Oriental Obsequies

Date Published: 
September, 1896
Original Author: 
L.L. Mason
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 10th Annual Convention

During my studies in preparation of the following paper I have been pro¬foundly impressed with the difference between the burial customs of the Orient and the Occident; on the one side superstition and a disregard for the human habitation from whence the soul has fled; on the other side loving re¬membrance and propriety that tend to assuage grief, and soften the asperities of sepulture. And I desire to acknowledge my indebtedness to Miss Jessie A. Ackerman, whose vivid descriptions of Oriental customs, contained in her book of fascinating interest have been drawn upon freely in preparation of my paper.

A Japanese Funeral
The ordinary individual is destined to attract attention at least twice, and often thrice, before he forever disappears from the active scenes of this world. The most important event of life, one's birth, calls forth less interest than the two events which follow. When the announcement goes forth, "Unto us a son is born," or "a daughter is given" the fact is quietly recorded and usu¬ally forgotten by all beyond the sound of the voice of the newcomer. But when a wedding is on the boards, interest deepens, and crowds gather to see "what the bride's dress is like." When the wedding is over and finally, the lengthened or shortened thread of life is broken, the funeral is the attraction and many who never spoke a kindly word of the dead bring forth their gar¬lands fair to deck the coffin, or to wilt and fade upon the grave; and in the dying of their fragrance and beauty they carry with them, perhaps, the last thought of the one gone before.

In studying the customs of the people of the world, it is funerals only that I will here touch upon. As the customs vary so greatly, it would be im¬possible to describe them all; it is therefore necessary to confine myself to the extent of my own observations.

Soon after landing in the city of Yokohama, Japan, I was told that a wealthy and noted native had died and his funeral would take place the fol¬lowing Sunday in one of the great temples; it was an easy matter to find the place of the obsequies by following the crowds. After a long walk we reached the avenue that led to the shrine. The roads to the right and to the left were thronged with some fifty thousand people. The short avenue in front of the temple was kept clear for the funeral procession. As a special favor I was allowed to walk down the avenue; otherwise I should have been unable to reach the temple. The whole street was lined with floral decorations, in which the Japanese greatly excel. Large trees planted in tubs were placed a few feet on each side and extended from the beginning of the avenue to the very temple door. Many kinds of flowers were arranged in the branches of these trees to give them the appearance of blooming shrubs. We were es¬corted up the walk by two native policemen; reaching the temple we found a heavy rope stretched across the great steps to keep the crowds back. The policemen explained that we were strangers and anxious to go into the service and the guards kindly allowed us to enter.

The temple was constructed after the manner of the architecture of that, country, with an open front. The usual lack of order and solemnity pre¬vailed; for nowhere in the east can be found decorum at worship, funerals, weddings or other functions which we regard as sacred and carryon with more or less system. At one side stood the coffin, which was in the form of a miniature temple, resting on a bier. This small temple was made of some kind of white spruce, beautifully carved, but without polish or finish. The pointed eaves extended over the sides and beneath them were small carved windows, draped with white lace curtains and lined with pale blue. The whole "casket" had more or less carved open work upon it. Near the coffin stood a band of musicians dressed in foreign uniform. They wore dark blue trousers, red coats, and played on foreign instruments. On the other side of the room stood the relatives and intimate friends, distributing pre¬sents; this is a general custom among the wealthy or upper classes. The pre¬sents usually consist of sweets made from rice, flour and sugar and fashioned after the lotus blossom and leaf. In the center of the room sat numbers of priests clothed in black gauze, reading or chanting a sort of dirge from their sacred book, the music of the baud almost drowning the monotony of their voices.

When the funeral procession formed, I had no idea who the mourners were, for none were weeping or wailing or clad in any kind of mourning garb; all were chatting away, each seeming to express an opinion as to how the pro¬ceedings should be carried on. The coolies, bearing the coffin, were dressed in white garments with a white, drooping head covering. The place of burial was some distance off and numbers of these coolies formed relays to relieve each other at stated Intervals. Those, not in service at the moment preceded the remains and behind came the pall bearers. Numbers of ordinary cool¬ies bore the trees and tubs, taking them; as they passed, from the sides of the streets, and with them a great throng moved on to the burial ground, where the remains were interred in the most simple way.

Queer Ways if Showing Grief in China
I witnessed a Chinese funeral in the streets of Victoria, on the Island of Hong Kong. A strange noise attracted my attention, and looking in the direction whence it came I saw a large moving crowd. I retreated from the street to the steps of a native shop, and there awaited the advancing throng, which proved to be a Chinese funeral. A long procession, made up of strange ¬looking people, was headed by small boys carrying wooden signs, or banners. These were inscribed with those fiendish hieroglyphics, with innumerable horns and hoofs that give one the impression that the language is of a warmer climate than that of China. These banners were carried far above the heads of the bearers, and the inscriptions were supposed to recount the virtues of the dead. Following the mourners, wailers filed in line, for this was the funeral of a well-to-do-person. Numbers were hired to wail and cry; ten or a dozen were dressed in white, with cone-shaped covers made of white calico on their heads; these covers drooped far over the face, completely concealing the features. The mourners formed in procession, single file, headed by one who continually tooted a tin horn. This personage was followed by one who lent support to the chief mourner. As they marched they swayed their bodies to and fro, and howled, and moaned, and sobbed; the one who made the most noise was accounted the best mourner, and probably received the largest amount for his services. Behind the mourners the pall-bearers slowly marched, as if trying to keep step with the loud wails. The coffin was large, arid looked heavy. It was flat on the bottom, oval at the sides, with a curved lid, and a heavy piece extending upward from one end, which marked the head, for it was the same width all the way down. Large ropes were bound about it and the ends were made fast to a piece of bamboo, which was placed over the should¬ers of the men, leaving the coffin to wabble about as they marched along.

The thought of a bier has never occurred to these people, for it is not in the nature of a Chinaman to devise labor-saving methods. Behind the coffin followed bearers of sweets and meats to be placed on the grave of the departed and consumed at his leisure. A pyramid-shaped tier of shelves were laden with food of all kinds, including a whole roast pig, fowls, ducks, and many savory bits seldom tasted in the life of an ordinary Chinaman. The running and hurrying of some parts of the procession as they occasionally be¬came detached from the other by reason of the large crowds; the endless din of the noise they called "music" mingled with the sound of wailing voices, made a scene of confusion not easily described and never to be forgotten.

The selection of a place of burial is the chief concern of the relatives, for much of the future state of happiness depends upon where the bones of the departed rest. Frequently days elapse before an auspicious spot-away from the range of the wind which blows "bad luck”, -can be settled on. When a "safe" spot has been found, the coffin is placed on the ground and a mound of earth thrown over it; this often reaches the height of six feet. The place is forever sacred, and must on no account be disturbed. Frequently the graves are marked by cutting the slope from one side of the mound and building in some kind of masonry. At certain times of the year paper money is burned before the grave, for the benefit of the dead. This, however, can¬not be said to be the usual custom of disposing of the dead, for in each of the forty-two provinces the natives have their several superstitions and forms.

In one of the northern cities I saw a funeral among the lower classes. The coffin was carried in the manner described, but there was no procession be¬yond the relatives, and no extra mourners. The coffin had passed before my attention was arrested by a number of weeping persons riding on wheel-bar¬rows. I called a coolie and followed up the procession of six wheelbarrows, on which were seated nine weeping women and three men. It never dawned upon me that it might be a funeral, and the thought of being wheeled to a funeral in one of those unsightly conveyances overcame the solemnity that the occasion demanded. The mourners were chiefly women and being of the poorer class, could not afford the expense of white garments for mourning apparel; so their grief was indicated by a strip of white muslin bound about the head, with the ends dangling down. The grief they failed to express by way of garb was made up in noise, as they threw themselves from side to side with many hairbreadth escapes from landing in the road.

In a town somewhat inland I met with a greater surprise than that af¬forded by the wheel-barrow procession. It was in a small village. In one small house the woman invited me in. As I sat perched upon a saw-horse, a common seat among the poor; I saw a very rude coffin against the wall on the opposite side of the room. When the crowds of men and women pushed in several seated themselves upon the coffin, and almost sat upon each other as they tried to make room for one more. The thought came to me that prob¬ably they had purchased it at "a bargain." It was the custom in those parts whenever the husband or the wife died, to embalm the remains and keep the coffin in the house until the death of the other and finally bury them together. The husband of this family had been dead seven years, and the cof¬fin had been in the house all the time.

The most shocking thing in China, to a person from the West, is the sight of great numbers of the unburied dead in some of the fields. This is es¬pecially the case in the vicinity of Shanghai. Such a state of affairs must be very much against the laws of health. Driving along one of the chief boule¬vards just out of the city, I noticed scores of coffins of all sites unburied and upon inquiry found that there were several reasons for this unusual sight. Many people die whose relatives are too poor to purchase a grave; in such a case no provision is made for burial by the authorities, but the dead are em¬balmed and the coffin placed in the open field. In other places, large tracts of land have been given for the burial of the dead; these have become overcrowded and the coffins have been taken out and set against the mounds and left there.

I was told that cremation was the usual custom of disposing of the dead in some parts of the empire, but in no place did I see it practiced.

Disposal of the Dead in Siam and India
The sights of China prepared me for anything I might see in other parts; therefore I was not shocked when I reached Siam and learned that the poor of that country, when dead, were thrown to the vultures. A large place in one of the temple grounds is set aside as the spot to which the common dead are brought. In company with a lady I drove to one of these grounds. We had reached the grounds a little early, but the time was profitably spent in conversation with a most intelligent native, who spoke English very well. He conducted us over the grounds and through the temple, explaining everything of interest. Soon a messenger came to us to say that a Chinese had dropped dead in the gambling-house over the way and would soon be brought in. On his person money enough was found to pay for the wood and his remains were to be cremated. As we walked toward the gateway we saw several men carrying a rough pine box covered with a red blanket; this was placed on one side in a sheltered spot, and the men began preparations for cremation. The red blanket was removed, and we saw that the friendless man had been packed away with his few effects, all of which were to be consigned to the fire. The cover was replaced and box, blanket and all were lifted upon the pile. A match was touched to the wood, the pyre was wrapped in clouds of smoke, and long tongues of flame soon reduced all to a small pile of ashes.

Meantime some of the dead Siamese had been brought in, having been carried through the streets in an entirely nude condition on a rough plank borne on the shoulders of the natives. To prevent the remains from falling into the streets, runners had been kept beside the plank to replace a limb or arm upon the board as it was jolted from its resting-place by the motion of the bearers. Beside the spot reserved for burning the dead was a small square, fenced off by a solid brick wall some four feet high. Within this a still smaller space was marked off by a row of bricks, and in the second enclosure the dead were disposed of. Perched on the fence and on the eaves of the temple sat a row of solemn-faced vultures, waiting for their prey. The bearers advanced to the gate and tossed the re¬mains into the little square. In an instant every vulture had scented the dead and swooped down to the spot. In thirty-five minutes every bone was picked bare and no trace of flesh remained.

Only the lower classes and criminals are disposed of in this way. Special arrangements are made for the cremation of the dead of the royal household. The ceremony is more like some festive occasion than one of sadness. Large buildings are erected at great cost and all the people are given up wholly to the ceremonies. When the body has been reduced to ashes, a gol¬den vase, in the form of the king's decoration on his umbrella, is brought in and the sacred dust deposited in the vessel which is placed in one of the rooms of the palace beside other vases containing similar relics of the dead.

In the vast country of India the dead are disposed of according to the re¬ligious beliefs that prevail in different parts of the country. The Brahmins burn their dead in public places. The Mohammedans bury them and place a heavy, flat, stone over the grave. And the Parsees, the most intelligent of all the people of Asia and I should say, the most highly educated, build great towers, within which the dead are placed, to be devoured by the ever present vulture.

One of the most beautiful spots along the coast, without the city of Bom¬bay, is the site of the Parsee "Towers of Silence”. A very high stone wall surrounds the entire grounds, which include some acres; the whole is laid out like a beautiful and extensive park and well toward the center stand the three towers. Just why they are called towers would be hard to say, for they are more like unroofed round houses. They are about forty-five feet high, and perhaps the same in diameter built of brick and plastered over with gray cement. Near the top, at one side, are two iron doors, which are always locked when there is not a funeral taking place. About ten feet from the top, on the inside, fastened to the wall a few feet apart and extending in a slight incline toward the center, is an iron grating, upon which the remains are placed. The bars meet within two feet at the center. Each iron bar is curved toward the center, forming a small channel, down which all moisture from the body is carried. The bottom is very deep and extends some hundreds of feet into the earth. The oldest tower has been in use for two hun¬dred and fifty years. These grounds are the home of the vultures and as they are huddled one against the other it is easy to mistake them for the parapet of the towers.

By securing a pass from the authorities the grounds may be visited at stated hours. So we started along the beach in the direction of the "Towers of Silence." Ascending the steps we were confronted by a sign printed in the English language, which warned us not to be found on the grounds after a certain hour. In response to a ring of the bell the porter opened the gate; our passes were examined, and we walked into the corridor, where a minia¬ture tower was explained by this chatty individual. We passed into the grounds. The time passed faster than I had thought; indeed I was so inter¬ested in this little woman's explanation that I took no note of time, and when the funeral hour came around we found that we were locked III the grounds. The ringing of the bell and a knock at the gate reminded me that a funeral procession was about to enter. I did not know what the penalty might be for this intrusion, which on my part was quite unintentional, but I resolved to "stand ground" and face it out. I stepped toward the porter with as much of a smile as the solemnity of the occasion warranted and in penitent tones ex¬pressed my deep regret at having transgressed the law, but suggested that, as I was already in forbidden grounds, it would be much better to remain; and placing a coin in his hand, I seated myself where I could command a full view of the procession.

Those who attended the funeral drove up in carriages, but the remains were brought through the streets on a bamboo litter, the poles resting on the shoulders of two front and rear bearers, and the sides on those of four march¬ing between the front and rear men. As they reached the steps, the bearers of the dead headed the procession. They wore long, white dresses that fell from their neck to the ground, and were girded at the waist with a sash of the same material. The fingers of each hand were bound about with white gauze, and a mitten of the same goods was pulled over the hands. This was to prevent any possible contact with the unclothed dead, for the remains were only covered with a sheet. The relatives and mourners, some ten in all, fol¬lowed two abreast, without any demonstration of any kind; a coolie brought up the rear, leading a little yellow dog by a string. This strange procession moved slowly toward the tower. The iron doors on the side had been opened and a ladder placed before it. Up this the priest made his way, and the re¬mains were handed to him, that he might place them upon the grating; this done, the little yellow dog, which protested loudly, was also handed up and placed in the tower for a few moments. The sheet was removed, the dog handed down, the descent of the priest was accomplished, the pall-bearers drew from their fingers the wrappings, and the iron doors were shut. At this particular time there chanced to be no vultures on that tower, but they had settled in numbers on the others nearby. During the entire ceremony they "perched and sat, nothing more" not even a feather moving; but the moment they heard the click of the iron door it served as a signal to call them to ac¬tion. They rose, as if on one wing, and settled in the interior of the tower. We remained seated for about half an hour and saw the birds return to their perch, knowing that every atom of flesh had been devoured and the bones had fallen from the grating to the bottom, some two hundred feet below.

When the dog is placed in the tower with the remains, his movements are watched by the priest. Should he go over and kiss the face of the dead, it signifies a happy and eternal repose; but failing to do this, the news is reported to the family of the departed one and his name is never again spoken within the household.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 10th Annual Convention
Held at St. Louis, MO
September 15, 16 and 17, 1896