RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go to China, where professional mourners have been communicating sadness at funerals for centuries. They were banned for a time by the Communists during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

So when NPR's Beijing correspondent Louisa Lim read about one of China's most famous professional mourners, she thought it would make an interesting story about the re-emergence of traditional practices. She was in for a surprise. Here's her postcard from a modern funeral with Chinese characteristics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This is the sound of a funeral in China. I'm on the outskirts of the city of Chongqing, and I'm about to meet someone whose job is to go to funerals.

DINGDING MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Dingding Mao is famous for her performance at funerals, her weeping and wailing, and her hair which she wears in two high bunches. Our entry into this world is splendidly dramatic, she says, so our exit from this world also needs to be spectacular. She's here to represent the children of the deceased. Her crying shows their piety.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

LIM: In the background, a man in red and yellow robes is burning paper money, while musicians play traditional instruments. At first, I take him to be a monk. But it turns out he's an actor, but not one of Dingding Mao's troupe of seven.

So, as normal, they're cooking a big meal for the whole community, and they've set up a tent and they're cooking it outside. But at the same time, it's happening really in the backyard of a housing complex. There are all these six-story blocks of apartments beside me, and I can see skyscrapers going up just down the road. It's really transplanting old traditions right into modern China.

XU XINWEI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We need a proper mourner because young people don't know how to cry anymore, explains Xu Xinwei. It's her uncle's funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD COOKING)

LIM: As with everything else in China, the funeral starts with food, and there's a big communal meal out here. There's about 10 tables, each of them have about 10 dishes on them each, and they all look really spicy, and it looks incredibly good.

ZHANG YINGSHU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Zhang Yingshu is the daughter of the dead man, Zhang Tujin. He was 67 years old, and died of heart failure. He was a farmer who worked hard his whole life, she says, even hauling sacks of potatoes the day before he died. We need to give him a proper send-off, she says, wiping away her tears as she tucks into her food.

So the funeral is about to begin, and everybody has pulled up green plastic stools and is sitting there really expectantly waiting. The mood is kind of like the mood before a big blockbuster film is about to start.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: To the strains of "The Internationale," Zhang Tujin's family walks forward to stand around his coffin. On their heads, they wear white sackcloth - the color of mourning in China.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Dingding Mao begins the eulogy. She's dressed in white satin. Her face is serious, despite her incongruous ponytails bouncing above her ears. He was a good man, she says, a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. He has gone now. He has left this world full of love.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Dingding Mao is now on her hands and knees, crawling towards the coffin, colored lights flashing above her. You were like a tall tree sheltering your kids from the wind and rain, she moans, lying facedown on the floor.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We never thought you'd leave so soon. People are weeping all round me now.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: And then suddenly, it's over, and a young woman from the troupe is belly-dancing in front of the coffin. The mood is utterly transformed; people are wiping away their tears, and smiling. It feels kind of like sunshine after a storm.

Well, I have never been to a funeral like this before. There's strobe lighting, there's karaoke eulogies, there's belly dancing. But you know what? The crowd is loving it. There's a huge stream of people that are coming to attend the funeral. And the family is feeling that their loved one is being remembered in the right way. And that's what counts.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Chongqing.

MONTAGNE: The sounds of professional mourners, only on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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