Just so you know, I have not only photographed weddings, but also funerals. This story is a little bit different, read on… It was published on a British magazine China Review. Here I post it to share with you. A little story behind the story: I stayed 3 days in the little village to get enough photographs for this photo story, where there were no proper restrooms and heating system in the middle of winter… The entire village fell asleep right after it got dark. I pretty much stayed in the traditional Chinese heated bed most of time when I was not photographing… Renqiu, is about 200 kilometers from Beijing.
OPERA, FEAST AND TEARS
EARLY IN THE MORNING of December 3rd, 2006, the high pitched sound of Chinese Suo Na music floats out towards the main gate of Junzhuang village marking the beginning of 75 year old Zhang Mou’s funeral celebration.
Typical of funeral celebrations in villages throughout northern China, the hundred plus members of Zhang’s family enter the village square at day break dressed in the long, flowing white robes peasants have worn to funerals since China’s pre-history. As the family members gather, an opera troupe from a nearby township begins to play a classical Beijing opera selected especially to commemorate the deceased. Even though only just past six in the morning, several hundred villagers have already gathered in the square surrounding the makeshift stage. By the end of the day, nearly all of the villagers will have spent several hours laughing and sobbing as the opera continues. As night falls the opera comes to a close. The funeral celebration is just getting underway.
While Chinese funeral customs vary greatly across different regions, ethnic and ancestral groups, the Han people populating China’s central plains region do not consider funerals sad occasions, rather joyous celebrations similar to weddings. The two most important occasions in Chinese family life are “Red Happiness”, weddings, and “White Happiness”, funerals. Following a relative’s passing, central plains Han typically celebrate the life of the deceased for three full days and nights. Family members spend the nights keeping vigil over the coffin.
Preparing for the afterlife
After the day long opera that marks the opening day of the funeral, the family of the deceased spends the second day “escorting the dead” or songlu in Chinese. This important ceremony is preparing the deceased for entering the afterlife. A procession of relatives wearing white funerary robes travels to the village gate carrying paper chariots, horses, and people along with special “money.” The Chinese believe that once these items are burned, they will be available for the deceased in the next world.
Since ancient times, Chinese have always thought that the more items buried with the dead, and the larger and more magnificent the tomb, the more the deceased will be honored and respected by posterity. The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuang was buried with thousands of terra cotta soldiers and horses. This tradition has evolved throughout the centuries, many nobles and emperors going as far as burying the living in order to increase prospects for imperial prowess in the afterlife. Common people like Zhang have follow this tradition, albeit on a less splendid scale, substituting paper chariots, horses, and people for the real things. Families even burn full sized paper models of luxury items such as BMWs or fine clothing and jewelry.
The other major aspect of songlu is preparing the home that the deceased will live in in the afterlife. The Chinese consider coffins to be the homes of the deceased. As such they are often constructed with the best types of wood and adorned with delicate carvings. The splendor of the coffin naturally depends on the economic resources available to the deceased’s family. Typically the cost will amount to the average farmer’s annual salary. The Chinese government encourages simple funerals and has passed a law requiring mandatory cremation. However, throughout rural China superstitions remain such that even though there is no option but to have loved ones cremated, peasants still place the ashes of the deceased in a coffin, and spread them out in the shape of the human figure.
The cemeteries and mausoleums where the dead are laid to rest are very intricate, replete with multiple superstitions. Any items of tribute must be placed by the gravesite in sets of nine. In Chinese, the word for nine (jiu), sounds similar to the word for eternity. The idea of a famous Chinese phrase for heaven, “the nine great days,” is embodied by this practice, and symbolizes that the deceased will spend eternity in heaven.
The funeral proper
The third day is the day of the funeral proper. A music troupe is invited, and the sounds of song and drums, along with that of firecrackers can be heard from very early in the morning. At many funerals more than one music group will be asked to play. The sounds of Chinese Suo Na music, drums, folk music, military music and other performances compete with one another for the attention of the villagers. The folk music performers all wear bright red and green outfits. During these performances, the family of the deceased hold a huge banquet, at which they will entertain the entire village. Everyone gets a free meal. After lunch the sound of firecrackers marks the formal beginning of the final funeral procession. The members of the funeral caravan wear white mourning robes and carry the coffin through the entire village before heading to the gravesite. During the procession the closest relatives will stop and wail over and over again. As the volume of their cries represents their respect for the deceased, the family members will cry with all of their might. The louder the cries, the more they will gain the respect of the rest of the village. Other mourners also cry out to express grief, generally just to pay their respects, not genuine tears.
Men generally stay at the front of the procession and members of the family stay close to the coffin, often carried on a tractor. With the women at the back, the children or grandchildren of the deceased are at the center carrying portraits of the deceased. The procession stops several times to set off fireworks, kneel and pay their last respects. Once arrived at the gravesite, more paper horses and paper people are burned as the coffin is lowered into the ground. Only when the deceased is buried in the earth will he be able to rest in peace. The villagers then make their way back home, and the immediate members of the family begin a three year period of mourning. During this time, immediate relatives will not wear any red clothing, hang any red items in the house, or celebrate any weddings until three years after the family member’s passing.
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