You can often hear them coming before you see them. Their horns are blaring and their drums are pounding. Then you see the line of people wearing little white hats marching with a two foot high, colorful, paper palanquin. This is a traditional funeral procession, which is now often only seen in the villages of China.
Eventually, the procession will halt near an intersection or an empty lot and set the paper palanquin on fire together with joss paper, which represents a house and money. These are offerings for the deceased in the afterlife. Everybody forms a circle around the fire, bows a few times, chants a quick prayer, then continues on their march as the flame consumes the offerings.
I later asked Da Xie, who is from a community that practices this type of funeral, about its roots. Did it come from Taoism? Buddhism?
“No,” she replied, “it’s older than that.”
This type of funeral comes from what is now called Chinese folk religion, which is an incredibly ancient religious system that lingered through the Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism right through the Maoist era to today.
I had another big question about these funeral processions. As I filmed the above video a group of mourners surrounded me and seemed to find it incredibly amusing that I was interested in what they were doing. In turn, I could help but to find it intriguing that they did not seem to be very upset. Some were actually smiling, and from their demeanor I would not have guessed that they were taking part in funeral rites. They seemed more interested in looking at me, my camera, and asking me questions than mourning the person from their community who’d just died. They actually had to be called away from me to join in a prayer and continue the march. Though it was not my intention, I had clearly crashed this funeral — but my disruption was more the result of being welcomed than rejected.
I asked Da Xie about why many of the people in the procession didn’t seem too upset. I was wondering if this was normal. I was perhaps expecting to get a reply that would be a window into her culture’s view on death and dying or maybe even an explanation about the Chinese being reticent mourners. But her response was perhaps even more telling of her culture:
“Maybe the people you talked to just didn’t know the person who died very well.”
Whatever is the case, funeral processions are one of the sights of rural China.