Navigation auf

Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Funerary Practices in Taiwan

In Taiwan, traditional funeral practices are confronted with newer ones that are considered more modern and receive more support from state policies. A foreign researcher interested in these developments should not be puzzled to encounter raised eyebrows.

Urs Weber

It was already late in the evening, but the mourning rituals that took place in a hall inside a public funeral parlor in New Taipei City seemed not yet over. The three Daoist priests chanted as intensively as the hours before, and the musicians played their instruments without any sign of tiredness.

A cemetery in Taipei, Taiwan. (Picture by Urs Weber)

Accompanied by members of the bereaved family, the priests later went outside in front of the hall in order to burn several bundles of paper money. As it turned out, however, the priests’ decision was not in accordance with the funeral parlor’s effective regulations that prohibited the burning of paper money outside an oven specifically for this purpose. But the priests showed dissatisfaction with the fact that the designated oven has been used for the burning of different kinds of paper money, the one for the deceased, as well as the one for deities, and decided to adhere to their own ritual standards and to light a small fire on a different spot outside on the street.

It was not the first instance of tension between different institutions involved in mourning and funeral practices. For a few decades now, the Taiwanese state has been creating incentives for the population to choose cremation over ground burial, while discouraging traditional burial practices.

A competitive market

Such tension between state policies and traditional religious practices reveal a fact that turned into a personal experience in the fieldwork: In contemporary Taiwan, issues pertaining to mourning and funerary practices are differentiated into distinct institutions and actors—and this differentiation reached such a degree that one might speak about different “worlds.” Not only does the state operate in its own dynamics, and, by issuing various policies in order to solve social problems, creates tension with traditional practices as a by-product. Moreover, commercial funeral enterprises, which specialize in offering different kinds of funeral services and products, constitute a competitive market where, again, the state has intervened from time to time in order to fight corruption and non-transparent pricing.

Doing fieldwork about funerals in Taiwan therefore meant entering not one unified culture, but a rather heterogenous network of differentiated worlds, only loosely connected by its actors’ mutual focus on mourning and funerary practice. Entering these distinct worlds turned out to be a challenge, but as a process of engaging in communication with the different actors and organizations in question, it revealed unexpected aspects about the research topic.

Openness and discretion

For example, visiting places like a public cemetery, on the one hand, or a private funeral company, on the other, implied involvement in dissimilar forms of interaction. Not only did the content of the interviews differ, but also the interviewees’ expectations about meeting with a researcher from Europe. Whereas the personnel at public cemeteries were open about different modes of burial, even mentioning that—just in case I was interested—their newest offer in natural burials was available to people from other countries, funeral directors at commercial enterprises seemed very busy and rather surprised about my research interest as a foreigner.

The fieldwork involved diverse worlds: the state and its funeral policies; enterprises in the competitive market; and religious rituals. Aside from the content of interviews and observed rituals, the considerable difficulty of getting in touch with these worlds provided additional insight into the research field from a different, unforeseen angle.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, p. 37)

Weiterführende Informationen

Notes from Fieldwork

In the Fall semester of 2015, four doctoral students left their desks at the URPP Asia and Europe to do fieldwork abroad. This was an opportunity to ask them to write a personal account of their experiences in the field. What follows are their reports dealing with India (Nina Rageth), Japan (Nathalie Marseglia), Tunesia (Rasmus Brandt), and Taiwan (Urs Weber).