Chinese immigration in America began primarily in the 19th century, and with these immigrants came a culture rich in tradition. With a strong belief in the afterlife and a deep respect for their ancestors, the rituals regarding burial were an integral part of Chinese culture. Early on, burial customs practiced in China for centuries continued somewhat unchanged in immigrant communities. Over time, assimilation changed both the people and their customs, but many aspects of traditional Chinese burials remained, including the practice of feng shui, the use of spirit money and festivals to honor the dead.
19th Century Chinese in America
In the 19th century, civic associations formed by Chinese community leaders in America addressed the issues faced by a growing immigrant population, including burial customs and practices. Because many Chinese immigrants could not afford an individual burial plot and were often restricted from burial in Christian cemeteries, the associations began purchasing burial grounds with the money collected from membership fees. Also, in the instances that the deceased had no family to perform the burial, the associations took up the responsibility.
Despite the acquisition of cemeteries in the 1800s, many Chinese immigrants of the time never intended for their bodies to remain permanently buried in the United States. Repatriation, commonly practiced in the latter half of the century, was the process in which a body or set of exhumed bones was shipped back to China for reburial. Because of American legislation restricting the immigration of Chinese women, the majority of Chinese men in the United States were either single or had left wives in China, and repatriation not only returned the deceased to their homeland but also reunited families.
Ancestors and Feng Shui
Although it is mostly referred to today in reference to interior design, feng shui, translated as "wind" and "water," began as a spiritual practice used in burials. The Chinese belief in active ancestral influence on their daily lives prompted the custom of employing a geomancer, generally a Taoist priest or Buddhist cleric, who specialized in feng shui. A geomancer selects a proper place for burial in accordance with nature, as well as the orientation of the body in the grave and the time of burial. Ancestors buried with "malicious" feng shui were thought to cause misfortune in the lives of their descendants.
Some burial customs performed by the Chinese were a means of distracting malevolent or restless spirits. Much like the superstition that vampires are required to untie all knots in their path, the Chinese scatter off-white paper with numerous holes in the belief that spirits must pass through each hole, distracting or confusing them in the process. Another type of distraction for spirits was music, and many burial rituals involve the use of musicians or a band.
Spirit Money and Joss Paper
The practice of burning spirit money, also known as joss paper, is another ritual common to Chinese burials. Like a supernatural version of a bank transfer, the Chinese burn the paper as means to provide the dead with monetary resources in the afterlife. Sometimes folded into particular shapes or stamped with ink, the paper is often white, the traditional color for mourning. In recent times the practice has evolved to include the burning of paper that symbolizes other useful items, such as televisions, houses, computers and cars.
Two festivals for the dead occur in Chinese culture, the Quingming in the spring and the Yulanpen in the fall. The Quingming, meaning "pure brightness," is a festival intended to both honor the dead and celebrate life. Chinese cemeteries outside San Francisco still hold the festival, celebrating with food and music and cleaning the graves of deceased loved ones. The fall festival Yulanpen, meaning "hungry ghosts," is an attempt to appease restless spirits that may not have received a proper burial with offerings of food.
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images