The burial of a parent is one of the most important events of a Chinese person’s life. To do this reverently is morally requisite, no less for the Christian than for the pagan – only the Christian is to do it in full assurance of God’s mercy to all who believe in his Name.
The Confucian teaching on funerals is explained by Chen Huanzhang (陳煥章) in The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School (New York: Columbia University, 1911). Though we should not spend indulgently on funerals, in a form of conspicuous consumption, we should take care to honour our fathers and our mothers, for this is right. The cæremonies observed in the Confucian tradition are such as are useful for training people in a natural reverence for, and service to, the memory of our departed parents; while resisting the predations of the death industry, most of us also cannot suppress an instinctive and laudable desire to pay our respects to the dead as we loved them when they were with us.
Therefore, though we may not enclose our dead in several layers of coffins, we ought nevertheless to spend a moderate amount of our substance to bury our dead decently. As Mencius says (tr. Bloom, ed. Ivanhoe),
Now, in high antiquity there were some who did not bury their parents. When their parents died, they picked them up and cast them into a ditch. Another day, when they passed by, they saw that they were being devoured by foxes and wildcats and bitten by flies and gnats. Sweat broke out on their foreheads, and they averted their eyes to avoid the sight. The sweat was not because of what other would think but was an expression in their faces and eyes of what was present in their innermost hearts. They returned home and brought earth-carrying baskets and spades to cover them over. Burying them was truly right, and filial children and benevolent people also act properly when they bury their parents.
Mencius also says of filial devotion, ‘I have heard that the noble person would not for anything in the world stint when it came to his parents.’ Thus it is that, though we must keep modesty, we should also allow our natural feelings to be expressed; for it is modesty itself that keeps us from casting our parents’ bodies into a ditch. So when our parents die we attend to them. We wrap them in shrouds lest disgust should overtake sorrow, and we put them into coffins to mourn their death and – if we are Christian – remember that in the Father’s house are many rooms Christ has prepared for those who love him. Thinking of the deaths of our parents, we can also think of the Father of all who for the love of his Son will raise up those of our parents who have placed their hope in him.
The Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey make coffins as a work of mercy, and one of the monks also offers his prayers on behalf of the deceased:
Merciful Father, by your Son’s suffering, death, and rising from the dead, we are freed from death and promised a share in your divine life. By the hands of monks each day raised in praise of your goodness, this casket was fashioned for your child who died in faith. We ask you now to bless this casket. Receive the soul of our departed brother or sister who is laid in this humble bed as in a cradle, safe in your care until the day of resurrection, when we will all be reunited in the vision of your glory who are Father, Son, and Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
Though I think there is no biblical warrant for the blessing of coffins, prayer for the day of resurrection, and for God’s blessing upon the family, is good. The Trappists at New Melleray Abbey are doing their part to help others honour God and the faithful departed, both by their prayers and by the care they put into making decent coffins. The coffins they make are not above the station of most folk, but seemly enough to hold our parents’ bodies and to commend them to us as worthy of continued honour even when they are no longer with us. As Xunzi tells us (tr. Hutton),
The standard practice of funeral rites is that one changes the appearance of the corpse by gradually adding more ornamentation, one moves the corpse gradually farther away, and over a long time one gradually returns to one’s regular routine. Thus, the way that death works is that if one does not ornament the dead, then one will come to feel disgust at them, and if one feels disgust, then one will not feel sad.
Cremation, which is alien to the Chinese way and the historic Christian practice, does not ornament but rather denigrates the dead and treats them as disposables to be burned away for ever; it is suitable for Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists. We know that worms will destroy this body, but he who is reverent and believes in the resurrection of the dead will not deal lightly with his parents’ bodies, even when they are dead, because he knows the Lord will dignify and make them glorious.
Even our Lord, when he died, was laid in a tomb by those who loved him; and Mary of Bethany had anointed him with spikenard for the day of his burial, and he had commended her for it. This is love, this is the better part, and it will not be taken away for the sake of those who scoff at the expense. God tells us we will always have the poor, and so we must serve the poor, but he does not condemn the apparent waste of money on those who are dead and will be alive. He sees both and commends us for both, and in both he makes beauty among us and his face to shine upon us.