Traditional Asian Funeral Etiquette

Asian Funeral with Alter

Funeral customs vary greatly in the Asian culture.  The following article refers mostly to traditional Chinese funeral customs.  

If you are attending an Asian Funeral, there are a few rules of etiquette that are very important to follow. The burial process of someone who has passed is taken very seriously in Chinese society. Asian culture teaches that someone who is buried without the proper funeral customs will bring bad luck and disaster to the family. Cremation among traditional Asians is very rare.

Asian culture uses beauty and respect throughout their funeral services. Every detail is covered and has special meaning behind it. The traditions they use have been passed from generation to generation to make the end-of-life transition more beautiful.

What To Expect When Attending An Asian Funeral

The funeral process and rites are based on how traditional the family is, as well as age, social status, and marital status.

Tradition teaches that an elder is not to show respect to someone who is younger. So, if the funeral is for a younger person, their body cannot be brought home (as is custom for an older person). This also goes for an infant or child. The services will be held at the funeral parlor, in a way similar to western funerals.  Since no respect can be shown, there are no vigils, prayers or offerings made, the service and burial will be made in silence.

Wake or Viewing at An Asian Funeral

Traditional Asian funerals will be held at the home of the deceased. If the death occurred inside the home, the casket and service will be held inside. If the death occurred outside of the home, the casket and service will be in a courtyard near the home. Wreaths, flowers and a picture of the deceased will sit on top of the coffin.

Traditional funerals last for 49 days, with the first 7 being the most important. However, if the family doesn’t have the financial means, the funeral will last 3-5 days with the first day being the most significant.

What to Wear To An Asian Funeral

Family of the deceased do not wear any jewelry and avoid wearing anything red. The color red is strictly forbidden at an Asian funeral. Wearing white is symbolic of death; relatives often wear a white robe in honor of their loved one. However, western influence has made dark-colored clothing acceptable for most Asian funerals.

The blood relatives and close family members have a specific code to follow when dressing for the funeral services.

Clothing Color Code As Ranked By Family Status:

  • Children and daughter-in-laws wear black. This is a sign that their grief is the strongest. Often, a sackcloth is worn over their heads.
  • Grandchildren wear blue.
  • Great grandchildren wear light blue
  • Son in-laws wear bright colors such as white, since they are considered outsiders.

Seating At An Asian Funeral

The coffin is set up on two stools or stands. Food is often placed in front of the coffin as a sign of respect. An altar containing burning incense will be lit near the coffin, as well as a white candle at the foot of it. The eldest son will sit at the left shoulder of the parent’s coffin with the spouse of the deceased at the right. Any other family members that come will crawl on their knees to the coffin. Friends will often sit off to the side or near the rear of the mourners, to keep from disrespecting the family.


It is customary for close family members to cry and mourn loudly as a sign of respect and loyalty. This is not something that is required by anyone other than close family members.

Incense & Gifts

Guests at the funeral are expected to light incense and bow to the family as a sign of deep respect and sympathy. Typically there is a donation box set up to help the family with the funeral expenses.

What To Expect After the Wake

After the prayer ceremony or wake, the coffin is nailed shut. This represents the separation between the living and the dead. Yellow and white paper is pasted on the coffin to protect the body from evil spirits. Everyone attending must turn away during the sealing process.

Once the body is in transport to the burial site, the coffin will be placed on the side of the road in front of the house, where more prayers and offering will be made. Family members may scatter shredded paper.

The Procession

The hearse drives slowly for 1 mile. The family members will follow on foot with their foreheads touching the hearse. If there are several family members, a white cloth will be attached to link them all together.

The procession line-up goes the same as the seating for the wake or viewing. Family first, friends following afterwards.

The Burial

At the burial site everyone must turn away as the coffin is moved from the hearse into the grave. Once the coffin is lowered, the guests and family members will turn around and place a handful of earth into the grave.


Out of respect and as a sign of mourning, family members will wear a piece of cloth as an outward sign of grief over the next 100 days.

  • Black cloth is worn by the children and spouse
  • Blue for the grandchildren
  • Green for the great-grandchildren.

It is traditional for the clothes worn at a funeral to be burned to avoid bad luck. If you are guest at the funeral, this is not required.

Family members will receive a red packet with money inside, as a gift from the deceased’s immediate family.

If you are still unsure of your role in the funeral, speak to a family member or close friend for details of the service. You want to make sure that you respectful of the traditions and culture that makes this service so special.

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2 Responses to “Traditional Asian Funeral Etiquette”

  1. […] light yellow, light pink and other pale colors are the most commonly used colors for an Asian funeral. These flowers give hope to those who […]

  2. Steve Suehiro says:

    Please note that your section regarding “Asian” funerals is specific to a type of Chinese Funeral Service and does not apply to other Asian Cultures, such as Japanese, Thai, etc.

    Using the term “Asian” instead of “Chinese” here is therefore misleading. “Asian” refers in general to a large group of people, including Indians, Japanese, Korean, etc. It is not exclusive to Chinese.

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