Thursday, September 3, 2009

Chinese Funerals are Different

Yesterday I attended a traditional Chinese funeral for the first time. The woman was a distant relative of my husbands. At the church service, there was much bowing, burning of incense, and a very long-winded sermon done in both English and Cantonese. The preacher droned on in a monotone voice that threatened to put everyone asleep.

It turned out to be one of those rare, hot days in San Francisco, so it was doubly uncomfortable having to wear a suit and tie. It reminded me of working in the financial district, and make me appreciate the last ten years of retirement from the corporate world.

The line of cars stretched four city blocks as it weaved through Chinatown. Then two rather interesting things happened. The first, was that when we were led onto highway 280, the police escort blocked all onramps so that the funeral procession had the highway to themselves. I had no idea they could do that. It was such a bizarre feeling. I felt positively presidential. The second strange thing was that we were led through a neighborhood in the mission district, past the dead woman’s home. My husband explained it was tradition that the person make one last journey home before going to the gravesite.

At the gravesite, family members were given a flower, a stick of incense, and many had a plastic bag holding rice, coins, and what looked like a piece of candy. When they approached the grave, the stuck the incense in the ground, tossed the flower into the grave, and then mixed dirt with the rice-coin-candy concoction and tossed that into the grave as well. I asked several people what the rice-coin-candy concoction represented, but nobody knew. It was a tradition that everyone did, but they had forgotten what it symbolized. I found the very strange indeed.

We finished the day with a traditional Chinese banquet, but with a few slight differences. The first difference I recognized, was that at a normal banquet, ten people are seated at each round table. At a funeral banquet, there are only nine people per table, and there must also be an odd number of tables, even if no one sits at one table. The other difference was the type of dishes served. There were more vegetable dishes, less meat. I was told that is to please the Buddha.

All in all it was a rather long and tiring day, but one that ended in a celebration feast. Not such a bad way to go.

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