Beliefs, rituals and customs around death and dying

Funeral traditions are observed strictly and not doing so is thought to bring bad luck on the family.

Before the funeral, the family may contact a feng shui master to choose an auspicious time for the funeral and burial, and where possible a suitable site for burial or scattering of ashes.

Funerals and other ceremonies

Chinese funeral traditions and practices vary greatly according to the family’s religion, where their family origins are in China, the cause of death, and the age of the person who has died; a funeral for a child is likely to be very different to that of a grandparent or other older family member.

The funeral usually takes place over seven days and there may be a formal ceremony on the seventh night after the death.

The funeral starts with an event known as a shou ling. Family members take it in turns to sit with the person who has died. The person will be dressed in their best clothes or a traditional white robe; older people (aged over 80) may be dressed in red or brighter colours. 

At the shou ling, mourners bring food, incense, joss paper and white envelopes containing money as offerings.

During the funeral service, the casket traditionally remains open. When the casket is closed, mourners will turn their back on it as it is believed that the spirit of anyone who sees the casket close will be trapped inside the coffin.

During the funeral service, grieving families may burn incense and joss paper. Joss paper is typically made of bamboo or rice paper made to look like money, however  it can also be made into paper houses, cars and other objects that the person may need in the afterlife. Incense and joss paper may also be burned at subsequent visits to the grave. 

During the funeral ceremony there may be chanting and prayers said which will vary according to the religion of the family (Taoist or Buddhist).

Funeral guests give the grieving family money either at the funeral or on the day preceding the funeral. Traditionally this is given in odd numbered amounts in a white envelope. 

Cremation is common but it is not usual for ashes to be scattered, but rather they are split between family members or made into jewellery.

If the funeral is that of a child or baby, the ceremony is held in silence.

Length of and expectations around a mourning period

Traditionally, grieving families may wear white, black or plain clothing for a month. In less traditional families, grieving families typically wear black. Some close family members may wear a white flower accessory for the first seven days after the death, which could be a hairpin or an item tied to a handbag.

The period of mourning may vary between one month to three years depending on family origins in China and their relationship to the person who has died. Older generations may observe a traditional mourning period, called shǒusāng of one year or three years for a first-born son. During this period, they will limit their social activities and will not attend family occasions such as weddings and birthdays. Less traditional families, including their children, may stop going out for a few weeks to mark a period of mourning. 

Young engaged couples will be expected to reschedule their wedding to at least a year after the death when a grandparent or a parent dies.

Ways of remembering someone who has died

Ching Ming is a traditional Chinese festival which takes place in April in which people clean the graves of their ancestors. Families may burn incense and joss papers at their relative’s grave and bring food as a sign of reverence and respect.

Ask! We don’t expect you to know the culture. Just ask sensitively if unsure.


Support organisations

Our grateful thanks for their input into this resource to:

Pia Clay, Child Bereavement UK

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