Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Women as Mourners

(Apologies for the delay in this post, I was in Lexington, but my blog copy was not : )

Women have always been the expressers of emotions.  We are the ones who oversee the major passages that occur in life – the births, the marriages, the sicknesses, the deaths, each with its own rituals that women have performed for eons.  Death, in every culture, has always had many special rites and women have had the distinct responsibility of attending to that province.

In ancient Greece, women mourners performed the funeral dirge at a person’s death.

In ancient Rome, female mourners would be hired to keep long vigils while the body lay in state and then accompany it to its final resting place.

In ancient Egypt, women hired as mourners followed the funeral procession, wailing loudly. They were also depicted on the tomb walls.

In ancient Israel, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial, as we have though the ages, in all cultures.

In Ireland, women mourners would keen over the body.  This keening was more of a poetic nature set to a vocal wail while the women would rock or clap.

In China, women mourners are still hired today to show respect for the deceased and to help guide the grieving emotions of those attending.

Known as professional mourners, wailers, criers, weepers, keeners and carpideiras, these women were hired to lament the deceased with loud weeping, wailing, hair-pulling, clothes-tearing, even tambourine and chest beating, depending on the dead’s status and the amount of money invested in the mourning. This was done to encourage others to join in with organized, rhythmic expressions of grief.  In some countries, a hired mourner expressed all of the grief that the family could not bring themselves to do in public.

Demonstrative mourners were hired to attend the funeral services, to weep and chant.   The funeral procession not only bore the deceased to their final resting place, it also was a public display of their status in life. Hired mourners would take part in the procession, wailing and grieving, in an organized manner, as benefited the standing of the deceased.

Hired female mourners are depicted throughout literature.  From the Iliad to the Bible to Shakespeare, women have held the role of lamenter and griever.  Even in the cemetery, it is the women who stand over the graves, heads bowed, faces bearing sorrow and anguish, silently lamenting someone’s passing.

Professional mourners were used in Europe until the early nineteenth century, when they were replaced by the funeral mute.  The funeral mute was someone with a sad, melancholy face, dressed all in black, who would stand near the door of the home or church during the funeral to express grief.  They would walk behind the horse-drawn hearse, with a grieving, albeit, silent face.

The professional mourner and the public display of such emotions fell out of favor with the Catholic church and they began to suppress them.  Female mourners were replaced by religious figures such as priests intoning similar elegies and dirges, leading chants and funeral hymns, and heading up the religious procession to the burial grounds. In today’s contemporary world, funeral directors and undertakers have taken on the role as professional mourners, organizing the grieving process for families and leading the way to the cemetery. The only thing missing from our modern funeral mourners are the appearances of grief, and the tears.

Today in China, Taiwan, Brazil and Africa, female mourners are still hired to wail and grieve for the deceased.  But, during the past century, the world has changed its views regarding the vocal lamenting of grief and death.  We have become a quiet, stoic society. The tradition of the professional mourner has almost died out.  But the statue of the female mourner, I suspect, will always be there watching over us with saddened and sorrowful eyes.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ancestors' Day

Today is Ancestors Day in many Asian countries, a day to remember and honor the departed.  It is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day or Qing Ming, which means pure brightness. Ancestors Day is celebrated 15 days after the spring equinox and is the climax of a 2-week celebration when it’s believed that the ghosts of the departed walk the earth.  

It is a time when the living remember and pay tribute to their ancestors, by meditation, prayer and by making offerings to those who have become trapped in the spirit world.  In order to help these detained spirits overcome their bad karma and guide them back into the cycle of reincarnation, family members offer food and money to them so that they will watch over the ancestral family.  Relatives color eggs, have picnics and fly kites during Qing Ming to celebrate the rebirth of nature – the cycle of reincarnation. The festival began during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907,) and over 450 million people around the world will celebrate Ancestors Day this year. 

It is during this festival that family members tend to the graves of their forbearers.  The gravesite, temple or crematorium is cleaned and tidied, dirt is swept away and cremation urns are polished.  Food, along with paper that resembles money or electronic items, called joss paper or ghost money, is offered to the departed to bring them happiness in the afterlife.

Food offerings consist of what the ancestor was fond of eating, steamed fish, chicken, or eggs, served with rice and wine.  The food is prepared and offered cold, since cooking is not allowed on this day.  The food is then arranged in a certain manner, similar to the practices of feng shui, on the home alter in order to bring the family good luck, plentiful harvests and more children. Incense and candles are lit both on the home alter or at the burial site.  Food is also taken to the tomb to be offered, but the public offering consists mostly of bread and water.

The joss paper money, also known as hell money, is offered to the dead so that they can continue to have necessary and valuable things in the afterlife.  This guarantees that the deceased will be happy, and ensures they will be helpful to living relatives who may need to ask for special favors or assistance from them.  Joss paper is squares or rectangles of bamboo or rice paper with images stamped upon them.  Shops in China now offer joss paper versions of credit cards, televisions, computers, even iPads and iPhones.  The current price for two paper iPads and four iPhones made from joss paper is about 90 cents in U.S. currency.  These gifts or offerings are then sent to the deceased by way of burning. The burning of these tributes has led to frequent problems involving uncontrolled fires. More than one thousand tons of paper is burnt each year during the festival. Statistics from last year indicate that over 1,650 fires broke out during the celebration, resulting in 17 deaths and 32 injuries.

We, in the U.S., do not have such a festival to honor our ancestors. As close as we come is Memorial Day, held the last Monday in May, a day to pay tribute to those who have died while serving our country.  That date may jog our memories to drop off some floral tribute at the cemetery.  But to actually have a designated time to honor our ancestors, to tend to and repair their graves, and to just relax and enjoy the park-like atmosphere of the cemetery, we don’t really do that, not anymore.  I can remember my grandmother and great grandmother talking about ‘Decoration Day’ of years past.  About how they would prepare a picnic basket with cold fried chicken, drop biscuits and iced tea, then cut and gather peonies and roses to place on the family graves. After everything was ready they would gather the family and head out to the local graveyard where they spent the afternoon tending the relatives graves. When the work was done, they’d enjoy a picnic.  I’ve always liked that idea, spending an afternoon cleaning, tending and visiting with our ancestors, our links to the past.  So maybe today, on this Ancestors' Day, I’ll gather some spring flowers, grab a box of chicken and head out to ‘visit’ my grandparents.  It’s just another way to offer thanks for all that they did for me.  I’m sure they won’t mind if its store-bought chicken and biscuits - but a paper iPad? Ummm…no.   But, if I could get joss paper with an old radio tuned to the Grand Ole Opry?   They would be in heaven!
~  Joy