Scott Knutson
Death Rituals

AZTEC RELIGION

At the time of Spanish contact in the sixteenth century, the Aztec were the preeminent power in Mexico, and to the east controlled lands bordering the Maya region. Whereas the Maya were neither culturally nor politically unified as a single entity in the sixteenth century, the Aztec were an empire integrated by the state language of Nahuatl as well as a complex religious system. As the principal political force during the Spanish conquest, the Aztec were extensively studied at this time. Due to sixteenth-century manuscripts written both by the Aztec and Spanish clerics, a great deal is known of Aztec religious beliefs and ritual, including death rituals.

Probably the most discussed and vilified aspect of Aztec religion is human sacrifice, which is amply documented by archaeological excavations, pre-Hispanic art, and colonial accounts. To the Aztec, cosmic balance and therefore life would not be possible without offering sacrificial blood to forces of life and fertility, such as the sun, rain, and the earth. Thus in Aztec myth, the gods sacrificed themselves for the newly created sun to move on its path. The offering of children to the rain gods was considered a repayment for their bestowal of abundant water and crops. Aside from sacrificial offerings, death itself was also a means of feeding and balancing cosmic forces. Many pre-Hispanic scenes illustrate burial as an act of the feeding the earth, with the bundled dead in the open maw of the earth monster. Just as day became night, death was a natural and necessary fate for the living.

The sixteenth-century accounts written in Spanish and Nahuatl provide detailed descriptions of Aztec concepts of death and the afterlife. One of the most important accounts of Aztec mortuary rites and beliefs concerning the hereafter occurs in Book 3 of the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic treatise of Aztec culture compiled by the Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. According to this and other early accounts, the treatment of the body and the destiny of the soul in the afterlife depended in large part on one's social role and mode of death, in contrast to Western beliefs that personal behavior in life determines one's afterlife. People who eventually succumbed to illness and old age went to Mictlan, the dark underworld presided by the skeletal god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, and his consort Mictlancihuatl. In preparation for this journey, the corpse was dressed in paper vestments, wrapped and tied in a cloth bundle, and then cremated, along with a dog to serve as a guide through the underworld. The path to Mictlan traversed a landscape fraught with dangers, including fierce beasts, clashing mountains, and obsidian-bladed winds. Having passed these perils, the soul reached gloomy, soot-filled Mictlan, "the place of mystery, the place of the unfleshed, the place where there is arriving, the place with no smoke hole, the place with no fireplace" (Sahagún 1978, Book 3, p. 42). With no exits, Mictlan was a place of no return.

Aside from the dreary, hellish realm of Mictlan, there was the afterworld of Tlalocan, the paradise of Tlaloc, the god of rain and water. A region of eternal spring, abundance, and wealth, this place was for those who died by lightning, drowning, or were afflicted by particular diseases, such as pustules or gout. Rather than being cremated, these individuals were buried whole with images of the mountain gods, beings closely related to Tlaloc. Another source compiled by Sahagún, the Primeros Memoriales, contains a fascinating account of a noble woman who, after being accidentally buried alive, journeys to the netherworld paradise of Tlalocan to receive a gift and message from the rain god.

Book 3 of the Florentine Codex describes a celestial paradise. In sharp contrast to the victims of disease dwelling in Mictlan, this region was occupied by warriors and lords who died by sacrifice or combat in honor of the sun god Tonatiuh. The bodies of the slain heroes were burned in warrior bundles, with birds and butterflies symbolizing their fiery souls. These warrior souls followed the sun to zenith in the sky, where they would then scatter to sip flowers in this celestial paradise. The setting western sun  would then be greeted by female warriors, which were the souls of those women who died in childbirth.


SERGIO DORANTES/ CORBIS

In Aztec thought, the pregnant woman was like a warrior who symbolically captured her child for the Aztec state in the painful and bloody battle of birth. Considered as female aspects of defeated heroic warriors, women dying in childbirth became fierce goddesses who carried the setting sun into the netherworld realm of Mictlan. In contrast to the afterworld realms of Mictlan and Tlalocan, the paradise of warriors did relate to how one behaved on earth, as this was the region for the valorous who both lived and died as heroes. This ethos of bravery and self-sacrifice was a powerful ideological means to ensure the commitment of warriors to the growth and well-being of the empire.

For the Aztec, yearly ceremonies pertaining to the dead were performed during two consecutive twenty-day months, the first month for children, and the second for adults, with special focus on the cult of the warrior souls. Although then occurring in the late summertime of August, many aspects of these ceremonies have continued in the fall Catholic celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Along with the ritual offering of food for the visiting dead, marigolds frequently play a major part in the contemporary celebrations, a flower specifically related to the dead in Aztec ritual.

AFRICAN RELIGIONS

In the religions of Africa, life does not end with death, but continues in another realm. The concepts of "life" and "death" are not mutually exclusive concepts, and there are no clear dividing lines between them. Human existence is a dynamic process involving the increase or decrease of "power" or "life force," of "living" and "dying," and there are different levels of life and death. Many African languages express the fact that things are not going well, such as when there is sickness, in the words "we are living a little," meaning that the level of life is very low. The African religions scholar Placide Tempels describes every misfortune that Africans encounter as "a diminution of vital force." Illness and death result from some outside agent, a person, thing, or circumstance that weakens people because the agent contains a greater life force. Death does not alter or end the life or the personality of an individual, but only causes a change in its conditions. This is expressed in the concept of "ancestors," people who have died but who continue to "live" in the community and communicate with their families.

This entry traces those ideas that are, or have been, approximately similar across sub-Saharan Africa. The concepts described within in many cases have been altered in the twentieth century through the widespread influence of Christianity or Islam, and some of the customs relating to burials are disappearing. Nevertheless, many religious concepts and practices continue to persist.

The African Concept of Death

Death, although a dreaded event, is perceived as the beginning of a person's deeper relationship with all of creation, the complementing of life and the beginning of the communication between the visible and the invisible worlds. The goal of life is to become an ancestor after death. This is why every person who dies must be given a "correct" funeral, supported by a number of religious ceremonies. If this is not done, the dead person may become a wandering ghost, unable to "live" properly after death and therefore a danger to those who remain alive. It might be argued that "proper" death rites are more a guarantee of protection for the living than to secure a safe passage for the dying. There is ambivalence about attitudes to the recent dead, which fluctuate between love and respect on the one hand and dread and despair on the other, particularly because it is believed that the dead have power over the living.

Many African peoples have a custom of removing a dead body through a hole in the wall of a house, and not through the door. The reason for this seems to be that this will make it difficult (or even impossible) for the dead person to remember the way back to the living, as the hole in the wall is immediately closed. Sometimes the corpse is removed feet first, symbolically pointing away from the former place of residence. A zigzag path may be taken to the burial site, or thorns strewn along the way, or a barrier erected at the grave itself because the dead are also believed to strengthen the living. Many other peoples take special pains to ensure that the dead are easily able to return to their homes, and some people are even buried under or next to their homes.

Many people believe that death is the loss of a soul, or souls. Although there is recognition of the difference between the physical person that is buried and the nonphysical person who lives on, this must not be confused with a Western dualism that separates "physical" from "spiritual." When a person dies, there is not some "part" of that person that lives on—it is the whole person who continues to live in the spirit world, receiving a new body identical to the earthly body, but with enhanced powers to move about as an ancestor. The death of children is regarded as a particularly grievous evil event, and many peoples give special names to their children to try to ward off the reoccurrence of untimely death.

There are many different ideas about the "place" the departed go to, a "land" which in most cases seems to be a replica of this world. For some it is under the earth, in groves, near or in the homes of earthly families, or on the other side of a deep river. In most cases it is an extension of what is known at present, although for some peoples it is a much better place without pain or hunger. The Kenyan scholar John Mbiti writes that a belief in the continuation of life after death for African peoples "does not constitute a hope for a future and better life. To live here and now is the most important concern of African religious activities and beliefs. . . . Even life in the hereafter is conceived in materialistic and physical terms. There is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter" (Mbiti 1969, pp. 4–5).

The African Concept of the Afterlife

Nearly all African peoples have a belief in a singular supreme being, the creator of the earth. Although the dead are believed to be somehow nearer to the supreme being than the living, the original state of bliss in the distant past expressed in creation myths is not restored in the afterlife. The separation between the supreme being and humankind remains unavoidable and natural in the place of the departed, even though the dead are able to rest there and be safe. Most African peoples believe that rewards and punishments come to people in this life and not in the hereafter. In the land of the departed, what happens there happens automatically, irrespective of a person's earthly behavior, provided the correct burial rites have been observed. But if a person is a wizard, a murderer, a thief, one who has broken the community code or taboos, or one who has had an unnatural death or an improper burial, then such a person may be doomed to punishment in the afterlife as a wandering ghost, and may be beaten and expelled by the ancestors or subjected to a period of torture according to the seriousness of their misdeeds, much like the Catholic concept of purgatory. Among many African peoples is the widespread belief that witches and sorcerers are not admitted to the spirit world, and therefore they are refused proper burial—sometimes their bodies are subjected to actions that would make such burial impossible, such as burning, chopping up, and feeding them to hyenas. Among the Africans, to be cut off from the community of the ancestors in death is the nearest equivalent of hell.

The concept of reincarnation is found among many peoples. Reincarnation refers to the soul of a dead person being reborn in the body of another. There is a close relationship between birth and death. African beliefs in reincarnation differ from those of major Asian religions (especially Hinduism) in a number of important ways. Hinduism is "world-renouncing," conceiving of a cycle of rebirth in a world of suffering and illusion from which people wish to escape—only by great effort—and there is a system of rewards and punishments whereby one is reborn into a higher or lower station in life (from whence the caste system arose). These ideas that view reincarnation as something to be feared and avoided are completely lacking in African religions. Instead, Africans are "world-affirming," and welcome reincarnation. The world is a light, warm, and living place to which the dead are only too glad to return from the darkness and coldness of the grave. The dead return to their communities, except for those unfortunate ones previously mentioned, and there are no limits set to the number of possible reincarnations—an ancestor may be reincarnated in more than one person at a time. Some African myths say that the number of souls and bodies is limited. It is important for Africans to discover which ancestor is reborn in a child, for this is a reason for deep thankfulness. The destiny of a community is fulfilled through both successive and simultaneous multiple reincarnations.

Transmigration (also called metempsychosis) denotes the changing of a person into an animal. The most common form of this idea relates to a witch or sorcerer who is believed to be able to transform into an animal in order to perform evil deeds. Africans also believe that people may inhabit particular animals after death, especially snakes, which are treated with great respect. Some African rulers reappear as lions. Some peoples believe that the dead will reappear in the form of the totem animal of that ethnic group, and these totems are fearsome (such as lions, leopards, or crocodiles). They symbolize the terrible punishments the dead can inflict if the moral values of the community are not upheld.

Burial and Mourning Customs

Death in African religions is one of the last transitional stages of life requiring passage rites, and this too takes a long time to complete. The deceased must be "detached" from the living and make as smooth a transition to the next life as possible because the journey to the world of the dead has many interruptions.

In the village of Eshowe in the KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, a Zulu Isangoma (diviner), with a puff adder in his mouth, practices soothsaying, or predicting, with snakes. It is impossible to generalize about concepts in African religions because they are ethno-religions, being determined by each ethnic group in the continent.

GALLO IMAGES/CORBIS

If the correct funeral rites are not observed, the deceased may come back to trouble the living relatives. Usually an animal is killed in ritual, although this also serves the practical purpose of providing food for the many guests. Personal belongings are often buried with the deceased to assist in the journey. Various other rituals follow the funeral itself. Some kill an ox at the burial to accompany the deceased. Others kill another animal some time after the funeral (three months to two years and even longer is the period observed). The Nguni in southern Africa call the slaying of the ox "the returning ox," because the beast accompanies the deceased back home to his or her family and enables the deceased to act as a protecting ancestor. The "home bringing" rite is a common African ceremony. Only when a deceased person's surviving relatives have gone, and there is no one left to remember him or her, can the person be said to have really "died." At that point the deceased passes into the "graveyard" of time, losing individuality and becoming one of the unknown multitude of immortals.

Many African burial rites begin with the sending away of the departed with a request that they do not bring trouble to the living, and they end with a plea for the strengthening of life on the earth and all that favors it. According to the Tanzanian theologian Laurenti Magesa, funeral rites simultaneously mourn for the dead and celebrate life in all its abundance. Funerals are a time for the community to be in solidarity and to regain its identity. In some communities this may include dancing and merriment for all but the immediate family, thus limiting or even denying the destructive powers of death and providing the deceased with "light feet" for the journey to the other world.

Ancient customs are adapted in many South African urban funerals. When someone has died in a house, all the windows are smeared with ash, all pictures in the house turned around and all mirrors and televisions and any other reflective objects covered. The beds are removed from the deceased's room, and the bereaved women sit on the floor, usually on a mattress. During the time preceding the funeral—usually from seven to thirteen days—visits are paid by people in the community to comfort the bereaved family. In the case of Christians, consolatory services are held at the bereaved home. The day before the funeral the corpse is brought home before sunset and placed in the bedroom. A night vigil then takes place, often lasting until the morning. The night vigil is a time for pastoral care, to comfort and encourage the bereaved. A ritual killing is sometimes made for the ancestors, as it is believed that blood must be shed at this time to avoid further misfortune. Some peoples use the hide of the slaughtered beast to cover the corpse or place it on top of the coffin as a "blanket" for the deceased. Traditionally, the funeral takes place in the early morning (often before sunrise) and not late in the afternoon, as it is believed that sorcerers move around in the afternoons looking for corpses to use for their evil purposes. Because sorcerers are asleep in the early morning, this is a good time to bury the dead.

In some communities children and unmarried adults are not allowed to attend the funeral. During the burial itself the immediate family of the deceased is expected to stay together on one side of the grave at a designated place. They are forbidden from speaking or taking any vocal part in the funeral. It is customary to place the deceased's personal property, including eating utensils, walking sticks, blankets, and other useful items, in the grave. After the funeral the people are invited to the deceased's home for the funeral meal. Many people follow a cleansing ritual at the gate of the house, where everyone must wash off the dust of the graveyard before entering the house. Sometimes pieces of cut aloe are placed in the water, and this water is believed to remove bad luck. Churches that use "holy water" sprinkle people to cleanse them from impurity at this time.

In southern Africa the period of strict mourning usually continues for at least a week after the funeral. During this time the bereaved stay at home and do not socialize or have sexual contact. Some wear black clothes or black cloths fastened to their clothes, and shave their hair (including facial hair) from the day after the funeral. Because life is concentrated in the hair, shaving the hair symbolizes death, and its growing again indicates the strengthening of life. People in physical contact with a corpse are often regarded as unclean. The things belonging to the deceased should not be used at this time, such as the eating utensils or the chairs the deceased used. Blankets and anything else in contact with the deceased are all washed. The clothes of the deceased are wrapped up in a bundle and put away for a year or until the extended period of mourning has ended, after which they are distributed to family members or destroyed by burning. After a certain period of time the house and the family must be cleansed from bad luck, from uncleanness and "darkness." The bereaved family members are washed and a ritual killing takes place. The time of the cleansing is usually seven days after the funeral, but some observe a month or even longer. Traditionally, a widow had to remain in mourning for a year after her husband's death and the children of a deceased parent were in mourning for three months.

A practice that seems to be disappearing in African urban areas is the home-bringing ritual, although it is still observed in some parts of Africa. A month or two after the funeral the grieving family slaughters a beast and then goes to the graveyard. They speak to the ancestors to allow the deceased to return home to rest. It is believed that at the graves the spirits are hovering on the earth and are restless until they are brought home—an extremely dangerous situation for the family. The family members take some of the earth covering the grave and put it in a bottle. They proceed home with the assurance that the deceased relative is accompanying them to look after the family as an ancestor. Some Christian churches have a night vigil at the home after the home-bringing. The theologian Marthinus Daneel describes the ceremony in some Zimbabwean churches, where the living believers escort the spirit of the deceased relative to heaven through their prayers, after which a mediating role can be attained. The emphasis is on the transformation of the traditional rite, while providing for the consolation of the bereaved family. This example shows how these churches try to eliminate an old practice without neglecting the traditionally conceived need that it has served.

These burial and mourning customs suggest that many practices still prevailing in African Christian funerals are vestiges of the ancestor cult, especially the ritual killings and the home-bringing rites. Because a funeral is preeminently a community affair in which the church is but one of many players, the church does not always determine the form of the funeral. Some of the indigenous rites have indeed been transformed and given Christian meanings, to which both Christians and those with traditional orientation can relate. Sometimes there are signs of confrontation and the changing and discontinuance of old customs to such an extent that they are no longer recognizable in that context.

African funerals are community affairs in which the whole community feels the grief of the bereaved and shares in it. The purpose of the activities preceding the funeral is to comfort, encourage, and heal those who are hurting. Thereafter, the churches see to it that the bereaved make the transition back to normal life as smoothly and as quickly as possible. This transition during the mourning period is sometimes accompanied by cleansing rituals by which the bereaved are assured of their acceptance and protection by God. Because the dominance of Christianity and Islam in Africa has resulted in the rejection of certain mourning customs, the funeral becomes an opportunity to declare faith.

More Death Rituals

The following is from the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (deathreference.com)

Native American Beliefs

Because they lived so close to nature, all Native American peoples from the Stone Age to the modern era knew that death from hunger, disease, or enemies was never far away. The various death customs and beliefs, which first evolved during the invasions of Asians from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge during the last Ice Age at least 12,000 years ago, gave them the means to cope with that experience. Individual tribes maintained their own death customs and adapted them to their regional environments into which they migrated, although such rituals and beliefs could pass from one group to the other through trade and intermarriage. Most Native American tribes believed that the souls of the dead passed into a spirit world and became part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of their lives. Many tribes believed in two souls: one that died when the body died and one that might wander on and eventually die.

Burial customs varied widely from tribe to tribe. Indians disposed of their dead in a variety of ways. Arctic tribes, for example, simply left their dead on the frozen ground for wild animals to devour. The ancient mound-building Hopewell societies of the Upper Midwest, by contrast, placed the dead in lavishly furnished tombs. Southeastern tribes practiced secondary bone burial. They dug up their corpses, cleansed the bones, and then reburied them. The Northeast Iroquois, before they formed the Five Nations Confederation in the seventeenth century, saved skeletons of the deceased for a final mass burial that included furs and ornaments for the dead spirits' use in the afterlife. Northwest coastal tribes put their dead in mortuary cabins or canoes fastened to poles. Further south, California tribes practiced cremation. In western mountain areas tribes often deposited their dead in caves or fissures in the rocks. Nomadic tribes in the Great Plains region either buried their dead, if the ground was soft, or left them on tree platforms or on scaffolds. Central and South Atlantic tribes embalmed and mummified their dead. But during outbreaks of smallpox or other diseases leading to the sudden deaths of many tribe members, survivors hurriedly cast the corpses into a mass grave or threw them into a river.

Rites among Native Americans tended to focus on aiding the deceased in their afterlife. Some tribes left food and possessions of the dead person in or near the gravesite. Other groups, such as the Nez Perce of the Northwest, sacrificed wives, slaves, and a favorite horse of a dead warrior. Among many tribes, mourners, especially widows, cut their hair. Some Native Americans discarded personal ornaments or blacked their faces to honor the dead. Others gashed their arms and legs to express their grief. California tribes engaged in wailing, staged long funeral ceremonies, and held an anniversary mourning ritual after one or two years. Southwest Hopi wailed on the day of the death, and cried a year later.

Some Southwestern tribes, especially the Apache and Navajo, feared the ghosts of the deceased who were believed to resent the living. The nomadic Apache buried corpses swiftly and burned the deceased's house and possessions. The mourning family purified itself ritually and moved to a new place to escape their dead family member's ghost. The Navajo also buried their dead quickly with little ceremony. Navajos exposed to a corpse had to undergo a long and costly ritual purification treatment.

 

 

Chinese Beliefs

In premodern China, the great majority of people held beliefs and observed practices related to death that they learned as members of families and villages, not as members of organized religions. Such beliefs and practices are often subsumed under the umbrella of "Chinese popular religion." Institutional forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other traditions contributed many beliefs and practices to popular religion in its local variants. These traditions, especially Buddhism, included the idea of personal cultivation for the purpose of living an ideal life and, as a consequence, attaining some kind of afterlife salvation, such as immortality, enlightenment, or birth in a heavenly realm. However, individual salvation played a small role in most popular religions. In typical local variants of popular religion, the emphasis was on (1) passing from this world into an ancestral realm that in key ways mirrored this world and (2) the interactions between living persons and their ancestors.

Basic Beliefs and Assumptions

In every human society one can find manifestations of the human desire for some kind of continuance beyond death. In the modern West, much of human experience has been with religious theories of continuance that stress the fate of the individual, often conceived as a discrete spiritual "self" or "soul." Typically, a person is encouraged to live in a way that prepares one for personal salvation, whether by moral self-discipline, seeking God's grace, or other means. Indic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, include similar assumptions about the human self/soul and personal salvation. In premodern China, especially if one discounts Buddhist influence, a person's desire for continuance beyond death was rooted in different assumptions and manifested in practices not closely related to the pursuit of individual salvation.

First, Chinese emphasized biological continuance through descendants to whom they gave the gift of life and for whom they sacrificed many of life's material pleasures. Moreover, personal sacrifice was not rooted in a belief in asceticism per se but in a belief that sacrificing for one's offspring would engender in them obligations toward elders and ancestors. As stated in the ancient text, Scripture of Filiality (Warring States Period, 453-221 B.C.E.), these included obligations to care for one's body as a gift from one's parents and to succeed in life so as to glorify the family ancestors. Thus, one lived beyond the grave above all through the health and success of one's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Second, because of the obligations inculcated in children and grandchildren, one could assume they would care for one in old age and in the afterlife. Indeed, afterlife care involved the most significant and complex rituals in Chinese religious life, including funerals, burials, mourning practices, and rites for ancestors. All this was important not only as an expression of each person's hope for continuance beyond death but as an expression of people's concern that souls for whom no one cared would become ghosts intent on causing mischief.

Finally, there was a stress on mutual obligations between the living and the dead; in other words, an emphasis on the same principle of reciprocity that governed relations among the living members of a Chinese community. It was assumed that the dead could influence the quality of life for those still in this world—either for good or for ill. On the one hand, proper burial, careful observance of mourning practices, and ongoing offerings of food and gifts for ancestors assured their continued aid. On the other hand, failure to observe ritual obligations might bring on the wrath of one's ancestors, resulting in family disharmony, economic ruin, or sickness. Ancestral souls for whom no one cared would become "hungry ghosts" (egui), which might attack anyone in the community. Royal ancestors, whose worship was the special responsibility of the reigning emperor, could aid or harm people throughout the empire, depending on whether or not the emperor upheld ritual obligations to his ancestors.

In traditional China, the idea that personal continuance after death could be found in the lives of one's descendants has been closely linked to practices rooted in mutual obligations between the living and the dead: those who had moved on to the ancestral state of existence. But what is the nature of the ancestral state? What kind of rituals for the dead have been performed by most Chinese? And under what circumstances have individual Chinese sought something more than an afterlife as a comfortable and proud ancestor with loving and successful descendants; that is, some kind of personal salvation?

Conceptions of Souls and Ancestral Existence

There is evidence from as early as the Shang period (c. 1500–1050 B.C.E.) that Chinese cared for ancestors as well as feared them. This may well have been the main factor in the development of beliefs in dual and multiple souls. Late in the Zhou dynasty (1050–256 B.C.E.), cosmological thought was dominated by the yin-yang dichotomy, according to which all aspects of existence were a result of alternation and interplay between passive (yin) and active (yang) forces. Philosophers applied the dichotomy to soul theory. Lacking any absolute distinction between physical and spiritual, they considered the yin soul (po) as more material, and the yang soul (hun) as more ethereal. In practice, the po was linked to the body and the grave. The less fearsome hun was linked to the ancestral tablet kept in the family home and the one installed in an ancestral hall (if the family's clan could afford to build one). For some, this meant there were two hun, just as, for others, there might be multiple po. One common view included the idea of three hun and seven po. These multiple soul theories were among the factors in popular religion that mitigated widespread acceptance of belief in salvation of the individual soul. At the same time, however, multiple soul theories helped Chinese to manage contrasting perceptions of ancestral souls (as benevolent or malevolent, for example) and to provide an explanatory framework for the differing rituals of the domestic, gravesite, and clan hall cults for ancestors.

While the intent of all these rites was clear—to comfort ancestors rather than to suffer their wrath—the nature of ancestral existence was relatively undefined. Generally speaking, the world of the ancestors was conceived as a murky, dark realm, a "yin" space (yinjian). While not clear on the exact details, Chinese considered the world of departed spirits similar to the world of the living in key ways. They believed residents of the other realm need money and sustenance, must deal with bureaucrats, and should work (with the help of the living) to improve their fate. After the arrival of Buddhism in the early centuries of the common era, it contributed more specific ideas about the realm of the dead as well as more exact conceptions of the relationship between one's deeds while alive and one's fate afterward.

For example, the "bureaucratic" dimension of the underworld was enhanced by visions of the Buddhist Ten Courts of Hell, at which judges meted out punishments according to karmic principles that required recompense for every good or evil deed. Moreover, regardless of whether or not they followed Buddhism in other ways, most Chinese embraced the doctrines of karma (retribution for past actions) and samsara (cyclical existence) in their thinking about life and death. These doctrines helped people to explain the fate of residents in the realms of the living and the dead, not to mention interactions between them. For example, the ghost stories that fill Chinese religious tracts as well as secular literature typically present ghosts as vehicles of karmic retribution against those evildoers who escaped punishment by worldly authorities (perhaps in a former lifetime). While reading such stories often has been just a casual diversion, performing rites to assure that departed ancestors do not become wandering ghosts has been a serious matter.

Rites for the Dead

Over the course of Chinese history, classical texts on ritual and commentaries on them had increasing influence on the practice of rites for the dead. The text Records of Rituals (Liji), after being designated one of Confucianism's "Five Scriptures" during the Han era (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), became the most influential book in this regard. The Family Rituals according to Master Zhu (Zhuzi jiali), by the leading thinker of later Confucianism (Zhu Xi, 1130–1200 C.E.), became the most influential commentary. The influence of these texts resulted in widespread standardization of funeral rites in particular and rites for the dead in general. According to the cultural anthropologist James Watson, standardized funeral rites became a marker of "Chineseness" for Han (ethnically Chinese) people in their interactions with other ethnic groups as they spread into new territories.

In his article, "The Structure of Chinese Funerary Rites," Watson identifies nine elements of standardized funeral rites: (1) the family gives public notification by wailing, pasting up banners, and other acts; (2) family members don mourning attire of white cloth and hemp; (3) they ritually bathe the corpse; (4) they make food offerings and transfer to the dead (by burning) spirit money and various goods (houses, furniture, and other items made of paper); (5) they prepare and install an ancestral tablet at the domestic altar; (6) they pay money to ritual specialists (usually Taoists priests or Buddhist clerics) so that the corpse can be safely expelled from the community (and the spirit sent forth on its otherworldly journey); (7) they arrange for music to accompany movement of the corpse and to settle the spirit; (8) they have the corpse sealed in an airtight coffin; and (9) they expel the coffin from the community in a procession to the gravesite that marks the completion of the funeral rites and sets the stage for burial.

While burial customs were more subject to local variation than funeral rites as such, throughout China there was a preference for burial over alternative means of dealing with the corpse. For example, few Chinese opted for Buddhism's custom of cremation, despite the otherwise strong influence this religion had on Chinese ideas and practices related to life and death. Unlike Indians, for whom the body could be seen as a temporary vehicle for one's eternal spirit, Chinese typically saw the body as a valued gift from the ancestors that one should place whole under the soil near one's ancestral village. In modern China, especially under the Communist Party since 1949, Chinese have turned to cremation more often. But this has been for practical reasons related to land use and to the party's campaign against "superstitious" behavior and in favor of frugality in performing rituals.

Traditionally, the corpse, or at least the bones, represented powers that lasted beyond death and could affect the fate of living relatives. For this reason, the use of an expert in feng-shui (Chinese geomancy) was needed to determine the time, place, and orientation of the burial of a corpse. This usage was in line with the aforementioned belief that the po, which lingered at the grave, was more physical in character than the hun soul(s). Its importance is underlined by the fact that the practice is being revived in China after years of condemnation by Communist officials.

Caring for the hun soul(s) has been at the heart of ritual observances that occurred away from the

The procession to the gravesite of this funeral in China signifies a completion of the funeral rites.

CORBIS

grave. Among these observances were very complex mourning customs. They were governed by the general principle that the closeness of one's relationship to the deceased determined the degree of mourning one must observe (symbolized by the coarseness of one's clothes and the length of the mourning period, for example). In addition to observing mourning customs, relatives of the deceased were obliged to care for his or her soul(s) at the home altar and at the clan ancestral hall, if one existed. At the home altar the family remembered a recently deceased relative through highly personalized offerings of favorite foods and other items. They remembered more distant relatives as a group in generic ancestral rites, such as those which occurred prior to family feasts at the New Year, mid-Autumn, and other festivals. Indeed, one of the most significant symbolic reminders that ancestors were still part of the family was their inclusion as honored guests at holiday meals.

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