One of the greatest struggles for believers of any culture is how to express their walk with God within that culture without becoming syncretistic or holding onto traditions that would dishonor God. One of the most difficult areas to parse out, across the board, seems to be funeral ceremonies.
Yu Shuqin faced this challenge with the passing of her grandmother, a devout Christian. How would she manage to both honor her elder’s wishes and also honor God in this process? What would it look like to hold a Christian funeral that still had some local customs interwoven throughout? Would it be possible to use this opportunity to testify to the faith she and her grandparents so treasured?
In the following blog Yu shares her process of working through these challenges and the results that came of her final decision.
The original article shared much of Yu’s grandmother’s life story, which we have summarized due to the length. The original can be found in Chinese at Jingjie.
I am the first person from all of our family, immediate or extended, to become a Christian. My maternal grandmother was the second, and then my maternal grandfather the third. At the time they chose to trust in God they were already 80 years old, and to this day no other family member has made this decision. When my grandmother died, I faced an enormous challenge: How could we prepare a funeral that both demonstrated their Christian faith and also was in line with local Chinese funeral customs, all while finding a reasonable way to share the gospel in the process.
“I know that, in the Lord, we will meet again.”
In April of 2016 I was back in my hometown and it was evident that my 86-year-old grandmother’s sense of hearing and sight were already dimming, even to the point that she wasn’t able to recognize me anymore.
However, despite her severe memory loss, she still served tea and dinner to visiting family members and reminded members to make sure to rest early. This is my grandmother’s essential nature: putting others first.
In the previous month my grandmother had fallen twice, breaking her femur (the result of severe osteoporosis) and finally was confined to bed. She needed help for everything: eating, drinking, and even toilet duties. Family members gave her sponge baths. Night and day she needed the care of others. She became thin and frail, and was in considerable pain.
My 88-year-old grandfather and more than 60-year-old auntie and mother cared for my grandmother with great dedication, often staying up through the night. When it became unsustainable for the caregivers, they hired a night worker to help. Unfortunately, that person gave up after just three nights.
So, I offered to come home, realizing that this may be my last chance to be with Grandmother.
At night I would curl up next to my tiny grandmother, just as I had done 30 years previous when I was a little girl.
Laying there, I remembered when my grandmother would take me to visit relatives, tying my hair in pigtails and using a palm leaf fan to keep mosquitos from biting me at night.
During the day, brothers and sisters from the house church came to sing hymns and pray. In fact, they came so often during this season that my unbelieving relatives were moved by their care.
In our money-driven society, to see a group of non-relatives spending time and energy on a dying old lady is rare, and so our family noted that the Christian faith is an admirable one.
One sister, Sister Sun, came from a poor family; she didn’t even have a decent mobile phone. But she came almost every day when grandmother was in the hospital.
One day during the singing, my normally incoherent grandmother suddenly became very clear, singing quietly through her dry and cracked lips. Then she suddenly spoke out in our local dialect: ”I know that in the Lord we will meet again; everyone will meet with great warmth and joy, just as we are here today.”
In May I returned to Beijing but stayed in close contact over the phone with my auntie. Through conversations with her, I learned that my grandmother's health was deteriorating even more. Auntie urged me to write the eulogy as soon as possible, and in tears shared with me the story of my grandmother’s life.
Editor's Note: The following italicized section is a summary.
Shuqin’s aunt shared that Shuqin’s grandmother left school at age seven due to family poverty, and married at the age of 17. The next years were difficult, including the loss of a week-old daughter to tetanus and having four hungry children to feed. After the founding of New China she worked in a factory by day and managed household duties at night, surviving natural disasters and a forced abortion. She later worked in horrible conditions of high heat at a linoleum plant. Once she retired, she continued to work to take care of her grandchildren and her own ailing mother-in-law. Like many Chinese children, Shuqin spent her early years at home being cared for by her grandmother, and the two grew very close.
Shuqin became a Christian during her college years and excitedly returned home to share the gospel with her more or less uninterested family. Only her grandmother believed. After inviting her grandfather to spend time with believers in her husband’s hometown and then showing him the video The Cross in China, Shuqin's grandfather also began to believe.
The elderly couple became very faithful, attending a local house church in any weather and filling several notebooks with sermon notes.
It was nearly six years after her confession of faith that Shuqin's grandmother became deathly ill. In response to the phone call from her aunt, Shuqin once again returned to her hometown to be with her dying grandmother.
True to her aunt's words, within days her grandmother passed on peacefully. Now came the challenge that had been ticking at the back of Shuqin's mind throughout the dying process: how would they proceed with the funeral?
Like most county seats, local funerals in our hometown involved much pomp and ceremony, the family using extravagance to demonstrate their love for the departed. Stress is placed on choosing an auspicious day, the wearing of mourning clothing, and night vigils. At these ceremonies people expect to eat and drink well, and a Daoist priest should come and play the suona and drums. Eight Buddhist “warriors” are brought in to carry the coffin as well as a musical group to send off the deceased. At the end of a funeral you feel exhausted and spent of all energy.
Because my grandparent’s children (my elders) are now in their sixties and themselves nearly spent of energy, they found it difficult to sort out such complicated matters. Adding to this was my grandmother’s request to have a Christian funeral.
And so, although my elders did not believe in the Lord, because of all these things they chose to put the funeral in my hands. I suddenly felt that before me lay a long road and on my shoulders sat a heavy burden.
Initially, as one who had been far from home for so long, I considered myself to be a very naive intellectual. I planned to imitate the Christian funerals I attended in Beijing: Early in the morning I would invite friends and relatives to join me at the funeral parlor for a memorial service, sing hymns, reflect on the person’s life, have the cremation, and then bring the ashes to the grave. It could all be done in three hours, done simply and solemnly. Wouldn’t that be great?
However my elders felt those plans were very inappropriate. In our local customs, if when an elderly person dies we fail to observe at least a few days at the funeral hall, fail to put on a feast, and don’t put out a few tens of thousands of yuan, others will ridicule us and accuse us of not being filial.
So how would we both honor the meaning inherent in Christian funerals and also hold onto Chinese traditions? In fact, I was stunned by these traditional funeral ceremonies which seemed strange to those in my generation.
But in order to find the local expression of our Christian faith I searched out a funeral hall to ask about the local traditions for burial. As I asked questions, I couldn’t help but ruefully note that our traditional ways and those of Christianity seemed to have little in common. And yet I wanted to find a way to bridge this difference.
In the eyes of some of the more reactionary relatives Christianity is just the result of excessive love for foreign things and a rejection of one’s roots; ultimately, it stood for a cultural invasion. So my challenge was to provide an option they would willingly accept.
Fortunately, my elders were a bit more open-minded and willing to forgo some rituals, such as the arched door, burning of paper offerings, paying a Daoist priest to come, among others. However some ceremonial aspects such as the night vigil have such long and important history as signs of respect that they were unwilling to back down on these.
Actually, the vigil’s intent is good: to spend the night remembering the life of the departed. Unfortunately, though, these days it is a busy night of relatives showing up at all hours to play mahjong and is more or less a formality. And yet I still chose to honor my elder’s wishes and include the vigil.
After selecting the funeral hall, choosing the right flowers, planning the banquet, purchasing the casket, and all of the other preparations I began working on the memorial service, which would happen the day before the funeral procession. This service is the most important part of the whole funeral.
The local church had previously taken part in the memorial service for an elderly man from their community, however it was basically just a few older brothers and sisters playing instruments and beating a drum that came at the invitation of the deceased’s family. They played music and provided some of the decorations, choosing upbeat worship songs that fit the festive atmosphere of local funerals. And yet it was still hard to say how to express a truly Christian burial, with its more dignified and moving, sacred aspects.
After consulting with my relatives, we chose not to invite an orchestral percussion team and instead asked a choir to sing. I carefully selected the lyrics and tunes, choosing songs like “Memorial Song”, “Sleeping In The Lord’s Arms”, “It Is Well With My Soul”, and “Amazing Grace”. The choir mainly consisted of some 40- 50-year-old brothers and sisters, none of whom were trained or had much time to practice.
However the choir leader, Brother Tao, was very dedicated and organized everyone to practice overtime. Every time I saw them rehearse I was moved by the enthusiasm, joy, and simplicity of these brothers and sisters.
After the matter of the choir seemed set I spent the next two days finding a cameraman who respects Christianity, renting some almost new speakers, and even found a printer who warmly agreed to copy my hymn choices in spite of the late hour.
Last of all, I needed to track down an electric keyboard. I sent an urgent request to a WeChat group of classmates from my junior high years. Ultimately, a neighbor offered their son’s keyboard, for which I felt very grateful.
At 2:30 on June 16, the memorial was about to begin. The mourner’s table was covered with fragrant gardenia. Family members emerged from the noisy and unrestrained mahjong room with great curiosity, watching the robed choir and young female pastor. This sort of funeral with [Christian meaning] is rarely seen in our area, and was the first of its kind in our family.
The hall was packed, with 130-140 people, almost all my elders.
For me, coming in from the younger generation and trying to bring something new and different, there was a certain pressure and I secretly prayed, asking God to grant me courage and strength. Then I calmly walked to the front of the room.
Dear friends, welcome to the funeral of my grandmother, Qu Hongzhen. This funeral has two characteristics.
First, we chose not to follow certain customs that are an economic burden on the local population. Second, we chose not to invite the Daoist priest to perform the loud and extravagant ceremonies so often part of funerals. Instead, we chose a peaceful and quiet ceremony. This is also our first time to hold this sort of Christian funeral. If anything seems inappropriate or out of the ordinary, we request that our elders and fellow countrymen bear with us.
The choir sang, followed by the preaching of the word. The preacher exhorted the group to remember the loved one and realize that every turn of the earth has its own regular pattern.
Looking around, I saw my relatives all listening attentively.
I began to relax, and found myself shedding joyful tears as the choir sang.
Sin, where is thy sting?
Death, where is thy power?
In recent years, faced with the death of relatives and friends, I’ve realized that the only hope I have is this promise: It is not by religious practices or by personal merit, but only by the grace of Jesus Christ [that I find life].
It is because his mercies are higher than the heavens, even as the morning sun, that he entered into this world of sin and death, sacrificing himself to break the curse. He has taken that which was decaying and brought forth something wonderful, trading death for life, this human flesh for something of glory.
In the movie Interstellar, Professor Brand said: “I am not afraid of gravity; I am afraid of time, because time will ultimately take people to an end.”
Yes, in physics only gravity can defeat the power of time.
But in the Word we see that the only thing that can truly surpass both time and space is the strength of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
My Grandfather, at the Funeral
After my uncle and auntie spoke on behalf of the older generation, it was my turn to speak on behalf of the younger.
My grandparents were married for 69 years; they went through thick and thin together. They know that this parting on earth is short, but that their time in heaven together will be forever. The Bible tells us that the world’s wealth, fame, and fortune will vanish; only faith, hope, and love never fail. From my heart I truly hope that each one of you may come to know this one who redeems from sin and death, bringing the hope of eternal life, who is Jesus Christ.
Finally, with the choir singing “Amazing Grace”, the relatives lined up to pay their respects to Grandmother. As we finished, a number of relatives made a point of coming up to me and expressing how they were moved by the funeral.
Some were moved by the music, some by the lyrics, some expressed a better understanding of Christianity, and one auntie even came to the conclusion that she needed to forgive a family member where there had long been a rift. Some of the brothers and sisters in the church choir expressed interest in changing their method of planning funerals to more closely resemble this one; they appreciated the dignified and respectful manner in which it was carried out.
Early on the morning of the 17th, it was time for my grandmother’s cremation and burial. Throughout this process we chose not to use drums, but instead I played a recording of the previous days’ ceremonies. I believe that just as the songs expressed, my grandmother's soul had now found rest at the feet of Jesus.
When we came back from the cemetery, my grandfather pulled out a piece of paper and asked me very seriously: “Do you think that this inscription for our grave marker would be acceptable?”
Born in the old feudal society, when people had no way of getting by, brought into the new Communist China, when our country prospered and the people were at peace.
I laughed. “But it’s just the historical background, there’s nothing of your own personal story here!”
“Then would there be anything we could write that could express our beliefs?”
“Look, see if this couplet might work:
Happily crowned at the end of the spiritual journey, joyfully going to the land of blessing.
“If this inscription can be engraved on the tomb together with a cross, that would be better,” said my 88-year-old grandfather, quite seriously.
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