Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at the age of twelve. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as an Assistant Pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in his US hometown of Cincinnati, OH. He also serves as the China Partnership Translation Manager.
I was scheduled to preach at our church’s Ash Wednesday service, but a couple days before the service I received a call that one of my relatives had passed away in Boston. I told our senior pastor before leaving, “Instead of preaching on Ash Wednesday, I will be living Ash Wednesday.” Little did I know how true my statement would be.
A Traditional Chinese Funeral
We arrived at the funeral the following day – a windy, rainy New England winter morning. The funeral was small, attended only by immediate family and close relatives. All of my relatives are immigrants from southern China who have lived in the United States for over fifteen years. The deceased was my great-aunt, who had lived in the United States since 1990. But like many Chinese immigrants, her immediate family opted to have a traditional Chinese funeral in the cemetery.
The funeral began with attendees lining up to offer incense to the deceased, starting with immediate family members and proceeding from oldest to youngest mourner. As the aroma of the incense rose up toward the sky and its ash piled up next to the casket, all the attendees gathered around a fire pit for the next ritual.
The funeral director brought out several large bags and boxes of paper products. Family members waved the paper products to the casket, and then they were tossed one by one into the pit for burning. First were white and yellow pieces of paper folded into the shape of ancient Chinese gold bars, then the funeral director brought out several pink and red traditional Chinese dresses made with paper. These were also tossed into the fire. Then came the more interesting, non-traditional items: fake American hundred-dollar bills, drawings of gold watches, smart phones, and jewelry. Next we saw a set of cardboard mahjong (a traditional Chinese tile game, like dominoes) being tossed into the pit. Finally, a small black Mercedes made of cardboard was thrown into the fire. The funeral director proudly pointed out, “The Mercedes comes with a driver, too!”
Would You Pray With Us Today?
The burning of these paper goods symbolizes the transference of our worldly possessions to the deceased to prepare them for their lives in the next world. This ritual is usually conducted with a mix of grief and irony. Family members grieve the passing of a loved one, but they also take comfort that their loved one will now get to enjoy some luxuries that many of us would never enjoy in this world. How many of us are driven around in a black Mercedes with a personal chauffeur?
This same ritual will be renewed every year at Qing Ming, a traditional Chinese holiday in April, during which families visit the gravesites of their loved ones and offer up a new round of offerings. I am not certain how many of my relatives actually believe in the next world, but at this moment this ritual at least offers my grieving relatives a way to remember my great-aunt and assist her as she goes on her next journey.
As these paper goods were reduced to ashes and their smoke filled up the air, we all turned our back to the casket as the funeral workers close the vault. Then we all lined up to say one last goodbye, again beginning with the immediate family, then from oldest to youngest attendee. But before leaving, all of us had to step over the fire pit, now full of ash, in order to burn off all the bad luck and cleanse ourselves from the taint of death as we departed the funeral.
Death Awaits Us All
Some may decry these rituals as superstition – many of my Chinese relatives themselves would do so. But how many of us live our lives pursuing and fighting to hold onto our worldly possessions, which will also one day all be reduced to ashes? Whatever our beliefs about the next life, these Chinese rituals at least teach us that in the end, we all return to dust. As I write two days after this year’s Ash Wednesday, the stock market just ended its worst week since the Great Recession due to panic over the new coronavirus. It may be that the financial market has also suddenly woken up to the reality that eventually everything is reduced to ashes.
“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death awaits us all; this is the fate that we all share around the world as descendents of Adam. Americans toss flowers into the grave, Chinese people burn things to ash, but in the end they all turn to dust. Christians around the world hold Ash Wednesday services to remind ourselves of this reality.
New Life from the Ashes
But Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of our journey toward Easter, and this is the strange paradox we Christians feel toward ashes. As Richard Holloway writes,
Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own… My life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma… the strange duality of dust and glory.
Ancient Chinese tradition says that the deceased can somehow take worldly possessions into an unknown next world by burning paper replicas of material goods, but we Christians have the sure hope of resurrection, where God will breathe new life into our ashes and raise these dry bones into imperishable bodies. The world as we know it will be restored to its fullest glory. The bad things we see in this world will be undone; the good things will never be taken away; and the best is yet to come.
And lest you think our belief is just as superstitious as these ancient Chinese rituals, it is not. The resurrected Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, is the first-fruit of this restoration. He is the proof that our hope is not in vain.
If you ever have the opportunity, go observe a traditional Chinese funeral. Observe the grief and futility of our earthly lives as we reduce everything to ash. But then remember that our hope is not in the cleansing of the fire pit or the transfer of goods into the next world, but in the cleansing of the blood of Jesus Christ, and in the restoration of our ashes into life.