Across central China in the remote valleys to the south of
the Yangtze River, you will find the most unique burial places. The hanging coffins
are suspended so high that they are often barely visible from the ground below.
They have been discovered in crevices of the cliff face, anchored on limestone
rock about 30 meters high (almost 100 feet), balanced on wooden cantilevered
stakes, or stacked in man-made caves 300 feet up in Guizhou province, a
landlocked, mountainous province in central south China.
This ‘burial’ practice was followed by Yao and Miao minorities in the region. It is believed that the higher the coffins were placed, and therefore closer to Heaven, the greater the respect of the deceased. The suspension of the coffins slowed down decomposition of the body which ensured afterlife and immortality of the spirit; and on a more practical aspect it prevented animals from poaching the bodies and kept land free to farm.
The practice of hanging coffins can also be found in the Philippines,
most famously in Sagada.
Another curiosity of the Miao ethnic group is the belief in a supernatural power around them that decides their fate. The Miao worship tree spirits and equate human life cycles with those of trees. Firs are the only wood used for burial and only firs over 60 years old are large enough. Therefore, villagers plant trees for themselves and their descendants every year. New parents plant a fir sapling from which their children’s future coffin will be carved.
Following the burial another young tree is transplanted atop the grave site – this is the only marker for the deceased – transforming what should be a cemetery into a forest of trees.
Lions are a symbol of bravery, courage, and strength and as such are often displayed as guardians against evil spirits.
A lion resting on his paws is a symbol of patience and endurance.
In Chinese culture, they are believed to have mythical power and are often erected in pairs with the female on the left and the male on the right. The male lion rests his right paw on a ball representing the flower of life, and has his mouth open representing the sacred word OM which is said during meditation. The female lion representing nurture restrains a cub.
In the Buddhist faith, lion-like creatures called Shinto are considered divine animals of nobleness and dignity, which can protect the Truth and deter evil. Also erected in pairs, one has the mouth open, the other closed.
Chinese cemeteries are usually located on a hillside according to Feng Shui practice.
Statues found at the gates of Chinese cemeteries or guarding a grave, are Guardians of Buddah. They are known by many names: Imperial Guardian Lion, Shih Tzu of Fo, Lion dogs or Foo Dogs and are displayed in pairs. The male, sitting on the right rests his paw on an embroidered ball, which signifies the authority of man in the world and is represented as Yang. Yin is manifested to the left in the female who restrains a kitten. She represents the nurture of offspring.
In the past, many gravestones in China were in the form of an armchair which represents authority and wealth. Expense, management of land and promotion of cremation by the government has made this form of gravestone less common.
The National Environmental Agency has an exhumation policy which limits the number of years a body can lay in the grave. After 15 years bodies are exhumed to make way for new burials. Bodies not claimed before exhumation are destroyed.
A Chinese gravestone usually has at least three columns of characters. The size of the writing indicates the relative importance of the information. The writing in the middle column showing the name of the deceased tends to be larger than that on the side columns. Most gravestones have the family name first followed by given names. Information relating the date and place of birth and age of the deceased is inscribed on the right hand side (east) and the date and time of death is found on the left (west).
Qingming Festival in Singapore is also known as Grave Sweeping day. Chinese families honor the dead by cleaning family graves and burn offerings to appease the dead in the afterlife.