Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/702

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
686
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

considered as acceptable a birthday present as a son can offer to his father, and coffins so given are often preserved unused for years.

The coffin having been closed, it is covered with a white cloth, and watched for twenty-one days. During this period a small red board, with the names of the deceased in raised gilt letters, standing on a pedestal, and having an opening in the back, stands near the corpse, and is the object of a species of worship. It is called the ancestral tablet, and the hole in the back of it is intended to give admission to the spirit which is supposed to inhabit it. Should the family possess no available burial-ground, a diviner is consulted to choose some lucky spot for a tomb, which must be outside a town, and generally at some distance from it, a favorite spot being on the slope of a hill overlooking water. The tombs are formed in the shape of a horseshoe, consisting of a flat platform, under which the body is laid, surrounded by a raised wall, in the center of which a stone is placed, bearing a copy of the inscription on the ancestral tablet. Of course, the degree of ornament about the tomb depends in great measure on the rank and wealth of the deceased.

It by no means follows, however, that the body is buried at the close of the twenty-one days. The necessity to choose a lucky site, or the wish to transport the coffin to some distant burial-ground, may cause delays; and cases have been known where the delay has arisen from less justifiable motives. The Chinese law will not enforce the payment of rent so long as the body of the tenant's grandfather remains unburied in the house; nor is a man's property distributed till his funeral rites are completed. Hence the necessity which sometimes arises of taking legal steps to compel the burial.

Under different circumstances, the body of the great viceroy Yeh lay for months unburied. Let us give a description of his coffin, as it was not many months ago. A few rods outside the east gate of Canton, back from the street, stands an unpretending Taonist temple. A plain, unornamented gate opens the way into a long, narrow inclosure, which leads up to the shrine. The grounds seem deserted, save that one old Chinaman stands by the inner gate. He is no door-keeper, but a street beggar. Yeh, the viceroy of Canton, has no door-keepers now.

We pass beneath another archway, and up a passage hung with white, till we reach the apartment of the dead. Here, at length, we meet a few attendants, and a Taonist priest officiates as our guide. He leads us into a small hall about twenty-five feet by twenty, hung with blue cloth, on which funereal inscriptions are embroidered in white silk. An altar stands in the middle of the room, on which are placed some dozen bowls of cooked vegetables and piles of artificial fruit, and sticks of burning incense. Behind the altar is a tablet of white silk on which are embroidered the names and titles of the late viceroy, and behind this, again, a curtain hangs from the roof to the