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Understanding Taoist Funerals: Traditions, Customs & Etiquette

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” You might have come across this or another quote from Lao Tzu before and appreciated his wisdom. Lao Tzu is the founder of Taoism which is not so much a religion but considered a philosophy and ancient tradition, even though deities exist in Taoism. While there are over 61 million people in China who practise Taoism, a census from 2001 only found 3,500 Taoists in Wales and England.

It is therefore not very likely that you will be invited to a Taoist funeral. However, it might still be interesting, inspiring or maybe even helpful to learn about and gain a better understanding of how Taoists approach and deal with death. This blog post looks at Taoist beliefs about death, how funerals are prepared as well as what customs, traditions and rituals are observed and why. We also answer some common questions. 

Taoist beliefs about Death

The afterlife doesn’t exist within Taoism. Contrary to Buddhism and Hinduism whose followers believe in reincarnation or Jews, Muslims and Christians that believe in an afterlife, Taoists are not too concerned about what follows death.

The Tao is considered the energy of life. It pervades everything in the universe. Taoists believe we are all of the Tao in life and our spirit reunites with the Tao when death forces us to give up our physical body – yet we are and never were separate from the Tao. One can say that Taoists believe in spiritual immortality but not in rebirth or heaven. Humans and all other living beings are multifaceted manifestations of the life force. Through practising meditation and trance as well as following a specific diet one can become a transcendent spirit person. One also lives on in the memories and stories of loved ones.

Taoist Funeral Preparation

What Taoism teaches about death does in no way mean that funerals are not taken seriously, though. On the contrary: They actually surpass other life events like births and weddings in terms of significance and priority. That is because Taoists believe that our spirit continues to exist to have a relationship with the living – either as a ghost or an ancestor. The latter being preferred by those who remain behind as a benevolent spirit will protect its family and bring good fortune for generations yet to come.

After someone dies, their body is cleaned with a wet towel that’s been dusted with talcum powder. This is usually done by a family member. The deceased is then dressed in their finest clothes. It is appropriate for them to wear blue, black, brown or white. The colour red is to be avoided at all costs as it is the colour of life and could lead to the spirit becoming a ghost.

Before the body is placed in the casket, it gets wrapped in a blue cloth and the face is covered with a yellow cloth. Making the deceased comfortable and ensuring the corpse stays in as good a condition as possible is believed to be connected to the soul’s satisfaction.

An altar is set up for a pre-funeral ceremony. On it, you will find symbols for yin (tea) and yang (rice) as well as water that stands for the union of Yin and Yang. There’ll also be two candles that symbolise moonlight and sunlight alongside a sacred lamp which stands for the light of wisdom. Incense is being burned and a platter with white, black, green, yellow and red fruit symbolises the five elements.

Attending a Taoist Funeral

Taoist funeral traditions and customs are based on the principle of reciprocity. They, therefore, involve the giving and receiving of real and ritual/ghost money, gifts and food among other things. There’s also an underlying belief in death, even though it is a natural part of life, having a dangerous and potentially evil air about it that needs to be managed through rituals. This shows for example in the covering of mirrors as seeing the reflection of the person who died is believed to cause another death.

In China, where Taoism is widely practised, the age and status of the person who died as well as general family wealth determine how lavish and big a funeral is. It also impacts to what extent the rituals are observed.

When you attend a Taoist funeral you can generally expect flowers, incense and photos of the person who died being featured prominently. There’s usually at least one if not two priests in attendance who lead the congregation through the funeral rituals and chants. These are focused on life rather than death and are intended to keep the spirit as well as those who are mourning the deceased safe and protected from evil and harm. 

The chanting of scriptures is supported by drums and other musical instruments. One priest circles a fire that has nine tiles placed in it. The priest breaks them with a sword to free the soul of the deceased from the nine levels of the underworld which the tiles represent. The funeral guests support this breaking free of the spirit by burning ghost money as well as houses, clothes, servants and other objects made from joss paper. The other priest prays to the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guan Yin. 

Warding off evil spirits

To ward off evil spirits, everybody who attends a Taoist funeral brings a yellow piece of paper. You burn it in a doorway before leaving the funeral and cross through it while it is still aflame. This is meant to protect you from evil spirits or bad luck following you home. 

For the same reason, guests also leave or turn away from the casket when it is still open or when the body of the deceased is being moved.

The Funeral Feast

The funeral is followed by a feast that is held for the mourners. It is also called “traditional supper” or “longevity banquet”. The Chinese name for the funeral feast can also be translated as “to wash away sorrow.” It’s a way for the family to thank loved ones and friends for their attendance and support by feeding them either a seven- or eight-course meal at an uneven number of tables. The number of courses really depends on what the family wants to put emphasis on and which Taoist denomination they follow. The number seven is associated with death, whereas the number eight rhymes with the Chinese word for good fortune. Dishes that represent completeness (a whole fish) and earthly longevity (noodles) are avoided in favour of those that remind people of the sweetness of life like sweet rice, sugar water and other sweets. Beef and horse meat are not served either because the spirit guards of the underworld are believed to have a horse-like face and an ox-like head and one wouldn’t want to upset them in any way. 

What to Wear: Taoist Dress Code & Colours

As in so many Asian traditions, the colour of mourning is white in Taoism. The immediate family, therefore, wears white or colourless funeral attire. The clothes are usually made from coarse material. In China, the closest family members wear straw sandals. Loved ones who are not directly related to the deceased choose blue and black clothes when attending a Taoist funeral. Great-grandchildren can wear green attire.

Men’s Funeral Dress & Colour Code

In the Taoist tradition, men wear a white headband at funerals. 

Women’s Funeral Dress & Colour Code

Women wear pointed, white hoods to the funeral and dress conservatively.

Depending on local customs, colour-coded accessories like armbands, sashes and belts may be worn by men and women.

Sending Gifts & Flowers

Gifts and flowers are generally welcome at Taoist funerals but depend on local custom. Flower arrangements such as wreaths and sprays are usually held in white and yellow and can be sent as sympathy or condolence flowers. Chrysanthemums and Lilies can be used alongside daisies and roses. Don’t go over the top, though, as extravagance is considered inappropriate when it comes to funeral flowers.

One of the most traditional gifts at a Taoist funeral is a plain, white envelope with an odd amount of money that doesn’t end on 9 in it that helps the family with expenses. An even amount of money is to be avoided as it stands for “double happiness” and would be inappropriate for a funeral. The number 9 is associated with “long-lasting grief” in the context of death.

A basket of food or special pastries can be given as a funeral gift as well. Just make sure you stick to one gift only as more would suggest another death is coming.

Common questions about Taoist Funerals

What are Taoist post-funeral traditions?

Simple offerings are made by the immediate family one or three days after the funeral during a visit to the burial site. Further death rituals are held 100 days after the funeral and on the anniversary of the death. This happens in addition to seasonal festivals like the grave-cleaning one in spring.

How long is the mourning period in Taoism?

In Taoism, the mourning period traditionally lasts for 49 days during which – depending on how wealthy the family is – offerings, rituals and prayers are held daily or on a weekly basis. The family of the deceased might furthermore entertain and feed guests who visit to express their sympathy. Children and grandchildren are not allowed to have their hair cut during this time. Some Taoist traditions end the mourning period after 7 days by changing from white clothes into red ones.
If you found this blog post interesting or helpful, please consider sharing it. Should you have any questions regarding how to plan and prepare for your own or someone else’s funeral, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.