The Chinese and Orthodox Christian Remembrance of the dead
In modern Chinese Culture there are few concerns as important to people as the remembrance of the dead. Remembrance of the dead plays a role in many of China's traditional practices. In the same way, the importance of remembering the dead is an important part of Orthodox Christian practice. Between these two ancient traditions there are many striking similarities as well as important ontological differences. In order to talk about remembrance it is important to define ust what one is remembering. Chinese tradition has a number of sometimes conflicting explanations as to what happens when we die. !he best outcome is that a departed family member dies a "good death," is buried properly, and becomes an ancestor. !he afterlife of this person is sometimes explained as existing in three souls, one which resides in the name tablet on the family altar, one which resides in the tomb, and one which passes to another realm. #or one who dies a "bad death," such as one who dies unmarried, childless, poor, or by suicide or drowning, few or none of the proper rites for transformation into an ancestor may be performed. !he unmarried, especially women and children, may not e$en ha$e their name tablet placed on the family altar. !he departed is in particular danger if they ha$e no male heir to perform the rituals in ser$ice of the dead, though for some this is a$oided by a post%mortem adoption. In these cases the soul may be left wandering, in Chinese belief it may become a "good brother," a hungry ghost. &$en in these cases the soul is not left without hope. 't regular times of the year, Chinese offer food and money to the wandering ghosts, both to their departed families and to any nameless ghosts searching for food, in compassion for their unhappy state. Once a year at the (u%du festi$al, it is belie$ed some ghosts will find release from their wanderings. )omewhat conflicting with this is the belief held by some Buddhists of possible rebirth in the *estern (aradise of the 'mitabha Buddha, but in the minds of adherents these beliefs often work together. ' belief held by many is that after a time spent in the underworld, they will be reborn in a new life. +any spend this life hoping the next one will be better. #or this reason, some people choose to take their own li$es as an escape from a difficult situation. !here are some $ariations in explanations of what happens after death, and customs $ary from place to place and among ethnic groups, but I think the abo$e gi$es a fairly accurate generali,ation of the beliefs of most people in China and !aiwan. *hate$er $ariety of theories there are as to how many souls there are and where exactly they reside, let us return to the -uestion of what exactly is being remembered. Beyond a person"s -ualities which may determine what mortuary rituals are preformed, -ualities such as gender, wealth, age, children, and social or family status, each person has a uni-ue identity which is not destroyed in death. &$en if some part of the person was to be reborn, it would not change the fact that they had existed as a uni-ue person, a person which, once gi$en life, does not cease to be. 't the tomb, at the family altar, or at the table of food and money offerings, what is being remembered is the uni-ue personhood of the departed. !he rituals preformed after death are a recognition that some essential part of their lo$ed one continues to exist. Customs such as the cleaning and decoration of tombs and ha$ing a meal at the tomb, announcements to one's ancestors of marriages, births, business $entures, and other important e$ents, as well as di$ination to ask the ad$ice of ancestors, are all ways family members attempt to participate in the continued existence of the person. The remembrance of the personhood of the departed is also an important part of Orthodox Christianity. One of the most basic principles of Orthodox belief is that .od exists as !rinity, as three persons in communion. 's we humans are created in the image of .od, we are persons created for communion with one another. 's death is not an end to our personhood, so it is not an end to our communion. #or this reason we continue our participation with the departed. )imilar to Chinese funeral custom, prayers are said for the person to find rest. An important difference, however, is that the particular qualities of the person such as gender, age, wealth, or progeny are not taken into account. 'll those who carry .od"s image are e-ually and uni-uely worthy of remembrance. ' memorial ser$ice is offered three days, nine days, forty days, six months, and then e$ery year after a person's death. /Or if an Orthodox Christian person is la,y, e$ery 0 years, or worse, e$ery ten or twenty years. 1 )imilar to the Chinese custom of offering food to the dead, a plate of koli$a, or boiled wheat, is set out and censed. However, in the Orthodox understanding this food is considered to be offered to the attendees by the departed, and not offered to the departed as in Chinese understanding. One may also honor guests at the memorial by in$iting them to a fish dinner, after the memorial at Church. #urther, the dead are commemorated at regular times of the year. In the service prayers are offered for the person that their memory will be made eternal. Is it so that they will continually be remembered in the community or by the family2 Certainly that is important, especially for Chinese who desire to continue meeting the needs of the departed, but communal memory is not eternal. 's generations pass, e$en the most $enerated ancestor may be forgotten, to say nothing of those who died childless. he Orthodox practice goes higher, and asks for the person to be held in the eternal memory of !od. As "hrist hung on the cross, the thief dying next to him requested# $%ord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,$ to which our %ord replied, $ oday shalt thou be with me in paradise.$ o be remembered by !od is to be in paradise with Him. &ven when all our descendents have died, even if our family line ends, we can exist in !od$s memory eternally.
If one was asked, "*hat is the opposite of death2" our first answer might be to say, "3ife." 4owe$er, if one thinks about it carefully, the opposite of death is in fact, birth. 5eath has ended the biological process began at birth, but the life of the person created by .od has not been extinguished. 's such, their life with us has not ended. 's we pray for them they, too, pray for us. !hey see our struggles and trials and stand with us by their prayerful support. here are those who, because of the holy lives they lived or because of miraculous happenings before and after their deaths, have achieved a special place of remembrance in the "hurch. hese we call saints. 'aints are those who, because they lived their lives near to !od, remain near to Him in death. 'aints hold an important place in the Orthodox "hurch, much as ancestors have an important place in the life of their families. As "hinese venerate their ancestors, we venerate the saints of our "hurch in many of the same ways such as by placing them on our altars and by burning incense. An important difference is that while ancestors belong to a certain family, saints belong to the whole "hurch. &ven after death, saints play a role in the life of the "hurch. hey will intercede for their petitioners for all things that are for their salvation. 'aints have also appeared to many after their death. One of the earliest appearances was after the death of the second century (ishop Ignatius who, after his martyrdom, was seen by his friends to be praying for them. 'aints also appear to people in times of need as guides and healers. ' more recent example is that of a nati$e 'laskan woman, Blessed Olga +ichael, who appeared in a dream to an 'merican woman who had undergone a deep psychological trauma. 'fter the dream, the woman's pain had been taken away, and she e$entually became an Orthodox Christian. !he stories of saints fill large $olumes and space does not permit me to tell anymore, but these two example show that those who ha$e died are ne$er far from us. 'ny discussion of Orthodoxy and death without discussing the resurrection would not only be incomplete but false. 6o other celebration in our Church"s year holds such significance. But before talking about the resurrection it is first necessary to talk about the incarnation. 7esus, the son of .od, has existed from all eternity as one person of the 4oly !rinity. *hile remaining himself .od, Christ, in his incarnation as a human person, became all that we are. 4e took a human body, mind, and soul, but at the same time he remained unchanged in his di$inity. 's will happen to all of us, 7esus died. 4e was buried and his soul separated from his body. But after three days in the place of the dead, 7esus rose from the dead walked out of his tomb. By his death, death itself was defeated. #or this reason on (ascha night we not only sing, "Christ is risen from the dead," but follow it with, "trampling down death by death." !he resurrection is important to us because we belie$e that the human person is not ust a soul in a body, but a soul and a body. *ithout our bodies we are not complete, but the separation of soul and body will not last fore$er. Because of Christ's resurrection we can say with )t. (aul, $O death, where is thy sting) O grave, where is thy victory)$ (1 Corinthians 15:55) But one must ask, how is Christ"s $ictory o$er death accomplished in us2 4ow does and e$ent that happened so long ago and far away ha$e any reality for us2 It is accomplished in no less a way than our own death and rebirth into the body of Christ. !he Church is not ust an institution, but it is the body of Christ. Our entry into the Church is through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism for the Orthodox is a type of death, not a physical death, but a death to our old way of li$ing, a death to the law of death. 's we sing at (ascha and at e$ery baptism, "'s many as ha$e been bapti,ed into Christ ha$e put on Christ." 'nd with the putting on of Christ comes Christ"s $ictory o$er death. Returning to the sub ect of memory, in addition to memorial services held for specific people , the Church has many ways of remembering the dead. !he greatest of these is at e$ery 5i$ine 3iturgy when both the li$ing and the dead are commemorated when the priest represents them with pieces of bread placed on the paten at prothesis or prokomedia. 'fter communion is ser$ed, this bread is placed into the chalice together with the holy body and blood of our 3ord. !he blood saturates the bread and becomes inseparable from it. In this one can see the ontological truth of the "hurch as a body of people being united to "hrist. (ecause these pieces of bread commemorate both the living and the dead, we also see that once one has become a part of the "hurch, not even death can erase that person*s place in the "hurch. #urther, on the 'aturdays of All 'ouls before %ent and before +entecost, prayers are said for the souls of all the dead, those who died as Orthodox or not. But once again this remembrance is not a mere commemoration for the relief of the grie$ing, or an attempt to keep the next generation from forgetting those who came before them. It is a participation of the li$ing with the dead in the life of the Church, because as in the words of #r. (a$el #lorensky, $It is the eternal memory of the "hurch, in which !od and man converge. And this eternal memory is a victory over death. He in whom eternal memory lives, eternally triumphs over death.$ !he chapters ha$e yet to be written on what form the traditional death rituals will take within the Orthodox Church as more Chinese enter Orthodoxy. 6ot many details of the rituals of the Orthodox Church in China are known, and ha$ing been almost completely destroyed by the Chinese Communists there is little in the way of a current tradition for one to see. !he newly formed Orthodox churches in the largely Chinese regions of 4ong 8ong, )ingapore, and !aiwan are still growing and probably ha$e not held e$en a single funeral for a Chinese member. One suspects, though, that as more Chinese become Orthodox such practices as the burning of money or paper houses for use in the afterlife will fade away, while practices will continue which are in line with Orthodox theology such as prayers, offerings of food at memorial ser$ices, and $eneration and the burning of incense at the gra$esite at 9ing +ing /!omb )weeping #esti$al1 as well as on Orthodox feast days. 'n example of this can be seen in the $isit of a .reek priest to an Orthodox community in China. 6ormally boiled wheat is used because it symboli,ed the resurrection in that it dies before bearing fruit. )ince it was una$ailable, the priest chose to use seed%bearing fruit. !his was in keeping with the local custom at memorial offerings, while at the same time keeping with the Orthodox tradition about using boiled wheat, which falls to the ground and dies, producing much fruit. /7ohn :;<;=1 (erhaps one day the most common food used in Chinese memorial ser$ices, rice, will replace koli$a, as it already has among nati$e 'laskan Orthodox Christians. 's time goes on we will see how Chinese practices are brought into the Church as the Chinese faithful practice their traditional customs with their new understanding as a part of the body of Christ. *hen Chinese Orthodox priest #r. &lias *en reposed in the 3ord in 7une of ;>>?, on his coffin was placed the Chinese character for long life /21. *hy use a character for long life at a funeral2 Because we know that one who is held in .od"s eternal memory still truly li$es. #or all people in all cultures, the death of a lo$ed one is a tragic e$ent, but we must keep in mind that tragic as it may be, death is not the end of their existence or of our participation with them. In remembering the dead, we remember that there was a li$ing person who li$ed among us and held an important place in our li$es. When their life with us has ended, it is important to perform the proper rituals to lay them to rest, and bring comfort to them by our acts of remembrance until the time we can say, as St. ohn Chrysostom wrote in his !aschal homily, "Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the gra#e."