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After Death (Chinese Vs Roman)

Written By Candice & Ruolan


Interested in knowing how the funeral processes took place in China and Rome? Well, you came to the right place. Both the Romans and Chinese have placed great importance to the dead. Both have taken great precautions to make the dead’s passage to the underworld as easy and safe as possible. To ensure, that the spirits of the dead ones do not wander endlessly looking for the underworld or get lost. It is interesting to compare how each of these rituals was important for them as much as it is important today.

Not many people have heard about the burial rituals during Qin Dynasty, therefore we will begin with the Chinese burial rituals. 

History, Facts and Information about Chinese Mausoleum

The emperors of ancient China began preparing their tombs once they ascended the throne. The Chinese paid great attention to funeral rites, as they believed if they brought the things they used when they were alive, they would continue to enjoy it, in the nether world.  We will be focusing on the Han Dynasty’s rituals.

Han dynasty – Preparation of the dead

The Mausoleum prepared the way in advance, as soon as the emperor ascends his throne. Firstly, the emperor will select the location where his mausoleum will be located, then his cabinet ministers will propose designs and layout. After all the decision made, then the building process of the “underground palace” will begin. It often takes many years and abundance of manpower and financial resources used. The design of the underground palace will be based on the emperor’s current palace, to ensure the emperor will be comfortable there.

Layout of the Mausoleum

The description of Han’s mausoleum was first found in the book of Han by Historian Ban Gu.  It explains the layout and the rights of using this particular type of bury process. The layout of the Mausoleum used in Han Dynasty are made of wood and this tradition discontinued after the end of Han.



This layout is called the “黄肠题凑” (Huan Chang Ti Cou). 黄肠 means the inner yellowish part of Cupressus fu nebris Endl, 题凑 referring to the tree pointing to the inner of the mausoleum building different rooms  that follow suits the living environment of the emperor while he is alive.

As usual, in the centre of the Mausoleum, is the coffin of the emperor. The emperor will be wearing jade burial suit that’s made up of pieces of jade, string together by gold threads. It is believing that jade will prevent the body from decomposition and the corrupting demons. Therefore, the jade is an essential and important part of the royal buries.

The whole layout of the mausoleum will be like a house that provided with all the luxuries of the court life: furniture, kitchen utensils, tools and weapons, ritual equipment, jewellery, foodstuffs, toilets and other appurtenances of royalty, including their unfortunate concubines, cooks and servants, who were sacrificed to serve their master in the hereafter.洛阳天子驾六博物馆.JPG洛阳天子驾六博物馆.JPG

In order for the emperors to enjoy the treatment as if they were alive, chariots and horse are also buried together with the emperor. According to Book of the Later Han by historian Fan Ye, emperor’s chariots will accompany with 6 horse to symbolise his status. Therefore, when the emperor makes its way to the nether world his chariots and 6 alive horse will be buried with him together.
The sumptuously furnished interior and luxuriously extend is unimaginable by us now. That's the reasons why most of the Han dynasty tombs had been robbed and destroy. The recent discovery of marquis of Haihun in 2011 gives us a good idea of the standard of living then and rediscovery of many hidden historical stories. Read more...


You think the Chinese funerals were creepy? Well, you sure guessed right. The Romans were less gruesome and had certain changes in their funeral processes after the 2nd century. The funerals we have today have been passed down by the Romans. There was difference in rituals between the rich and the poor, which is similar to our circumstances in today’s world. The rich had elaborate and ritualistic events; they were paid homage and rejoiced for their ancestors. A tremendous amount of attention was paid towards the funeral rituals, because they believed their souls needed to be passed on towards the Netherlands and if not, it would wander endlessly for hundreds of years along the River Styx (although initially from the Greek mythology, it was a river that formed a border between Earth and the Underworld).

How did they prepare the body?

 After the individual had died, the family and close friend would gather around the body on the bed. According to their beliefs, the closest relative would give the individual a last kiss with a closed eye to seal the passing of spirit from the dead body. The body is placed on the ground, washed and clothed in the richest garment they could afford, depending on whether they were rich or poor. Placing the body on the ground was a form of metaphor for birth, as an infant would be placed on the ground, to represent its first steps on a new world to venture. After the body is prepared and cleansed, the next following step would include the five parts to the Roman funerals; the procession, the cremation and burial, the eulogy, the feast and the commemoration.

The Procession

As mentioned before, it would all depend on how much money the family had, if they were rich and more famous, the grand the funeral procession would be. They would include mimes and musicians, as well as hire actors to mourn for the deceased. The mimes were hired to act/represent the ancestors and reproduce their character. It was imperative to worship their ancestors, as it was fundamental to their beliefs about death and the life after death. The actors were mourners and they were paid to cry and scream loudly, sometimes scratch their faces and rip their hair off their heads.

The cremation & The burial

The body is then placed in the necropolis, city of the dead, and placed upon a pyre, a combustible chemical. The body is cremated and placed into the urn; however, the Romans believed the spirit would still be lingering on earth unless the body is buried. (Although cremation was the common method used until the 2nd century, the burial method was taken over as the favoured method later in the future.) Placed in a coffin, also known as a sarcophagus, it would be decorated richly. Unlike the Chinese, the deceased would not be buried with any form of possessions. Similar to how we use photographs for the funeral, the Romans would be attached to the front of the coffin with a lifelike painting of the deceased.

After the burial

This was a speech(The Eulogy) given to praise the deceased, similar to how close friends or family would give to the deceased in a funeral at present times. Although men would usually give the eulogy, elite women were given permission to talk. However, a eulogy would only be given if the deceased was an important member of their family. To finalise the passing on of the spirit to the underworld, a feast was conducted at the end of the funeral. This would allow the family to move forward from the death. After cremation or burial, the deceased was needed to be remembered; therefore they set apart certain days of the year, at February from 13 to 21. These days were used to gather around the burial site/tomb and make an offering. The offering would calm the spirit down and help it remember it’s the past, instead of being lost in the underworld and eventually move on.  


Significance of the Funeral Rites

1) Historical Value
Understanding by looking these ancient grave would give us a good understanding of how people in the past lived, what happen during that period and the transition of many culture and innovation. The tomb will also include the lifestyle and epitaph of one. This will help the archaeology to justify the content found in various historian books. 
2) Recover the lost in history
In the recent discovery of the marquis of Haihun, one of the lost section of analects (知道/know) was found in his tomb. This lost section has been remained unfound for the past 1,800 years till archaeology discover it in the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun.  

3) Legacy and impression
They needed to leave an impression of their legacy and indeed the funeral rituals were one of the few forms of documentation about their status in society. As mentioned for both the Romans and The Chinese, the elites were given more recognition and grand preparations than the poor people. This imposed how much power the rich had, enough to have their stories held until today, for archaeologists to find.



  • Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 90, with a table of other parallels between birth and death rituals on p. 91.
  • Steven Fife. “The Roman Funeral,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 18, 2012. /article/96/.
  • Roman Funerals - Colosseum. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2016, from
  • Taylor, L. (n.d.). Khan Academy. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from
  • 洛阳的"天子驾六" 车马坑. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2016, from
  • Book of  the Later Han by Fan Ye
  • Book of the Han by Ban Gu in 82 AD
  • Retrieved October 28, 2016, from rites in ancient china-20450468