The Confucian Art of Living Well (3): Caring for the Dead


Until my own mother died, I always found our modern way of dying a little bizarre: we are one of the two civilizations that routinely mummify their dead, except that for us it is more about looking good; the funeral itself has become an expensive production with rigid protocols attached to it, and the show itself is staged by somebody called a “funeral director” rather than a mere “undertaker,” whose job used to be just to take the dead person under. Why are we doing it like this, why should this be the way to mark a death? The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi, a near contemporary of Confucius, mocked the Confucians for what he considered an obsession with rituals, and wondered why we needed such complex and expensive funerals: the money would be better spent on something useful, like helping the poor. We might even infer from Mozi’s arguments against funerals that ritual itself is wasteful; indeed, from the point of view of practical utility, we would be better off if we pared down all the major rituals to the bare minimum. This niggardly attitude to the ceremonial aspect of civilized life has stuck like a thorn to the underside of all Confucian social thinking from Mozi through Mao to all those contemporary Chinese businessmen who see life only from the perspective of engineer or investor. It is an attitude that both Confucians and Daoists had to reckon with, because somehow the idiotic notion that “utility” can be an end in itself strikes a chord with many people, then as now, both East and West. One focus of the Confucian counter to Mozi was to defend the importance of funerals, and this defense took two forms.

The first was expressed by Mencius, who argues that social and ethical practices have their roots in human nature. Significant rituals exist because they satisfy a need of the human heart.

Imagine people long ago who didn’t bury their parents. When their parents die, they toss them into gullies. Then one day they pass by and see them there: bodies eaten away by foxes and sucked dry by flies. They break into a sweat and can’t bear to look. That sweat on their faces isn’t a show for their neighbors: it’s a reflection of their deepest feelings. So when they go home and return with baskets and shovels to bury their parents, it’s because burying parents truly is the right thing, the Way for all worthy children and Humane people. (Mencius, 5.5, trans. Hinton)

For Mencius the essence of virtue is Ren, or Humaneness, and this is a natural seed in the human organism that seeks expression and development, much as an acorn seeks water and sunlight because it needs to grow into an oak. Funerals are thus a natural efflorescence of the heart, and it makes no more sense to describe them as useful or useless than to describe a tree as useful or useless. The same would apply to music, art, all the so-called higher manifestations of culture that do not necessarily serve practical ends and that Mozi also despised.

While Mencius amplifies the “heart” aspect of Confucius, Xunzi — the other major student of Confucius, although writing a couple of centuries after him — picked out “ritual” as the central thread of the Master’s thinking. Xunzi does not agree with Mencius about the natural goodness of human beings; indeed, history, the daily newspaper, and our own lives give sufficient evidence of innate stupidity and destructive selfishness. For Xunzi, ritual becomes a means to shape flawed human nature into something that permits harmonious social living as well as greater emotional satisfaction. He often uses the image of a craftsman working with wood — for instance, in bending it with steam, where the wood is not destroyed or violated, but reshaped into something we want. The resultant object may not even look like the original. The roaring crowd at a football match is not aware that the game is a sublimated version of war. The elder statesman writing his much anticipated memoirs is not immediately aware that his project is sublimated desperation in the face of death.

The word translated “Ritual” is Li, which can also be translated “propriety” or “ceremony.” It’s important to understand that by “Ritual” the Confucian thinker doesn’t just mean “ceremonies” or “rites,” but the broader and more pervasive unstated codes that pervade every social interaction. For example, conversation tends to follow sets of fairly intricate rules that may be hard to master for someone from a different culture: when to speak, how much to speak, when to stop, how to know that the interlocutor has stopped, how to ask questions or make challenges, where are the lines that one must not cross, how to address the interlocutor, how to say no….Some people have no sense for such things, and some people — the ones who can challenge without offending, or who can interrupt without seeming to — have astonishing finesse. These implicit rules of engagement have a kind of governing function in any social interaction, and are effective in governing because we are unaware of them. If we try to spell them out to someone who cannot “get” such subtleties, we will realize that they cannot be reduced to formulas and therefore are not really “rules” but principles that have to be played out and explored in particular situations. Whenever a Confucian describes someone as “having Ritual,” what is meant is that the person spoken of has an instinctive grasp of such principles and a knack for how they play out in real circumstances, not just in theory. But Ritual is not only a social fact; it also occurs in solitude, as when we have to observe definite steps before we can fall asleep at night, or before we can leave the house, or meet a stranger.

As Mencius keeps saying, Ritual is a natural extension of our heart’s desires: we want to take care of our loved ones after they die. Xunzi agrees with this: Rites are a means of satisfaction. (Hsun Tzu, Basic Writings, trans. Watson, 89) The failure to follow Ritual results in a frustrating chaos of haphazard action in which no one is satisfied:  …if a man concentrates upon fulfilling ritual principles, then he my satisfy both his human desires and the demands of ritual; but if he concentrates only upon fulfilling his desires, then he will end by satisfying neither. (91)  Xunzi describes Ritual as “guideposts” — signs of the path in a terrain where the path is hard to see. Our moods may have many shades of disturbance or agitation, which we may not even be conscious of, but our bedtime ritual gives us the path to falling asleep. In the tougher transitions of life, where most of us might have no clue how we will feel as we move from one status to another, as in the change from single to married or childless to parent, the ritual “guideposts” are distillations of the experience of generations, helping us to move through the bewilderment, to function in the midst of a situation that we don’t yet know how to understand. Funeral rituals are the best example of this — for here we have well developed codes of behavior that help us to live while in a state of intense grief and utter perplexity.

Xunzi’s chapter on Ritual is an exquisite, and sensitive, meditation on how Ritual confronts the defining fact of our lives — mortality. The rites of the dead can be performed only once for each individual, and never again. They are the last occasion upon which the subject may fully express respect for his ruler, the son express respect for his parents. (97) Because the funeral is the last chance to do this, To fail to treat the living with sincere generosity and reverent formality is the way of a rustic; to fail to bury the dead with sincere generosity and reverent formality is the way of a miser. (97) The formality he speaks of is not just an attitude, but a dramatic structure that expresses an emotional structure. Every funeral follows a deep emotional logic. All rites begin in simplicity, are brought to fulfillment in elegant form, and end in joy. When rites are performed in the highest manner, then both the emotions and the forms embodying them are fully realized; in the next best manner, the emotional content and the forms prevail by turns; in the poorest manner, everything reverts to emotion and finds unity in that alone. (94)  Xunzi is aware that the emotional logic of the highest rituals may not make straightforward logical sense, but one who knows the windings of the heart will know what is appropriate and will not be deceived by superficial ceremoniousness. The meaning of ritual is deep indeed. He who tries to enter it with the kind of perception that distinguishes hard and white, same and different, will drown there…if the gentleman is well versed in ritual, then he cannot be fooled by deceit and artifice. (94-5)

When, arriving several hours after my mother had died, I saw her lifeless form, I was shocked and sorrowed by the obvious suffering her body had undergone, and the relief that had settled in her face: the body had collapsed into peace. She had been in unimaginable pain for weeks, uncomplaining, yet aware of the assault on her dignity — and this assault was present and forceful in the smell of the room. The body had to be seen to immediately: beloved relatives would come in a few days, and in my filial devotion, instantly aware of what she wanted and what was right, I knew she could not be seen like this. In one single moment my scorn of embalming and beautification had evaporated: for her last social appearance, she would look like herself, a graceful and lovely lady. This would be seen to with promptness and skill. Xunzi knows that were it not so, affection for her would have diminished, for no one can stand to be around a rotting corpse: this is not shallowness in human nature, just an emotional fact that we must respect. It is the way with the dead that, if they are not adorned, they become ugly, and if they become ugly, then one will feel no grief for them. Similarly, if they are kept too close by, one becomes contemptuous of their presence; when one becomes contemptuous of them, one begins to loathe them, and if one begins to loathe them, one will grow careless of them and cease to treat them with reverence. (100) My father and I would behold her dead body with inquisitive wonder, amazed that her chest seemed to be gently rising and falling: we knew the body was cold, but was she still breathing or not? This feeling persisted through much of the day: …he cannot bring himself to order the articles needed for the laying in the coffin or the dressing of the corpse. Weeping and trembling, he still cannot stop hoping that the dead will somehow come back to life; he has not yet ceased to treat the dead [person] as living. (99)

Over the weeks to come, each day was punctuated by “ritual” conversations, over the phone or at the front door,  with friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and family. The nature of these conversations would vary in intimacy according to the respective distance of each category of person, but every time there would be the same basic pattern of informing, condoling, and weeping: it was a humane pattern, but nonetheless a pattern, giving structure to the emotions and enabling articulate caring to occur. Before I actually witnessed this, I would have seen it as a brutal exposure of the bereaved person to social obligation — but now I understood that the repetition of the ritual exchange is crucial both for the internalization of the reality of loss, in the individual and the community, and also for the assurance of communal support. It enables closure and transition.

We had no idea how to go about choosing an undertaker or funeral format, and by luck ended up with Henry Goodwin and Son, who sent us a funeral director the same day. Mark Ryder visited us at home, sat on the couch with briefcase on his lap and papers spread on the carpet before him as he took us through his list of questions about my mother, our family, and our wishes. He helped us sort through the alternatives, always with  gentle tact towards our emotional confusion. Over the next week, I grew to appreciate just how much, how many people and how many details, this man had to coordinate — and that for such an occasion he had to coordinate it perfectly, and he did. The utter professionalism was admirable. One might argue that of course he did, because he was being paid well for his services. But what we saw was a fusion of professionalism and genuine compassion for his clients: he was considerate every step of the way, anticipating emotional needs and flexible with odd requests. While writing the obituary for publication, he would supply words and phrases every time we couldn’t think of what to say, and those words were usually the stock terms seen in most obituaries: there was nothing individual, nothing surprising. Before this, I might have snorted at the platitudes that could not possibly do justice to my particular mother — but now I saw that the platitudes were also truthful, kind words that helped to smooth the feelings and soften the edges. Here again Ritual was a series of guideposts, leading us through the dark — and our funeral director was the master in charge of Ritual. He was something of an artist, a sculptor, a composer, of emotions:

The beginnings of these two emotions [joy and sorrow] are present in man from the first. If he can trim or stretch them, broaden or narrow them, add to or take from them, express them completely and properly, fully and beautifully, seeing to it that root and branch, beginning and end are in their proper place, so that he may serve as a model to ten thousand generations, then he has achieved true ritual. But only a gentleman of thorough moral training and practice is capable of understanding how to do this. (102)

He was most impressive when he led the hearse on foot up our street, his long slow strides taking us to the main road: perfect timing, perfect rhythm, lending dignity to both deceased and bereaved on their last day together. Every single person involved in the event contributed to its perfection, and acted as exemplars for the rest of us: If bankers, doctors, lawyers, electricians, teachers would all act with this fusion of professionalism and empathy, the world would be all right.

The coffin we chose for the cremation was of wicker, attentively and precisely woven by somebody who clearly cared for getting these things done right. The detailed weave of the coffin, right down to the handles that could not fail, carrying not only my mother but all of us over this threshold, was an apt image for the way this whole Ritual united form and meaning.

When form and meaning are emphasized and emotional content and practical use slighted, rites are in their most florid state. When form and meaning are slighted and emphasis placed upon emotion and practical use, rites are in their leanest state. When form and meaning, and emotion and practical use, are treated as the inside and outside or the front and back of a single reality and are both looked after, then rites have reached the middle state. Therefore the gentleman understands how to make rites florid and how to make them lean, but he chooses to abide in the middle state, and no matter whether he walks or runs, hurries or hastens, he never abandons it. It is his constant world and dwelling…Rites are strictest in their ordering of birth and death. Birth is the beginning of man, death his end. When both beginning and end are good, man’s way is complete. (96)






2 thoughts on “The Confucian Art of Living Well (3): Caring for the Dead

  1. My family and I had similar experiences when my mother died. We had many different communities of support, some of which were temporary, others of which based on relationships of long-standing. I remember being immensely grateful for the funeral director and others who guided us with both tact and clarity through the many and completely unforeseen decisions that needed to be made.

    And I was aware that in many cases, it was helpful to have various tradition or rituals to fall back upon. To worry about expressing the myriad conflicting emotions at the time with complete “authenticity” and “sincerity” would been a tremendous burden. To be able to “go through the motions” at the times when the heart felt most bereft and confused was actually a great gift.

    I’m not sure from reading your blog whether the events you describe were recent (since your reflections link up so well with your series of essays on Mencius), but I offer condolences to you and your family, and wish you all continued strength despite your loss.

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