds and food
|Sustain the spirit
|Burning spirit money
|Provide for the deceased’s afterlife needs
Chinese funeral rites are rich in meaning, history, and believe. Observing the proper etiquette allows respectful handling of affairs while honoring the dead. By avoiding certain taboos and upholding traditions, Chinese families guide the spirit into the next life.
From omitting the color red to avoiding chopsticks to covering mirrors, these prohibitions show the strong Chinese reverence for funeral rituals. Following these customs allows the living to grieve while ensuring the dead transition peacefully on their spiritual journey.