Chinese-Catholic Burials, the Individual and Society

I watched my grandmother die 10 days ago. It didn’t come as a shock to anyone: she just turned 90 a couple of weeks earlier, and for a good number of years she had been slowly deteriorating. We had to cut our week in KL down to a day and fly home.

In some ways she died an ideal death: quite painlessly, with all 7 surviving children around her. It was at the very start of term break in both the UK, NZ and at KTJ, meaning that the only three in our generation still schooling were within reasonable distance of Borneo. I believe this is the way she would have wanted it, as she used to complain about “inconsiderate” relatives who chose to die during the school-term or exam season.

I have been to 3 family funerals in my lifetime. The first in 2001 (aged 4) was for my maternal grandfather, in 2015 my father’s and in 2018 (last week) my maternal grandmother. Going to the wakes and funerals has got me thinking, and thankfully I have sufficient recollection of all three to write this.

Chinese funerals are a highly complicated affair. There are so many rules and little details. One thing I realised is that none of us actually know the rules and details very well. There are “burial people” as I call them who advise and oversee the process, and supply the funeral patches, towels, shoes and shirts. This raises an important question: to what extent is the way we bury our dead dictated by an external “authority” rather than personal belief?

Syncretism. Our burial practices mix both Chinese and Catholic elements. My grandparents were buried in above-ground “tumuli”, but my father in the more  Westernised 6 feet underground. We have an altar for my grandparents, similar to Chinese ancestral shrines but with Catholic iconography added. In the case of my grandparents we retained the Chinese funeral procession but added a Catholic funeral mass. These were absent during my father’s funeral. Diversity in burial practice is not always significant. On a societal level those who die young are less likely to receive elaborate funerals, as this would entail elders paying their respects to the younger generation, which is simply not on.

Chinese society is extremely patriarchal. Important decision-making, pall-bearing and ancestral sending-off is handled by (preferably the eldest) son. Because I have no brothers and a disabled older sister, I had to be the oldest son and was “promoted” in terms of gender and birth order. I was not amused at being referred to as the oldest son.  As oldest son, I had to do a number of things. First, I had to transfer the body to the coffin, and then carry the coffin. When I was asked to do this I felt and must have looked quite shocked (they don’t prep you for this) because I was told that it was just ceremonial – the burial people would do the actual lifting, I just had to do it for show. I was given a funeral portrait to hold, and was told that I had to “call out” to his spirit (at the very least in my head) as we drove to the Nirvana burial grounds. I had to “tell” him when the van we transported the coffin in was crossing a bridge or stream. The  portrait also had to be carried facing forwards. It is a lot of pressure to conform to a belief system that I do not believe in. As they lowered the coffin into the ground I was asked to determine if it was properly aligned. I am the worst possible person for this, as I have no perception of straight lines.

For me one of the strangest things was having to essentially be a boy and “lead” what is normally a very male-oriented patriarchal ritual. This authority was of course temporary and situational – the “important” decisions such as choosing the coffin were still done by the men in the family. To be fair I didn’t get home until about 12 hours after the death and would have been too tired anyway.

Just because something is there doesn’t make it significant. I was too short to see a lot of what the grown-ups were doing at Grandpa’s funeral, but at Grandma’s and my father’s, their personal items (clothing) were placed along the sides of the coffin on either side of the corpse. My initial thought was that this was a form of grave goods (I actually said this during my admissions interview) but according to my mother this helps ensure the body doesn’t roll around. I guess there is an element of practicality here as well as opposed to meaningful deposition.

Just because something isn’t there doesn’t make it insignificant. The highly formulaic parts of Chinese burial customs are probably not things which survive archaeologically. Relatively consistent across Chinese funerals are the funeral patches, towels and clothes. Colour is of the utmost importance. The children of the deceased wear a sack cloth patch, which is swapped for a black (if their in-laws are dead) or black with red (if in-laws are alive) patch after the burial. Paternal grandchildren wear yellow with a red patch whish is later swapped for yellow. Maternal grandchildren wear blue (towel or shirt) with a red patch which is later swapped for a dark blue patch post-burial (they forgot to do this after Grandma’s funeral). The first patches are disposed of immediately after burial, and the second are disposed of by burning at the end of the mourning period. The length of the mourning period depends on respective families – ours was a week. These things just won’t survive in the material record.

Burial architecture can be deceptive. Many Chinese burials have double plots so that husband and wife are buried side-by-side. When Grandpa died in 2001, there was already an above-ground tomb built with an empty space next to it. This space was only filled by Grandma last week – a 17-year gap. I wonder if the cement used to seal the grave would indicate the time difference. The size of burial plot is also questionable. My father was buried underground in a double-grave plot, but because Mother refuses to be buried next to him she had it done up as a single grave. Essentially the plot consists of one overland grave-marker atop two burial pits (one with my father in it, the other vacant). I feel as though this would  make for cool interpretations if it lasts long enough to be of archaeological interest.

It would also be interesting to explore the level of control the dead have over their burials. Because Grandma knew she was dying so she had picked out her own burial outfit and got her estate sorted before she went senile. Grandpa to some extent managed to do the same. My father’s death was quite sudden, so I am assuming Mother picked out his burial wardrobe. He is in no way Catholic, but had a Catholic burial imposed on him. This also makes me wonder if, in a multiple-belief system, burial material culture is actually reflective of personal identity or one which is imposed on the dead by an over-zealous living. 

There is also the post-funeral 10-or-so-course meal. It is quite strange to feast after a funeral but apparently the food served has  to do with the deceased and with luck. Because Grandma lived to quite an old age, a giant plate of fried rice was served at  the very end along with dessert (fruit). This is supposed to be lucky in some way, and many people doggy-bagged it. It would probably be quite difficult to associate a burial with a feast on the other side of town.

I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that there is so much about death and burial that can’t be seen archaeologically. There is so much about individual intent and belief that just becomes obscured by societal norms, and it is quite frustrating to think that what an individual might personally feel or believe might be statistically devoured by the practice of a majority.


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