Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

Scenes from a marathon six-day Daoist funeral deep in the heart of China

January 31, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Family mourners, one holding tablets representing the deceased, make a fire with paper money to light the way between the worlds of the living and the dead for the soul of the deceased.
The funeral procession, led by family members, carries the casket toward the chosen gravesite about a mile away.

In the Great Bear mountains of China’s Hunan Province lived a respected Daoist priest, ordained in 1946, who served his local community with ritual expertise. The community knew Master Jiang was coming to the end of his life, and his death early this year brought about an intense six-day ritual-filled funeral bringing this poor community together in mourning and celebration.

Photographer Nick Otto heard about the coming funeral from a friend who has spent significant time studying Chinese religion, and Otto did everything he could to get there from his home in San Francisco. “When an opportunity comes up to be a part of something so personal and traditionally so important it is impossible to pass up,” Otto said. “As the world grows more connected, local traditions will be lost or forgotten. I want to bear witness and document these traditions.”

The ceremonies would start each day around 7 a.m. and go until 11 p.m. “The whole process is so complicated right down to the art and writing on the walls,” Otto said. “Each day there were numerous ceremonies. Some were simple chants performed by other Daoists, some involved the family members walking in circles around the closed coffin, and others still involved the summoning of gods.”

Born in July 1928 and ordained in 1946, Master Jiang became the most respected Daoist priest in his locale despite never having traveled more than a few miles outside his rural hamlet, according to David Mozina, an assistant professor at Boston College. “He served as the mentor to the Daoists priests who officiated at his funeral,” Mozina said.

For Otto, U.S.-focused news misses the mark when it comes to telling China’s story:

“What we hear about China in the news, especially here in the U.S., are narratives about it being a growing economic power and having military strength. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most of China is still poor. So much of what stays with me from the time I lived in China are the people and experiences outside of the cities.”

Family mourners ritually feed the deceased a meal.
Family mourners in white, the color of death, accompany tablets representing the deceased to the small temple housing the tutelary gods of the hamlet to notify them of the death and ask for support during the funeral.
Family members take part in a ceremony recognizing the deceased before flames that are burning paper money. Children are exposed to these ceremonies and practices in the hopes that they are carried on for generations.
Family members and friends circle the coffin to say their last goodbyes.
Neighbors and friends are charged with carrying the casket from the home of the deceased to its final burial spot about a mile away.
Priests perform a ritual dance in which they are walking in the pattern — “walking along the guideline” — of the stars of the northern sky.
On a traditional wood-burning stove, which is still the norm in rural houses, cooks prepare a meal for mourners attending the six-day funeral.
Lunchtime provides respite from the ceremonies and a chance for people to chat and enjoy a meal.
The head officiant of the funeral performs hand gestures (mudras punctuating crucial moments in the rites.)
Mourners watch as a massive fire burns the many items, all paper, that the deceased will need to make him comfortable during his three-year stay in the underworld before rebirth.
Two mourners walk toward a house through a haze of firecracker smoke and the flames of burning paper money, both of which are prevalent throughout the funeral.

More on In Sight:

The transformation of New York’s Chinatown in the 1980s

Inside the solitary life of an Alzheimer’s sufferer

These forgotten shreds of plastic helped a photographer mourn his mom

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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