This section provides an overview of funeral rituals and customs in East Asia. Click on one of the following countries to skip to that section and learn about the specific and unique funeral practices of China, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines.
Basic Spiritual Beliefs
A common belief in East Asia is that the spirits of the deceased inhabit the Earth long after their physical bodies have expired. With this in mind, it is up to the living to continue to honor the dead, or else risk personal suffering inflicted by the offended spirits.
Funerals are generally taken very seriously in this part of the world, entwined in ceremonies and ritual, ensuring that each ceremony is performed correctly and reverently. Every detail of an East Asian funeral is full of ancient meaning and purpose. The primary goal of these traditions is to honor the deceased in a supremely beautiful manner to make their transition to afterlife as beautiful as possible.
One interesting extension of this belief in the supernatural is the popular East Asian funeral-day custom of performing all of one’s actions in threes. Whether reciting prayers, knocking on doors or simply brushing one’s hair – each action is expected to be done thrice for good luck.
Traditional Asian funeral ceremonies are held at the family home of the deceased. If the death occurred inside the home, then the casket and the service will be held inside also. Conversely, if the death occurred outside, then the funeral will be based outside.
Respect for one’s elders is one of the most important foundations of East Asian culture. The young must dutifully cater to the old, and the old must never bend down to the young – as a matter of principle. This firm principle is starkly demonstrated in the event of a young person’s death. Since the elderly are shown the utmost respect in their passing, young people’s deaths, inversely, must be handled generically, and with little outward deference shown. Thus, a funeral service for a young person is usually conducted briefly at a funeral home with no prayers or offerings made by mourners. The body of the deceased is simply observed silently.
While Westerners associate the color black with mourning, people in East Asian countries – such as China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines – see white as the color most symbolic of death. Thus, mourners usually dress in white (and off-white) dress clothes. However, due to Western influence, black attire is now often acceptable to wear in some regions. This is especially the case for mourners that are outside of the family.
In these instances, those wearing black may also wear a white armband to the funeral. Additionally, blood relatives must follow a separate dress code. Children and daughter-in-laws wear black. This is a cultural sign that their grief is strongest. Meanwhile, grandchildren and great grandchildren must wear blue and light blue, respectively. (Son-in-laws are not considered blood relatives in Asian culture.)
Ancient Buddhist custom prescribes that traditional funerals last for a period of 49 days following a death. The first 7 days are the most important, though. If a family lacks financial means, an abbreviated schedule is commonly adhered to. Under this alternate system, the funeral will last 3 to 5 days, with the first day being the most important.
Significance of Flowers
In Asian culture, the specific color and type of flowers brought to a funeral by mourners is very important. As it is the color of death, white is the most appropriate and popular flower color chosen. Other soft colors such light yellow and light pink are also commonly chosen as funeral gifts. Some of the most common types of flowers given are chrysanthemums, orchids, white carnations, lilies, white lotuses, gladioluses and larkspurs.
Different combinations of these flowers in an arrangement will send vastly different messages to the bereaved family. Thus, flowers should be selected carefully by mourners to properly match the particular theme and mood of each funeral they attend. While these few funeral customs mentioned above are widespread throughout the region, there are many more cultural differences from country-to-country in East Asia. Read on to learn about the unique funeral practices of China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines.
Dressing for the Occasion
Getting back to topic of dress colors, Chinese mourners are normally forbidden from wearing any red-colored clothing. This custom stems from the fact that red is closely tied with happiness in the Chinese culture. It makes sense, then, that the rule is sometimes lifted when the deceased has lived a very long and prosperous life. On these occasions, the funeral service usually takes the form of a joyous celebration of life.
Chinese funerals are also characterized by the custom of sacrificial offerings. Mourners commonly make elaborate and creative offerings that are given up to the deceased during the funeral ceremony. The objects are then buried right alongside the body with the belief that they will be of aid in the afterlife. The tradition was started in ancient times by emperors and other rich and important public figures that would have expensive valuables and actual living servants buried alongside them. Over time, more modest clay replicas of objects began to be used. Today, paper replicas are the norm.
As a result of its extremely homogenous population and relatively small geographical footprint, cultural values are largely shared among the Japanese populace. Additionally, Japan has long prided itself on being a distinct entity from the rest of East Asia. Consequently, Japanese cultural values are often the exception to the norm in this part of the world.
More than 99.5% of Japanese citizens are cremated upon death following Shinto and Buddhist support of this mode of disposition. The cremated remains are typically placed into urns and deposited into family graves. This goes against many other East Asian conventions of burial.
Shinotism & Buddhism
90% of Japanese funeral services are performed in accordance with Shintoist and Buddhist customs. One Buddhist tradition is when a priest bestows the deceased with a new name to be used in the afterlife. Ancient, archaic Japanese words are usually utilized to formulate these names so that they are not accidentally spoken by relatives in everyday conversation.
Buddhist Memorial Services
A Buddhist memorial service traditionally follows a Japanese death. In some localities, there is a week of daily observance following the death. In others, there are several memorial services spread out among the first 49 days following the death. In addition to these memorials, the Obon festival is held yearly to honor the spirits of the dead.
Korean funeral customs are hard to characterize due to several factors. Foremost, Korean funerals vary greatly depending on socio-economic status, region, and religion. Secondly, South Korean culture has been highly receptive and adoptive of Western culture in recent decades.
There has been a dramatic increase in cremation due to a recent shortage of burial sites in South Korea. This shortage has caused burial prices to skyrocket, and consequently, has made a full-service burial economically unfeasible for many.
One characteristic feature of the new cremation culture developing within South Korea is the storing of ashes in columbaria. A Columbarium is an industry term used to describe buildings designed for public use, in which urn-kept remains are stored.
Perhaps the most singular widespread tradition related to South Korean funerals is that all male relatives of the deceased wear individually designed woven armbands as they grieve next to the body. This grieving period takes place for three days before the body is buried (or cremated). The aforementioned male armbands are designed to indicate seniority and lineage in relation to the deceased.
In contrast to South Korea, funeral customs are one of the biggest unifying forces within Vietnam’s diverse culture. Most of the country practices either Buddhism or Catholicism, however, regardless of religion most Vietnamese usually have ancestor altars in their homes and businesses to honor deceased family members.
Ancestor altars are also present at funeral services. During the service, offerings of food are placed on the altar. In addition, incense sticks burn on, or next to the altar with hell notes attached to them. Hell notes are imitation money designed to be used in the afterlife. They are burned up at the altar as an offering to the spirit of the deceased.
An interesting fact about Vietnamese culture is that birthdays were not traditionally celebrated until Western influence came along. Death anniversaries, however, have always been celebrated here. These upbeat anniversaries of the dead are considered to be essential gathering times for living family members.
The most singular aspect of Vietnamese funeral traditions, in contrast to the rest of East Asia, is that women have always participated and officiated in funeral services. This is a product of the Vietnam region’s ancient matriarchal lineage.
Filipino funerals are largely Westernized, since a majority of the population practices Catholicism. One big disparity does exist, though, between traditional Catholic funeral rites and those that have developed in the Philippines. Here, a public wake is usually held for a period of three days to a week.
Rural Vs. Urban
In rural parts of the country, the wake is usually held within the home of the immediate family, or that of a relative. Whereas in the cities – due to smaller living quarters – the wake is usually held in a funeral home.