Chinese has many rituals related to births and birthdays, weddings and funerals. These are the three milestones of a person’s life and a multitude of rituals has evolved around each of these major events; some based on necessity and logic, others based on religious precepts or folk superstitions. Our point is that the forms of the rituals are of secondary importance; of greater significance are the moral values underlying these traditional practices.
Funeral rituals have always been viewed as an important part of Chinese social life. The importance of funeral rituals rests on certain basic beliefs held by the Chinese. First, death does not signify the end of a person’s participation in the lives and activities of his family, but is conceived as a process of transition. There is a continued relationship between the living and the dead. This notion of mutual interdependence reinforces the importance of the family as a social unit, with the ancestors providing emotional, social and economic security for the descendants. Through the ancestors, the family is no longer seen as an individual unit, but part of a long continuum of descent.
The performance of funeral rituals can also be seen as an extension of Chinese social ethics. For example, xiao or filial piety is often the reason given by the Chinese for the performance of funeral rituals. This role of xiao can be seen in the idea being present in practically all aspects of ancestral rituals, serving as a constant reminder to the descendants.
The Chinese believe that all parts of the entire cosmos belong to one organic whole. Harmony and order must be maintained at all times, in one individual’s psyche, in every aspect of social life, and in the entire cosmos. Everything that exists, including man, has a correct place in the order of things. A death represents a disruption of this balance and order is re-established through the performance of death rituals.
There are many variations in Chinese death rituals, both in the ritual performance and interpretation of the meanings of the rituals. There are several reasons for this confusion. First, the Chinese in Singapore came originally from different regions in China, and more specifically, from different dialect groups. There are obvious dialect variations in ritual performance.
Second, funeral rituals for the Chinese are part of a folk religion, an oral tradition without a fixed set of dogma, doctrines, or a powerful priesthood. It is a syncretic religious system, drawing from many religious traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional indigenous beliefs.
However, despite the many variations and diverse interpretations, there is an underlying logic to Chinese funeral rituals. There is a set of standardised, prescribed set of ritual behaviours. Although there may be some flexibility, the variations fall within an overarching framework of “correct” rituals.
In Singapore, these may be classified into six main categories:
1. the gathering of the family unit;
2. wearing of mourning garments;
3. performance of rituals to help the deceased into the afterworld;
4. holding of the funeral wake;
5. burial or cremation;
6. installation of the deceased as an ancestor.
Gatherings of the Family
When a Chinese man is near death, all the family members – children, grandchildren and sons and daughters-in-law – are summoned and they gather around the bedside to await his death. It is considered an unfilial act not to be at the deathbed of one’s parent. People travel long distances, and sons who are overseas are required to make the trip home. At the moment of death, the family members burst out into loud wailing and crying. The living room is cleared of all furniture and household items. A white banner is placed over the door of the home to signify that a death has occurred in the family.
Friends and relatives are then notified of the death. This is done by word of mouth. It is also common in Singapore to place an obituary notice in the newspaper to inform friends about the death. Because longevity is highly valued, it is a Chinese traditional practice to add three or five years to the deceased’s age.
The death of a parent provides for the integration of the family and the perpetuation of the continuum of descent. Most funeral rituals are performed by the family as a group. This strengthens the bonds of the kin group.
Wearing of Mourning Garments
Family members of the deceased put on special garments as a sign of mourning. For the traditional Chinese, there are five grades of mourning. Garments in different colours of white, black, blue and green are used to denote the relationship of the mourners to the deceased.
For example, sons and daughters are first order mourners. They wear white shirts and trousers made of cotton. In Singapore, there is a general reduction in the differentiation of mourning grades. It is more common to use white or black as symbol of mourning.
Mourning pins or xiao are worn from the first day of the funeral. These are small pieces of cloth, about 3.5 cm by 2 cm and are pinned on the shirt sleeves. If the deceased is a male the pin is worn on the left side; if the deceased is a female the pin in worn on the right sleeve. The grades of xiao generally correspond with the order of the mourning garments. In traditional China, these are worn for up to three years. In Singapore, they are generally worn for 49 or 100 days. During the mourning period, red, yellow and brown clothes are not worn.
Rituals for the Repose of the Dead
The traditional Chinese believe that the soul of the deceased must make his way to “Western Heaven” after death. Many rituals are conducted by family members to assist the deceased on this journey. Although there are some variations along regional lines, as well as differences in degree of elaborateness, certain standardized rituals are always performed.
i) Ritualised Washing and Clothing of the Deceased
Traditionally, water for washing the dead must be obtained from the river and purchased from the gods. Nowadays, it is more common for tap water to be used. The sons of the deceased perform this ritual, symbolically wiping the body of the deceased three times. This ritual is important because, according to Chinese beliefs, “a person with an unclean body will be despised and punished in Hell.” After the washing, the deceased is dressed.
ii) The Coffining
After washing and dressing the deceased, the ru lian or “entering the wood” ritual is performed. Some personal articles of the deceased are also placed inside the coffin, in the belief that the deceased will continue to use them in the afterworld.
iii) Presentation of Food Sacrifices
Food offerings are presented to the deceased. Although there are varying degrees of elaborateness, the basic items are rice, some meat dishes, incense and joss-money. The other items offered are optional. The offering of food and joss-paper signifies the continuing interdependence between the living descendants and the dead relative.
iv) Final Night Rituals
On the final night of the wake, religious specialists (Buddhist monks or nuns or Taoist priests or priestesses) are engaged to conduct the funerary rites. The prayers serve the important function of leading the soul of the deceased through the netherworld and to assist the deceased in his transformation from a ghost into an ancestor.
Holding of Funeral Wake
The funeral wakes range from three to seven days, and are always held for an odd number of days because even numbers are associated with joyous occasions. Such wakes are to enable relatives and friends to pay their last respects to the deceased and are either held at the home of the deceased or in funeral parlours. In Singapore, it is now a common practice to have shorter wakes since visitation is easy.
In the evenings, friends will pay their respects to the family of the deceased. On arrival, the more traditional Chinese will light a single joss-stick and perform a ritual bai (bow) to the deceased. It is also acceptable to bow three times without the joss-sticks. One or more representatives of the deceased’s family will stand or kneel by the side of the altar to acknowledge the paying of respects with a bow to the visitor. In turn, the visitor also gives a slight bow to the “hosts” before leaving the altar.
Traditionally, the deceased’s family is expected to keep all-night vigils during the wake. To help the family members stay awake, it has become a practice for friends to gamble at the wake. It should be pointed out, however, that such a practice not only detracts from the solemnity of the occasion but is also liable to be abused by unscrupulous people looking for gambling opportunities.
It is also a practice for relatives and friends to express their condolences by sending wreaths or making cash contributions to help the bereaved family. Cash contributions are presented in white envelopes, thus giving rise to their reference as bai jin (white gold). A sensible practice that is becoming more widespread is for families of the deceased to indicate their preference for relatives and friends to make donations to charity instead of sending wreaths as a mark of remembrance.
Being a funerary ritual, visitors are expected to dress in sombre colours. Visitors are given red threads or red packets containing a coin to ensure a safe journey home. They are supposed to leave quietly, without saying goodbye to the deceased’s family.
Burial or Cremation
At the end of the final overnight vigil, the family prepares for the burial or cremation of the deceased. Early in the morning of the funeral, preparations are made for moving the deceased to the graveyard or crematorium.
Family members and visitors pay their last respects to the deceased. Six volunteers then carry the coffin and place it in the hearse. The figure of a lion or a crane on top of the hearse indicates that the deceased is a man or woman respectively.
The funeral procession is normally headed by a band of musicians. The music is meant to frighten away malicious spirits lurking around the funeral site.
The cortege forms behind the hearse, with sons and daughters in the first row, followed by other family members. In traditional Chinese society, family members will accompany the deceased in this manner all the way to the graveyard. In Singapore, the procession will walk for a short distance as a final gesture of farewell and then board vehicles to proceed to the graveyard.
On arrival at the graveyard, the coffin is lowered into the ground. Two lighted candles, a pair of joss-sticks, and a simple offering are placed before the deceased. Family members and friends pay their final respects. The graveplot is then sealed by professional gravediggers. The eldest son carries the joss-urn and the second son or eldest grandson carries the photo of the deceased. These will be placed on the family ancestral altar at home.
In recent years, the land shortage in Singapore has resulted in the popularity of cremation as an alternative form of internment. Except for the process of burning instead of burying, the rituals are similar. On arrival at the crematorium, the coffin is set on trestles before the altar. After the monks have performed the last rituals, the coffin is pushed into an enclosed burner. On the following day, the family members return to the crematorium to collect the bones. The bones are spread on a tray, and using chopsticks, family members place the remains in an urn. The urn is then sealed and placed in a columbarium.
Installation of the Deceased as an Ancestor
The completion of the funeral rituals marks the transformation of the deceased into an ancestor of the family. The picture of the deceased and the urn are taken home and placed on the ancestral altar. In Singapore, it is not uncommon to pay a sum of money to have the ancestral table installed in a temple.
Regular rituals, including the offering of food and joss-sticks, are carried out before the ancestral tablet. These rituals serve for family members to remember the ancestor and for filial children to show their respect and fond remembrance of the dead.
Chinese funerals traditionally involve a set of complex rituals which may not be practical or relevant in present day Singapore. In the context of an urban Singapore, where 80% of the population live in HDB estates, we suggest that funeral rites be simplified. Thus unnecessary wastage can be reduced and the sorrow of the bereaved family can be alleviated.
Historically Chinese funerals were viewed as public demonstrations of filial piety. We believe that it is more important to show love and respect for one’s parents when they are alive. Their deaths should evoke a sense of personal loss and funeral rituals should be conducted in a dignified manner befitting the solemn occasion.