So my friend texted me after midnight last Wednesday to tell me that his mother had died. He asked me if I would please come to the funeral. I said of course I would not only because his mother died but especially because of my interest in death rituals around the world. My friend lives in a rural village about an hour outside of the city so I was really curious about what the funeral would be like.
As far as I know I may be one of the only foreigners that has ever been to a rural funeral in China. Of course that is only through my own anecdotal research but I have asked everyone I know here and no one has ever been or even knows anyone that has ever been to a funeral in China and I do know for a fact that I and my family are the only foreigners that have ever visited this particular village.
When I arrived I immediately felt out of place because I was wearing black. I had asked a couple people what I should wear and I was told to wear black and white, or black, or white. I don’t have any white clothes other than a white Tshirt so I wore an all black kind of nice outfit. I was the only person in black and I felt I stood out like a sore thumb. Everyone else was in white. I think a crappy white Tshirt would have been more fitting than my black outfit.
Family members were wearing white robes and white pieces of cloth tied around their heads that made them look a lot like extras from a kungfu movie. Word spread immediately that I was there, and I mean like I had not been there 15 seconds before my friend came rushing up to me. He escorted me into his house where they had an alter set up to his mom where I was made to kneel, light incense, then bow to a photo of her her. Then I was taken to the guest gift registry room where there were several old men sitting around a table and one had a long scroll in front of him and a paint brush he was using to record gifts and names. I gave 200¥ (about $30USD) and everyone seemed pleased. Minimum wage in China is $181USD a month and these people live significantly under minimum wage so $30 is a lot of money.
I sat around for a bit waiting for things to get started while everyone was staring at me, touching me, and asking me a million questions about who I was and why I was in China.
Soon we all paraded to the burial place. The casket was inside a really neat looking litter with a big dragon’s head and tail.
and a bit to my surprise much celebration. It was like a mixture of an old times Spanish funeral with all the wailing and a good ol’ Irish wake. The family was wailing and the friends were having a grand ol’ time.
At some point about halfway to the burial place we all stopped. Immediate family members were guided by some leader type guy in how to pray in front of the casket. They had to hold their hands in a proper way, kneel a proper way, and bow a proper way a proper amount of times. Some guys teased me and tried to get me to go do it too. It was so weird. I was trying to be all somber and respectful but they were all teasing me and having loads of fun.
We got to the burial site and the hole was already dug. The band set up and played music the while time. The hole was different than we do in the west. It was dug about 10 feet down but then they dug in. So the casket was lowered down and then put into the ground kind of like a drawer. Then they made a wall of bags of dirt where the casket was. Then, and this part apparently is very important because everyone made sure I saw it. A guy took a huge gulp of xi feng jiu (rice liquor local to this province), spit it in a small opening towards the casket, and lit it on fire and a huge flame burst out while they scrambled to get out of there.
Then the music stopped quite abruptly and everyone walked back to the house.
My friend requested I wait with him. We hung back for about half an hour and were the last people to return to his home. Apparently at Chinese funerals the immediate family are supposed to be the very last people to leave the graveside. I am definitely not immediate family but he wanted me there so I stayed.
When we got back to his home there was a huge feast. There were at least 200 people there and a lot of xi feng jiu. At things like this everyone wants to drink with the foreigner so by 11:30 in the morning I was very, very drunk.
I left by 12:00.
After the funeral my black taxi driver (illegal taxi) and I went to explore some old cave dwellings people used to live in during the War of Japanese Aggression, better known to most of you as World War II. I will write about them later.