We began by eating a customary vegetarian meal before departing to the funeral home for the wake. When we arrived at the funeral home, the family was assembled in the entry way, and it was crowded. There were four children, eight grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. Everyone was waiting because of the customary way Chinese enter the space of their deceased loved one.
At Chinese funerals, family lines up before entering based on age and gender: sons enter first, then daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, etc. The rest of the family follow in that order, males first, then females. It would have been nice to enter with my father and brother, but I followed the Chinese tradition expected of me.
During the wake and the funeral the next day, we observed many Chinese customs. I had researched Chinese funerals so I wasn’t taken completely by surprise. I knew why some of the customs were being observed that evening, and I asked my cousins about those I didn’t understand. Some they knew, and some they didn’t. For those, we had to call on their parents to explain.
Custom, according to Merriam-Webster is “an action or way of behaving that is usual and traditional among the people in a particular group or place.” Belief, the dictionary says, is “a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true.”
In the western world, our funerals are much different, my uncle observed. Yet the emotion is the same. We grieve our lost love ones; we celebrate their life; we share memories and laughter; we gather as family.
I was grateful to be with family, and I look forward to next spring when we gather to remember my grandmother.
Have you found yourself in a situation with unfamiliar customs and traditions? What did you learn from that experience?
Gwen Edwards is serving a second term on the Women of the ELCA executive board and lives in Bellevue, Nebraska.
Photo: Gwen’s grandmother celebrating her last birthday.