A jade burial suit? Are you crazy?

The day after my paternal grandmother died, I went to a funeral home with my uncles Jim and Paul to pick out a casket.

The director of the funeral home met us at the entrance and said he was sorry for our loss. We followed him to a brightly lit room, where around a half-dozen caskets were on display.

“This is one of our basic models,” the funeral director said, pointing to a casket with an oak finish. If we wanted to go with something “a little more expensive,” he suggested a coffin with a shiny white exterior that resembled marble.

Not even the most basic casket seemed appropriate for my grandmother. Aesthetically speaking, she was a woman of simple tastes.

“$2,000 for a casket? Are you crazy?” I could imagine her saying. “Bury me in a cardboard box, and use the money to buy Jimmy a new coat for winter!”

I thought of that trip to the funeral home over the weekend, when my girlfriend and I visited the National Museum of China. We were short on time (halfway to the museum, I realized I had left my passport at home; foreigners need to show one to get a ticket), so we decided to tour the “Ancient China” exhibit and call it a day.

The exhibit begins in prehistoric times and weaves through thousands of years of Chinese history, ending in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It includes artifacts unearthed from tombs and farms, such as intricately carved bronze wine containers, life-sized clay warriors and ancient scrolls.

The piece that caught my attention was a jade burial suit. I’d never seen anything like it. The suit was sewn with gold thread during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) and contained more than 4,000 pieces of jade, including a special “pouch” for the male genitals.

A jade burial suit at the National Museum of China. Jade was regarded in ancient times as having extraordinary power.

The suits were used exclusively for the highest-ranking nobles, according to a report on ancient Chinese civilization from the University of Washington. “Jade was believed to possess magical properties that would protect the body from decay and ward off evil spirits,” it said. “Attempts to preserve the body reflect the belief that the earthly aspect of the soul continues to dwell in the body after death.”

The suits took up to 10 years to make. My grandmother would have been appalled.

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12 thoughts on “A jade burial suit? Are you crazy?

  1. My students have been reading about Jade Burial suits and have read several informational texts about them. We read you blog. The students were fascinated by your experience being able see one.
    One student commented: Thank you for telling us about the Jade burial suit. Can you give me some gold thread?
    Another student commented: Thanks for telling us about jade burial suits. We read Jade Burial Suits about prince Liu Sheng. He has 2,500 plaques. Was the one you saw a different king or was it a bigger prince?
    The last student wrote: Who’s burial suit did you see?

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!:)

  2. Jimmy, my students have been learning about Jade Burial Suits for the past week. We’ve read two informational texts that taught us why they were used and who made them. We also read your blog entry. They really enjoyed hearing about the suits from someone who actually got to see them in person!! The previous few comments are information that they learned throughout the week and wanted to share. Thanks for sharing your experience with us! If you have any other information you’d like to share we’d really appreciate it! 🙂

    • Hello,

      Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad your students enjoyed the post. The burial suits were probably my favorite part of the museum. I’ll check out a couple of sources and see if I can find some more information. If I do, I’ll post the links on here or you can email me your contact information at nesbitt.jimmy@gmail.com.

      Take care

      Jimmy

      • Hi Jimmy! I like your blog and wanted to share that I have seen these suits before. Was the suit you saw the one belonging to Prince Liu Sheng? He was a Buddhist ruler who believed in the afterlife. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. Hey! We are learning about Jade burial suits and I just wanted to let you know that not everyone got gold thread on their suits. The Dukes, Princesses, and Wealthy Nobles got silver thread. Others got copper thread or red silk. Only the King and Princes got gold.

  4. Jimmy, I’m learning about Jade Burial Suits now! Did you also know that princesses got silver thread, not gold, and the Jade burial suit didn’t preserve the body. When it was found, there were only a couple teeth left! Thanks for the awesome post!

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