At ICCFA University, Bob Yount, General Manager of Green Street Mortuary in San Francisco’s Chinatown, presented an enormous amount of information on the Fundamentals of Chinese American Funeral Customs.
This blog post includes only a portion of his teachings about Chinese funeral traditions: Benevolent Family Associations, the importance of flower arrangements, packing for the trip to the Other World, and funeral timing. Other aspects will be covered in future blog posts.
Benevolent Family Associations
Benevolent Family Associations were established around 1850 during the California Gold Rush to help guide new immigrants through business matters and assistance arranging funerals. The President of the association comes to the funeral home with the family to help make arrangements. Some Christian or Buddhist churches have members who serve in the Benevolent Family Association role.
Extravagant flower arrangements on easel stands are very common at Chinese funerals. You could see as many as 100 to 150 arrangements at a funeral. It’s very important to send flowers if you have any relationship to the deceased.
A Chinese florist in San Francisco’s Chinatown might charge $150 for an arrangement. A similar arrangement from a non-Chinese florist would cost about $600. There are about ten Chinese florists in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The florists are responsible for setting up the flowers. There is a hierarchy of the flowers, based on how much was spent or from whom the flowers were sent. The majority of flowers are transported from the funeral home to the cemetery, often in two or three vans. At the cemetery, the flowers are set up around the graveside in the appropriate order.
Chinese flower arrangements include two ribbons. The ribbon on the right side indicates who sent the flowers, and the ribbon on the left displays the name of the deceased. Just after the funeral, the ribbons from the right are collected before taking the flowers to the cemetery, and they are carefully rolled up. The ribbons are later presented to the family. This way, the family knows who sent flowers and can send thank you notes.
The ribbon takes the place of a flower card that other florists might include with an arrangement. At visitation, the family will walk up and down the rows of flower arrangements, to view the flowers and see who sent which floral display.
Packing for the Other World
When preparing the body, it’s important the mortician does not cut clothing to dress the deceased. The family may include as many as three changes of clothing, in addition to the clothing in which deceased is actually dressed. The additional clothes are placed underneath the deceased in the casket.
The deceased may be dressed in very traditional Chinese clothing. Sometimes they can be dressed in two sets of clothing. It’s a way to express the family’s desire to see their loved one off on their journey to the Other World in comfort, warmth and style.
Family may include personal items of significance to the deceased, and Pei, elaborate security blankets that are layered over the deceased in a blanketing ceremony within the visitation (more about that in the next blog post).
The addition of extra clothing, security blankets and personal items can add an additional 40 to 60 pounds of weight within the casket.
Saturdays and Sundays are considered the luckiest days to have a funeral, also known as “covering.” Green Street Mortuary is usually busy holding multiple funerals on those days. A bad burial or “covering” day is a specific date, not any day of the week.
Families will turn to the Benevolent Family Association to get the best burial advice, Often the family will be referred to a feng shui Master, to consult on optimal burial dates and times. Feng shui is a Chinese philosophical system designed to harmonize people and their environments. When the Master rules, there’s no argument.
The establishment of an auspicious or negative day for a funeral is based on numerology that comes out of China. There are companies there that produce calendars 10 years in advance that indicate these good or bad days. If Green Street Mortuary staffers see a fully open Saturday on their schedules, it’s inevitably a bad “covering” day, numerically speaking.
There are also specific times for the casket to be lowered into the grave. It’s very important for the burial to be on time, never late. So the scheduling of the funeral incorporates the timing of the procession to the cemetery, arranging the flowers, and assembling the attendees for the burial ceremony.
Green Street Mortuary had an important feng shui Master consult with them on decorating the funeral home. The smallest details can make all the difference.
The Funeral Arrangement Conference
Making funeral arrangements can take two to three hours to complete. There are many decisions and choices to make: caskets, blankets, burning products and other elements. Most of the caskets at Green Street Mortuary are dark wood and highly lacquered. It’s very important to have a good look. In Chinese funerals, the more flowers, the nicer the caskets, and the more burning products, the greater the veneration to the deceased.
In America, 85% of families choose burial. In China, the choice is mostly cremation. More than half of Green Street Mortuary’s families pay cash for the funeral arrangements.
Elements in Fundamentals of Chinese American Funeral Customs – Part Two: Visitation, Food Offerings, Security Blankets, Burning Products, and Dress Code (Read Part Two). In Part Three: Red Envelopes, Processions, Music, Numerology, and Annual Celebrations.
Author Gail Rubin attended the 2016 ICCFA University College of International Studies thanks to a scholarship from Regions Bank.