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Rituals
Festivals
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Rituals
Festivals
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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.

Birth Rituals

The birth of a baby is always a joyful event, but in a Chinese community it also has an important social significance because of the special position of the family. Because the family is the primary unit of the Chinese society, the reproduction of offspring to increase the size and thereby the influence of the family assumes greater importance.

Bu xiao you san, wu hou wei da, is a much quoted Chinese saying. This means, “Of the three unfilial acts, the greatest is the lack of posterity.” In other words, it is the duty of the members of the family to bear children and ensure the continuity of the family line.

The social significance of procreation has given rise to a host of Chinese customs relating to births and birthdays.

Many of the traditional pre-natal observances are based on the assumption that the foetus should be carefully nurtured and protected from evil influences to ensure its future well-bring. Hence, Chinese expectant mothers are required to take tonic foodstuffs such as chicken, chicken essence, ginger (to drive away the ‘wind’ from the body), wine and herbs like danggui to improve blood circulation.

After the delivery, the mother and child undergo a month of confinement. The one-month zuo yue during which the mother is not supposed to leave the house, provides the mother with complete rest to facilitate her recuperation.

Proving the right name for a baby is of paramount importance because the Chinese believe that the name can influence the future fortunes of the child. A variety of factors are taken into consideration when selecting a name for a child.

The more traditional families name their offspring according to a set system established by their ancestors. In most cases, a poem is chosen. Children of the same generation would have a common character taken from the poem in consecutive term in their names. Such a system ensures that members of the extended family would know from their names, their relationship with one another.

Another practice is to find out the horoscope of the newborn baby and determine the major elements dominating at the time of birth. (In the Chinese system the world comprises five major elements – gold, wood, water, fire and earth.) The name of the newborn should contain the Chinese characters representing the missing elements. For example, a child born at a time when the water element is weak, should preferably have a name with the “water” character in it.

Others believe that the number of strokes in the name is more important in influencing a person’s life. Names are then chosen based on the total number of strokes required to write the Chinese characters.

Still others prefer to name their children after famous personalities in the hope that the latter’s good attributes would be repeated. On the same basis, children are also given names expressing sterling qualities, excellent virtues or greatly desired hopes. (A mother anxious to have a son in her next pregnancy, for instance, may name her daughter Zhao Di, meaning “inviting a younger brother”.)

The most important event for the newly named baby is his man yue (full month). Though the scale of the celebration may vary, virtually every family celebrates the 30th day of the baby’s birth.

For Buddhist and Taoist families, the morning of man yue calls for the burning of incense and food offerings to be made to one’s ancestors as well as to the deities worshipped at home. This is to inform the ancestors of the new addition to the family and to appeal to the spirits to protect the child.

Special man yue gifts are personally delivered to relatives and those friends who have sent presents to the family during the confinement month. Man yue gifts vary according to dialect groups, but red eggs are the one indispensable item.

Eggs are so important because, firstly, they symbolise the life renewal process. Secondly, their round (yuan) shape is traditionally associated with harmony and unity. Thirdly, in the old Chinese agrarian community, the humble egg was a delicacy to be eaten only on festive occasions. For good luck, the hard-boiled eggs are dyed in red.

Other man yue gifts range from cakes, chicken, savoury glutinous rice and pig’s trotters. Like the Chinese New Year, gifts are made up of at least two items.

Recipients, in turn, are expected to give presents to the newborn baby, although many Singaporeans now send their gifts during the zuo yue. The more traditional Chinese will give hongbao as expressions of their good wishes to the baby. Grandparents are expected to give gold jewellery because gold is the most highly prized metal.

The man yue celebration frequently culminates with a dinner for relatives and friends.

(Extracted from “Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore” handbook published by SFCCA in 1989)

Birthday Rituals

Traditionally, birthdays are not regarded as major events in a Chinese life until the age of 60. This is because the Chinese normally use the Lunar New Year to mark their ages. A person is deemed to be one year older at Chun Jie, regardless of the month of his birth.

It should also be pointed out that the Chinese date a person’s age from his birth. A newborn is, therefore, immediately one year old. If he happens to be born at the end of the year, say the 12th month of the lunar calendar, he is deemed to be two years old after Chun Jie, although he is, in fact, only a couple of months old.

Traditionally, children’s birthdays are not celebrated except by the very wealthy. Although it is a practice for Singapore parents to organise birthday celebrations for their children, we suggest that such expressions of love should not become additional financial burdens on the parents.

The more traditional Chinese custom is for the grown-up children to celebrate their parents’ birthdays to express their devotion and appreciation.

Like other Chinese festive occasions, birthdays are celebrated with a host of auspicious food. Breakfast usually begins with a bowl of mian xian or shou mian soup. Both are long Chinese noodles made of wheat flour whose length symbolise longevity. Eggs, being symbols of life, are usually served together with the noodles..

The birthday dinner is usually a family affair, attended by family members, relatives and close friends. Celebrations only take on a bigger scale at the 60th or 61st birthday because it marks the beginning of a new life cycle. According to the Chinese calendar, a life cycle comprises 60 years. By this time, the birthday person is likely to have zi sun man tang (literally meaning many children and grandchildren filling the hall), which is not only a source of comfort but also a cause for celebration.

Such post-60 celebrations are referred to as zuo shou as distinct from zuo sheng ri. The distinction signifies the celebration of longevity.

Whatever the scale of celebration, two items are “musts” in the birthday dinner – shou mian and shou tao. Shou mian, being longevity noodles, should not be cut when served. Shou tao are longevity buns in the shape of peaches and containing sweet stuffings. Chinese custom dictates that both courses have to be eaten by the diners to ensure long life for the birthday man (or woman).

Birthday presents are traditionally made up of two or four items. These would commonly include eggs, shou mian, shou tao (piled into the shape of a mountain), tonic food or wine, and hongbao.

(Extracted from “Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore” handbook published by SFCCA in 1989)

Wedding Rituals

Just as a man needs to breathe in order to live, so has the Chinese man to marry in order to reproduce and carry on the family line. Marriage is, therefore, an integral part of living and great pains are taken to ensure a good match and bountiful posterity. This is why traditional Chinese weddings have many complex customs and ceremonies. They serve the important function of providing an auspicious start for the bridal couple.

Pre-nuptial Rituals

The traditional custom of matching the ba zi (horoscopes) of the couple before a proposed marriage union is confirmed, has virtually ceased. So has the past custom of using professional matchmakers to work out the details of the marriage arrangements.

In Singapore today it is more likely that the groom-to-be will speak directly to his prospective parents-in-law for the hand of their daughter. After receiving a positive response, it is not uncommon for the man to ask his senior relative or a mutual friend of the two families to discuss the details of the gift to be exchanged and the other wedding arrangements.

Agreement has to be reached on:

  • Pinli, gifts for the bride to confirm the union,
  • Dinghun, engagement,
  • Nacai, the exchange of gifts,
  • The wedding date and the customary rites to be adopted on that day.

Pinli

In traditional Chinese society, pinli was a central issue in any marriage negotiation. It was not uncommon for marriages to be aborted because of disagreement over the matter. Pinli includes the size of the pinjin (bride’s wealth) and jiazhuang (trousseau). The bride’s family was expected to spend a part of the pinjin on the trousseau.

Today, the notion that a man should pay a price for his bride (that is, giving a bride’s wealth) is considered to be distasteful and degrading to the woman. It should be pointed out, however, that pinjin also serves the purpose of acknowledging the important role played by the bride’s parents in her upbringing. The custom of presenting some gifts to the bridge’s family as a token of appreciation, therefore, continues to be widely practised.

To express his thanks to his future in-laws for agreeing to the marriage, the groom may choose to give a hongbao containing cash, or provide a number of tables for the bride’s relatives and friends at the wedding dinner.

The jiazhuang is no longer viewed as important.

Dinghun

Many couples prefer to do away with the engagement ceremony. Those who decide to have a formal engagement usually keep the ceremony simple.

Rings are exchanged between the couple, and offerings are made to the ancestors to inform them of the happy event. Very often, cakes are distributed to close friends and relatives, replacing the traditional practices of giving “peanut candy” wrapped in red paper decorated with the Chinese character “double happiness”.

Nacai

Nacai, the exchange of gifts, traditionally takes place a few days before the wedding. An auspicious day is usually chosen from the tongshu (Chinese almanac).

On the selected day, the prospective groom sends an assortment of gifts to the house of his wife-to-be. The composition of the gifts varies according to the dialect groups, but the number of items usually add up to six, eight, ten or twelve. The gifts may comprise:

  • Red packets containing some cash (representing the pinjin)
  • Two pairs of long red candles with paper symbols of the phoenix (representing the bride) on one set and dragon symbols (representing the groom) on the other set
  • One or more pieces of gold jewellery for the bride
  • Pig’s trotters, either given fresh or in canned form (a dozen cans is normally the minimum)
  • Spirits in the form of brandy
  • Cakes or sweetmeats wrapped in red paper
  • Chickens
  • The bridal gown
  • Fruits such as oranges or sugarcane

The gifts are laid out on a red tray and delivered to the bride’s home by a senior relative it a close friend of the groom. The bride’s family is not expected to retain all the gifts and will also return six gift items to the groom. These could include:

  • A red packet containing a part of the cash sent by the groom
  • A pit of long red candles with power symbols representing the phoenix
  • A gold ring (if there has been no engagement or if the couple have not gone to the Registry of Marriages)
  • Fruit cordial
  • Fruits
  • Half of the pig’s trotters, or chicken sent by the groom
  • Some of the cakes sent by the groom

It is also a custom for the bridge to distribute the cakes given by the groom along her close relatives and friends.

The Wedding

Traditionally, the most popular month for weddings is the eighth month of the lunar calendar. This is the month of Zhong Qiu Jie and a time of the year when “the moon is at its fullest and the flowers at their best”. Conversely, the seventh lunar month, which is the month of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is avoided. Weddings are also not conducted when either family is in mourning.

If the couple have opted to follow the traditional wedding rites, the ceremony begins on the eve of the wedding. In their respective homes the bride and groom undergo the shang tou or “styling the hair” ceremony. Their hair is symbolically combed up by a person of “good fate” (haoming), that is, one who has a living spouse, and many children and grandchildren. It is believed that this ritual will ensure matrimonial togetherness and a large family for the couple.

On the wedding day the groom is accompanied by his best man to fetch the bride from her home. Upon his arrival, the younger brother of the bride or, in the event that there is no younger brother, a younger male relative, will ceremoniously welcome his arrival by opening the door of the bridal car. For this he is rewarded with a hongbao by the groom.

On reaching the house, however, the groom will often find the door locked, preventing his admission. This has been done by the girlfriends of the bride, who will refuse to open the door until the groom gives them a hongbao containing a specific amount of money.

The next few minutes will be spent on negotiating the amount to be paid. A very large sum is usually asked for at first, since haggling over the price is part of the fun of the custom. Usually, the price is settled at $99.99 because the Cantonese believe the great number of nines signify a long and lasting marriage. Although initially a Cantonese practice, this custom of paying to have the door opened is now also adopted by the other dialect groups and adds to the general merriment of the occasion. This “teasing” of the groom will be repeated by his friends later in the evening.

The bride is expected to be fully dressed in her wedding gown by the time of the groom’s arrival. Traditionally, the bridal veil is placed on the head by the bride’s father. The simple ritual marks the bride’s attainment of adulthood.

When the bride leaves her home with the groom, she is normally accompanied by a bridesmaid and three or four other girlfriends. In some instances, an older lady relative or family friend goes with the party to represent the bride’s family.

Upon arrival at the groom’s home, the bridal couple will perform the “tea ceremony”, a ritual that “authenticates” the acceptance of the bride as the newest member of the family. Before the enactment of the Women’s Charter requiring all marriages to be registered with the Government, the “tea ceremony” as evidence of a common law marriage.

The “tea ceremony” is a ritual requiring the bridal couple to offer cups of tea (which is usually brewed with red dates) to the senior members of the family.

For Buddhist and Taoist families, the ceremony starts with the offering of red dates tea to Buddha or to the god of heaven or to the shen venerated in the home. Next, tea is “offered” to one’s ancestors to obtain their blessings on the marriage.

After this, the most senior members of the groom’s immediate family (his parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents) are made to sit in the centre of the hall. The traditional practice is for the couple to kneel before their parents or grandparents when offering the tea, but the common practice today is for the couple to bow before the seated parents.

It is customary for a relative to assist in the ceremony by replenishing the cups of tea which are usually placed on a red tray. The bridal couple can choose to present separate cups of tea to each parent or to jointly present one cup to each parent. As a sign of respect, the tea cup should be offered with both hands.

The bridal couple also offer tea to the uncles and aunts of the groom as well as older siblings and their spouses. When tea is served to one’s own generation, that is, one’s older brothers or sisters, the latter normally remain standing while being served. Everyone who is served is expected to give a hongbao or jewellery item to the couple.

By serving tea to the elders in the family, the bridal couple are in effect, paying respects to their seniors. In turn, the groom’s younger siblings also offer tea to the new couple. The act of accepting the tea is a symbolic acceptance of the bride as a family member. The tea ceremony, therefore, is the centrepiece of the marriage ceremony and should be observed by all bridal couples, regardless of their religious affiliations.

Depending on the time of the day the tea ceremony ends, the bridal couple are then served with either light refreshments or lunch. Care is usually taken to prepare dishes with auspicious names. After this, the groom accompanies the bride to her paternal home.

Traditionally, the return visit to the bride’s home is made three days after the wedding. By then the marriage would have been consummated and the husband would be able to indicate his pleasure with his wife by presenting a whole roast pig to his in-laws. In the event that he wanted to express his dissatisfaction (such as the fact that she had not been a virgin), the husband would cut off the ear or tail of the pig.

Today, the bride’s return home is made on the wedding day itself, before the consummation of the marriage. However, the practice of presenting a roast pig and other fruits and vegetables remain. The in-laws normally only retain half of the gifts, returning the rest to the young couple when they return home.

During the bride’s visit to her parents’ home, she and her husband are required to perform the tea ceremony to her parents and senior relatives. (In some cases, this tea ceremony is conducted when the groom fetches the bride earlier in the day.)

The wedding day commonly concludes with a dinner party for relatives and friends. Traditionally, only the groom’s relatives and friends are invited. Today, however, the bride’s family is given a number of tables for its guests.

Singaporeans have developed the habit of being inordinately late at wedding dinners. In fact, punctuality is highly valued by the Chinese and being late, thereby wasting other people’s precious time, is considered discourteous. Therefore, guests should make it a point to arrive at the stated time.

The invitation cards are issued either in the names of the groom’s parents or jointly in the names of the couple’s parents. Where there are no surviving parents, the card is traditionally issued in the name of the closest and most senior relative, such as the brother of the groom’s father.

The bridal table is usually distinguished from the others by having a red table-cloth, the CHinese colour for celebration and good luck. The two sets of in-laws are seated at this “hosts’ table” with the bridal couple taking centre place. The Chinese custom is to place nan zuo nü you (the male on the left and the female on the right), so the groom should sit on the left-hand side of the bride, both facing the guests at the other tables.

Cutting the wedding cake has become an integral part of the dinner programme in Singapore, but the more significant ceremony according to the Chinese tradition, is the toast to the guests. To show his appreciation to the guests as well as to show off his new wife, the groom is expected to visit each of the dinner tables with his bride. Each toast is personalised as the groom makes it a point to refill the glass of every guest at each table.

At wedding dinners where there are too many tables, making it impossible for the bridal couple to visit all the guests personally, the practice is for the groom and bride and their parents to jointly propose a toast from the stage.

As the last course is served, the hosts will form a queue at the exit of the dining room to personally express their appreciation and bid farewell to the departing guests.

Very often, the close friends of the groom will stay behind to nao xin fang, which literally means creating a disturbance in the new bridal chamber. This old custom allows the groom’s friends to tease the bride by getting the bridal couple to play such games as “biting the apple” or “feeding the bride”.

For those couples who prefer to have their marriages solemnised at the Registry of Marriages or at a church, we suggest that the tea ceremony should still be observed. The wedding dinner is not essential to a marriage, but the serving of tea to the senior members of the family is a crucial ritual of the Chinese wedding.

(Extracted from “Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore” handbook published by SFCCA in 1989)

Funeral Rituals

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 standardised 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 grave plot 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.

Conclusion

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.

(Extracted from “Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore” handbook published by SFCCA in 1989)