Part Two of the Fundamentals of Chinese American Funeral Customs covers Visitation, Food Offerings, Blanketing Ceremony, Paper Burning Products, and Dress Code. This information, presented by Bob Yount, General Manager of Green Street Mortuary in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was shared during classes at the 2016 ICCFA University College of International Studies. (Read Part One)
Chinese Funeral Visitation
Visitation is held the night before the funeral. Visitation ceremonies tend to be one hour – a guest comes in, signs the guest register, walks to the front of the chapel, bows three times, turns to the family, and bows once. The family stands and bows, then the visitor sits for a while. In the middle of visitation, the blanketing ceremony takes place.
At Chinese funerals, the food offering symbolically provides food to the new spirit for a well-nourished journey. Often, the food includes a pig head, chickens, bowls of rice, and fruit. The food offering is set up in front of the casket.
After visitation and the funeral, the food, along with the floral displays (see Part One), are taken to the cemetery and arranged for display during the burial. The food is discarded later. Seagulls commonly frequent cemeteries where Chinese funerals are held (they know where to find a good meal!).
Green Street Mortuary has a “food tray” they provide for a charge ($85 in 2016). The mortuary works with a local restaurant to create the food offering.
Security Blankets and the Blanketing Ceremony
Pei (pronounced pay), are security blankets, beautiful fabrics used to ensure the deceased is protected and warm as the spirit moves on. Usually, blood relatives conduct the blanketing ceremony.
The casket is fully opened so the decedent is exposed, head to foot. The blankets are placed in a specific manner, starting from the waist down to the foot. One person can have anywhere from one up to 20 or 30 blankets layered on top.
For the blanketing ceremony, the designated head of the family determines who and how many will participate. Family members can pick which colors each person wants for the blanket they place. Red is a good, happy color. Yellow, pink, green, gold are also good colors. Monochromatic colors, such as black and gray, are not favored.
The family lines up in order of hierarchy by closeness of relation and age. If both parents died and it’s Mom’s funeral, the eldest son goes first (or daughter, if there’s no son). Then, other relatives go: the eldest brother/sister, eldest niece/nephew, and so forth. The blankets are set off to the side in a predetermined order sorted by the hierarchy of family members.
The eldest son goes first, with the funeral directors and the son holding the blanket over the deceased. They bow three times, lower the blanket onto deceased at waist level, and bow one more time. The participants say, “Yet Ko-Ko, Joy Ko-Ko Sahm Ko-Ko” – First bow, again bow, third bow.
The layering by other relatives is farther toward the feet with each successive blanket. There’s also a head blanket placed under the head of the deceased, which is put in place by the funeral directors prior to the service.
Green Street Mortuary’s General Manager Bob Yount said that it’s not unusual to have 20 blankets placed during this ceremony. While it’s often conducted during a visitation, it could be done just prior to the funeral or in a chapel at the cemetery, in any place where the casket could be opened.
During the arrangement conference, the family will discuss the blanketing ceremony and how it will be done: the individuals who will participate decide what color, style, and size blanket they want to use. There are places in Chinatown where people can go buy these blankets and bring them in, or they can be purchased at the funeral home.
Paper Replica Burning Products
Paper replica burning products symbolize creature comforts sent with the deceased’s spirit to the other world. There is a whole range of consumer products made as burnable items – cell phones, beers, cameras, watches, automobiles (some can be up to three feet in length), money, flat screen TVs, mah jong kits, booze, cigarettes, fish, pizza, servants, and a house to live in.
To avoid lawsuits from brand name companies, the manufacturers of these products deliberately misspell trademarked product names. Families can buy packages of products, or buy individual burning products. Most people want to send the deceased off with a house, clothing, and a car.
At Green Street Mortuary, they will have an average of 20-25 burning products set up in front of the casket at the funeral ceremony. After a final viewing, the flowers, food offering and the burning products are collected and moved to the cemetery for the burial.
At the cemetery, there are large barrels, usually painted red, which are already burning with fires started by the cemetery staff. As the burial is taking place, the burning products are placed in the flames. The funeral directors are usually the ones to handle putting the burning products into the flames.
Funeral Dress Code
Traditionally, Chinese mourners wear black here in the U.S. Sometimes black is worn in China, but white is the traditional color of mourning there. The eldest son may wear a black waistband and armband to denote his position in the family hierarchy.
Click here to read Part Three on music, funeral processions, the meaning and use of red and white envelopes, and other details.
Author Gail Rubin attended the 2016 ICCFA University College of International Studies thanks to a scholarship from Regions Bank.