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The Pedestal of Ancestors: Exploring Taoist Funeral Traditions and Services in Singapore

Funerals are always a solemn occasion for the living as death is a permanent separation. Funerals are for the living and by providing a firm support and framework for the grieving, Taoist funeral rites assist the bereaved to come to terms with their loss while they re-adjust to the changes brought about in their lives. The most effective forms of assistance come from the ministrations of compassionate, wise and caring Taoist priests who possess a wealth of knowledge on how to deal with grief. With the guidance and help of the priesthood and from the authoritative scripture of the Taoist Canon, they are able to provide a variety of funeral services customized to suit the needs and requirements of the bereaved. These services are normally performed with the hope that they will enable the deceased to build a bridge towards a better afterlife and away from any form of misfortune or mishap. By learning about Taoist funeral traditions, the significance of ancestors in Taoism and the services provided in present day Singapore, we can gain a better understanding and knowledge of how to render help to the bereaved. At the same time, we can understand the great lengths that Taoism goes to in ensuring that a good, permanent transformation takes place for the deceased from one life to another hereafter. This essay will focus more on the services in modern day Singapore, making references to comparisons with traditions of the past in order to show the continuance of the tradition and how it has stood the test of time.

History of Taoist Funeral Traditions

A history of the Chinese in Singapore would be incomplete without a mention of the dialect groups, for it was through them that different religious practices were introduced and became part of the social tapestry. In order to understand the funeral rites of the Chinese community in Singapore, it is necessary to examine the history of the various dialect groups, as well as the socio-political landscape which influenced and shaped their religious practices. The Chinese, the majority of whom are of Hokkien and Cantonese descent, began migrating to Singapore in the early 19th century, and driven by the hope of a better future, often poor and jobless upon arrival. They thus faced the harsh and uncertain conditions of life as coolies. Such were the circumstances that a funeral in those days was considered a luxury that many could ill afford, and more often than not, the bodies of the deceased were lost and forgotten in a foreign land. Funerals were also dangerously unhygienic due to the absence of medical knowledge, hard toiling lifestyle and poor living conditions, and many early Chinese immigrants died untimely deaths. These initial conditions and the beliefs associated with them have had a lasting effect on the funeral rites of their descendants and have gone on to shape modern funeral practices.

Significance of Ancestors in Taoism

In Taoism, ancestor worship is crucial in most sects of the religion, possibly excluding some of the modernist sects. This is because ancestors are the roots of a family, tradition, culture, and passed down the teachings from one generation to another. It is believed that the ancestors are responsible for the fortune and misfortune of the living, thus if the life of an ancestor was full of good deeds, the family will inherit good fortune. Conversely, if the life of an ancestor was full of misdeeds or unfinished business, the family will inherit the negative consequences of such events. This is the most common reason why most Chinese families in Singapore arrange for the Taoist funeral ritual, as these families believe that the death of the deceased may somehow be related to the misfortune in current days. By sending off the deceased with a proper funeral service, this ensures that the soul of the deceased is acknowledged and would result in blessings of good fortune for the family.

Taoist Funeral Services in Singapore

After the wake and just before the procession to the burial site, a five-piece Taoist Chinese orchestra is engaged to perform music to send off the deceased. The current generation is now unfamiliar with the existence of such an orchestra. It is a dying tradition as the orchestra is made up of elderly men and young apprentices discouraged by the low wages given in respect for the strong Taoist beliefs.

At the funeral, a paper effigy that represents material goods such as a house, car, or money is burned. It is believed that the act of burning paper replicas of goods will send the actual goods into the ownership of the deceased in their afterlife. This effigy burning ceremony is commonly seen in the funerals of today’s modern age of relative affluence in Singapore.

On the day of the funeral, the family of the deceased engages in a vegetarian meal served by a priest. This meal is seen as a method of feeding the deceased. It is a common belief that the soul is still present during the funeral period between death and rebirth. This meal ensures that the soul will find peace and be reborn. Since the soul is still in contact with the material world, the living are able to channel good fortune to the deceased through the services of a Taoist priest.

Taoist Funeral Packages

 

Taoist Funeral Package comprises three diversified offering packages designed for playful clients who can select their preferred package to fit their preferences and needs. The packages enable clients to comprehend the comprehensive scope of services offered and inclusive of all in one price. All the packages include an Urn, a Photograph, an Aisle Cloth, an allocation of Charity, Arrange and Accompany the Cremation/Burial, a set of Taoist Prayer Equipments, a set of Taoist Prayer garb, and a comprehensive package of prayer sessions. The basic funeral package is designed to cater for clients who may have financial struggles. Although this package offers the least services among the three packages, quality of our services remains. A simple designed ancestor plaque will be used for this package. This package delivers peace of mind for the client as the funeral event still goes smoothly without much of the client’s concern. An analysis has also noticed that many times people do not have much knowledge on the death of loved ones. A death certificate analysis will be explained in English to the family members on the reason for the death of the client’s loved ones. This will provide closure to the family members and an understanding of the reason for the death of their loved ones. A prayer service will then be performed to invoke the Taoist Deities to direct the soul of the deceased in their new phase of life.

Basic Funeral Package

Under the basic funeral package, as shown in Appendix 33, some of the items seem similar to the traditional funeral practices in Taoist funeral service. For example, the provision of tables and chairs. Others seem to be more related to Chinese customs and practices, other than Taoist funerals. For example, the lighting of joss sticks. However, the package does include the Taoist religious customs, such as the sending off of the deceased and the chanting and reciting of scriptures by the monastics from a Taoist monastery or temple. This would normally take place at the wake, where the family of the deceased would meet with the monastics at the funeral site for the body before heading back to the wake. Due to local practices and constraints, it’s quite difficult to find a funeral service solely based on Taoist customs, apart from those of the Teochew and Hokkien speaking communities, where the monastics would usually be from the Five Mountains or Nine Glens traditions following the Taoist rite, which is common in those communities.

Enhanced Funeral Package

The enhanced package offers more variety in the inclusion of rituals and it is termed as a package that is in between the Basic and Premium Funeral Package. Some of the enhanced packages may include the addition of a Taoist Priest to recite the Diamond Sutra over the 49 days. This is in line with the practice of Taoist teaching, in perfecting filial piety. The Diamond Sutra being recited allows for understanding of its content to be transferred to the departed, who in the Taoist’s belief would be in the state of the intermediate afterlife. Other priestly services include the attainment of advice from the priests for the calculation of the auspicious date and time for the inclusion of rituals to ward off the deceased spirit. This is to ensure that the ritual would be done at an effective time when the deceased spirit would be present to accept the ritual and understand the significance behind it. Calculations of the date and time use the Chinese Almanac and the Bazi of the deceased to derive the vital information. A more detailed ritual plan, where the priests would come up with, would involve more rituals aside from the recitation of the Heart Sutra at a higher frequency. There would be various prayer rituals to help the deceased repent for their wrongdoings in their past life. An example would be the Cao Lu Yi (seven steps ritual) meant for repenting, where the priest would carry a portrait of the deceased to various temples around Singapore for 49 days. On the 49th day, there would be the final ritual where the portrait is burnt and at the same time, sending the deceased spirit for reincarnation to a better next life. An enhanced package may also include the addition of providing premium support for the family. An example was the case of Madam Chua where the priest brought forward additional priests for a special prayer to pray for the well-being of Madam Chua, who was admitted to the hospital during the period of the funeral. This ritual, being more complex, would serve best if there is a higher allocation of monetary resources for rituals.

Premium Funeral Package

It is the objective of Seng Poh to simplify such concerns and offer alternatives to traditional services without compromising ritual practices. This is to be done through the introduction of flexible funeral packages, allowing families to customize their funerals according to their needs, and the provision of clear and simple advice on the necessities of a proper Taoist funeral. By this, it is hoped that persons of all walks of life may find it easier to attain the services they require and that the tradition of the Taoist funeral may endure for generations to come.

A significant number of persons looking to arrange Taoist funerals may find it a daunting task. This is especially so for those who are not well versed in Taoist customs. Many would like to ensure that the funeral is done properly but are uncertain as to which services are necessary, which may be done without and which may be substituted with more modern equivalents. This creates worry over the need for overspending and the difficulty in finding the appropriate services has a growing tendency to result in frustration and disillusionment.

As previously mentioned, a proper Taoist funeral requires a careful balance between observance of ritual customs and concessions to modern convenience. With the recent trend towards more simplified and secular funerals, the attaining of the right balance has now become all the more crucial, in order that the modernising of funeral procedures does not lead to the diminishing of the Taoist rite. This presents new challenges in the services offered by Seng Poh.

For Neo-Confucian Taoists, funeral customs largely follow those of the widespread Chinese culture. For these adherents, funerals should mirror the rites found in the Chinese Classics, the performance of such rites would thus be of foremost priority. This would entail the hiring of Chinese classical music and opera troupes over the entire course of the Wake and the Burial and the employment of a full array of ritual implements, all of which are still used by the Seng Poh undertakers. The use of such implements is considered to be fast becoming a lost practice in modern funerals due to a lack of knowledge and expertise in their usage. As such, persons seeking proper Taoist funerals are hard pressed to find the right expertise. This is especially so in the case of Funeral Directors who must make the necessary arrangement for the implements and recitation of the appropriate rituals. The wealth of experience and knowledge of Seng Poh Undertakers in this field is of great value to many families.

The components of a funeral largely depend on the social status of the deceased and his family. The Premium Funeral Package thus comprises features that are meant to project an image of Taoist culture and respectability. Such features include the use of an air-conditioned hearse rather than the normal type, the use of a better quality casket, the provision of professional mourning staff and the conducting of the Wake and the Burial in better class venues.

Rituals and Ceremonies

Pre-funeral rituals can occur at the wake of the deceased’s residence or at a Taoist/Buddhist temple. The actual procedure varies between different sects of Taoism and between different dialect groups. One common pre-funeral ritual is known as the ‘Crying Pass’ where the deceased’s family pays respects to the gods and spirits by burning offerings and spirit money. The family will kneel in prayer as Taoist priests and their attendants recite scriptures and perform rituals. This is done to first invite the gods and spirits to bear witness to the commencement of the funeral rites and to act as intermediaries in aiding the deceased’s ascension into the afterlife. Another ritual is the ‘Opening the Altar’ which serves to invite the deceased’s soul back from wandering and to anoint the altar-god as a temporary dwelling place for the soul to receive prayers and be fed throughout the mourning period.

The rituals and ceremonies accompanying a Taoist funeral are reflective of the concept of filial piety and the desire to ensure that the deceased receives a proper send-off in order to transition comfortably into their afterlife. These rituals are commonly seen as matters of great importance and failing to perform them, or making a mistake in the procedure, is often viewed as bringing bad luck or an inauspicious outcome for the deceased’s rebirth (Ho, 2000). This results in many families employing Taoist priests or temple staff to enact the rites, despite not fully understanding the meaning behind them.

Pre-funeral Rituals

Taoists believe that at the moment of death, the soul of the deceased person will meet at the doorstep of the house and wait for the moment that the coffin is being carried out to start its journey to the rightful place of burial. For this reason, the soul of the deceased person could haunt the house or trouble the family members or still behave as if it was still alive during the wait. An interim time between the death and the next rebirth is spent by the soul near the deceased person’s home. Traditionally, there are still more ceremonies and rituals to be performed during the wait of the funeral, though some rituals might differ between various branches of Taoism and might not be applicable in Singapore’s society today due to acculturation and change of traditional practices. All the following rituals and ceremonies are held at the home of the deceased person.

On the third lunar day after the death, a Taoist priest conducts a “soul-summoning” ceremony at the home of the deceased, for the purpose of calling back the soul of the deceased person. This ceremony is known as “Yang Ling”. The following is the general procedure of the “Yang Ling” ceremony. No funeral rituals should be carried out during at least 100 days after the death. Each day, the Taoist priests of the temple that the family engages will perform rituals to the deity of the gates of Hell for the purpose of asking the deity to release the soul of the deceased person, who might have been suffering in Hell. At the same time, the family members are to provide free-will offerings of the recommended food, incense, or paper money to the deity of Hell, based on the advice of the priests.

Funeral Procession and Ceremony

One event, specific to those who practice traditional Chinese religions, is a funeral held according to their religious beliefs. This chapter examines a traditional Taoist in terms of the Wongs’ mothers’ funeral. Wu K’ung, who was a fortune teller, identified the most auspicious day for the death of a sick person. From that day, the patient should definitely not undergo any surgery. If there is surgery, then the patient will not live past six months. On the day of death, paper money is burned to inform the King of Hell that an emissary should be sent up to haul the soul to the netherworld. A good day for death necessitates a fortnight wait, is a time free from high tide and thunderstorm, with a bright moon and stars. (Wong 1985:86) This quote exhibits the Chinese belief that all that happens to a person in his life is predetermined by his individual fate according to the T’ai-chi Tu philosophy (A “Map of the Great Ultimate”). Patients were classified as “born under heaven” to live out a whole life, or as “borrowed” or “lent” life, to recover from illness then die, or to depart without getting well. This specific event did not occur during the time of the death of Sam’s mother. At the time of the death, paper money was burned and incense was lit to inform the Gods and spirits of the netherworld that they must prepare to receive the soul coming to them on a later date. Though, a good day was never identified as specifically for the arrival of the soul in the netherworld. (Wong 1985:86) This continues the rest of the pre-funeral events because from the time of death to the interring, they were all regarded as too time occupied to be fulfilled in proper manner. Consequently, there were no further sets of ceremonial acts for the soul provided by Wu K’ung.

Post-funeral Rituals and Offerings

Post-funeral rituals usually consist of 2 parts that are carried out yearly, “Ching Ming” 清明 and the “7th month” festival, also known as the “Hungry Ghosts” festival. Offerings during Ching Ming involve the cleaning and maintenance of the ancestor’s grave, and the offering of food, incense, joss paper accessories, for example clothes, servant, as well as “hell bank notes”. The burning of these accessories allows the items to be transferred to the spiritual world, thus providing for the ancestors. Offerings of food and incense are also made at the home altar. At the end of the prayer session, the Taoist priest will chant a “Ying Lu” 迎祿 ritual, which reports to the Heavens the successes and problems of the year, and requests for blessings and protections for the family, as well as peace for the ancestors in the other world. This is equivalent to updating the Jade Emperor of the family’s whereabouts. In the later years, this ritual is performed at the ancestor’s grave, though only family members would be present. Then the prayer session ends with another “Lu Tu” report, updating the ancestors on the status of the family. The “7th month” festival involves the belief that the Gates of Hell are opened, allowing the ghosts to return to the world of the living. Some of these ghosts may be the wandering spirits of those who had died from tragic accidents or suicide and have no surviving family to provide for them. The “celebrations” during this month are, in fact, for these spirits to be cared for. Offerings of food and hell bank notes are made at makeshift altars outside the home. Special Taoist rituals to rescue, purify, and free these spirits are usually conducted. This festival is unrelated to ancestor worship, but it is an act of “repaying a debt” to the spirits that may bring harm to the family, as it is believed that everything that is fated has a bringer of either good or bad luck.

Cultural Perspectives and Modern Adaptations

This generational shift in practice has thus led to the modernization of Taoist funeral services to cater to an evolving culture that is in danger of losing touch with its roots. This is evident from the decrease in demand for traditional funeral services and the emergence of specialized funeral companies that offer ‘upgraded’ funeral services packaged with increased comfort and convenience. In recent times there has even been an emergence of funeral services that have no religious or cultural association, such as the non-Taoist Chinese funeral parlour. This represents a development pattern similar to the one experienced by Christianity in the West, where there is a decline in traditional religious practice with a shift towards more secular alternative methods of celebrating life and mourning death.

Taoist funeral traditions and services in Singapore have changed in obvious and subtle ways over the past few decades. A significant shift has been the effective assimilation of Taoist funeral rites into a syncretic Chinese-English culture that has developed from increased Westernization and heavy influence from Christianity and secularism. As a result, whilst older generations of Singaporean Chinese are likely to adhere to traditional Taoist funeral rites, younger generations may opt for alternative commemorative ceremonies which, while being more secular, still reflect Taoist values and beliefs.

Influence of Chinese Culture on Taoist Funeral Traditions

There are many common themes in Chinese culture with regards to death and the afterlife which are integrated into Taoist funeral traditions. The Chinese believe that filial piety does not end with the death of the parents. Ancestors after death, being completely dependent on their descendants, still with the family in times of crisis and joy, and are constantly watching over the descendants to provide blessings or retribution. Death is seen as the beginning of a new phase in life, and this transition is what is the most important time in a person’s life. These beliefs are tied together by the common practice where the Chinese will invite the spiritual world of the deceased to a Taoist priest, to perform rituals to change the status of the deceased to that of an ancestor. This is often a much simplified version of a Taoist funeral rite, and is sometimes a ritual that is integrated into a Chinese Buddhist funeral. All of these beliefs have a very large impact in the Taoist perception of death and the afterlife, and it is clear that from the very early days of Chinese Taoism, that Taoist funeral rites were greatly influenced by the pre-existing Chinese culture and beliefs on death.

This section aims to understand the origins of Chinese funeral practices and beliefs and how they are embedded in traditional Chinese religion and culture. A thorough investigation of the Chinese perception of death and the afterlife is required to understand the extent of Chinese influence on Taoist funeral traditions. Chinese communities have many different beliefs on death as the practices and beliefs are very diverse depending on which region of China they originate from. Certain practices and beliefs are a reflection of the ethics and morality influenced by Confucianism and Taoism, so these will be explored in relation to the impact on Taoist funeral traditions.

Evolution of Taoist Funeral Services in Singapore

As the older generation of ritual specialists began to retire, there came a shortage of successors to continue the tradition. The pool of knowledge and skill that had been passed down through the generations began to evaporate, and with a rapidly changing society, the public became largely disillusioned with traditional funeral practices. This eventually led to many families forgoing traditional Taoist funeral services in favor of simplified Buddhist-style rites or Christian funeral services. In trying to fend off an extincting tradition and remain relevant in a new era, the nature of Taoist funerals and the role of ritual specialists began to evolve. This is a significant change that has greatly impacted cultural heritage and identity in Singapore and will be the primary focus of this essay in relation to the Teochew and Hokkien communities.

In the past, deaths occurring at home were very common and a corpse would be displayed in a simple wooden coffin in the very same room the person passed away in. Today, many private homes are not properly equipped to handle a wake, and it is increasingly popular to hold wakes in funeral parlors or void deck pavilions. A shift has therefore occurred from home deaths to hospital deaths. Changes to funeral procedures were spurred on by government regulations and modernization. The introduction of laws mandating cremation in an effort to free up land for development led to a decline in elaborate and lengthy funeral rites often lasting 3 to 7 days, as cremation services require completion within 3 days of the death. This, in turn, reduced the demand for ritual specialists to conduct funeral services and elaborate ritual proceedings.

The 1980s and 1990s marked a turning point for Taoist funeral rites practiced by the Teochew and Hokkien communities in Singapore. The funeral industry began to move away from attap and wooden coffins towards the use of more modern materials such as metal, and eventually reinforced concrete. Temporary structures erected to hold funeral wakes also evolved from the use of wooden planks and attap roofs to the present-day use of zinc-roofed sheds with canvas walls or air-conditioned pavilions. The visual transformation of the wake was not the only change to occur.

Contemporary Approaches to Taoist Funerals

Most explicit today is the expressiveness of culture through wealth or social status. The Chinese are very much influenced by the concept of face and solely for the purpose of gaining face for their ancestors, the modernisation and ethnocentrism of traditional funeral rites have led to ostentatious or innovative methods in order to provide the rites mentioned with maximum benefit. This may come in the form of spending large sums of money to attain Taoist rituals and prayers with the assumption that spending more will get better quality, or even blending the doctrines with those of Buddhism to allow funeral rites that promise a comfortable afterlife. These different methods are also adopted by families of differing social status with the upper class being able to afford more formalised Taoist rites compared to the more superstitious and spirit warding rites of the lower class. An example would be the elaborate funeral procession of a state funeral held for the passing of Lee Kuan Yew in which traditional Taoist funeral rites were adapted to give due recognition and face for a man of high social status. Such a price is a testament to modern culture and a clear shift from tradition to accommodate the ever changing needs of society.

With the vast melting pot of ethnic culture in today’s society, it is normal for the Chinese to be influenced by Indian, Malay or Western culture, language and lifestyle. A family of Chinese ethnicity in today’s society may be more accustomed to a modern lifestyle influenced by the West. English may be the first language of the family instead of their ethnic language, lifestyle may be less conservative and religious beliefs may not be pure Taoist. Due to such changes in lifestyle and cultural habits, it is normal for the family to want to blend such cultural habits into the funeral rites due to a lack of understanding of traditional Taoist customs or simply because it is more comfortable. An example would be a family inviting a Taoist priest to conduct a funeral but requesting that he perform rituals and prayers in Mandarin instead of the dialects because the younger generation are unable to understand dialects. Such requests are still very much in line with the essence of Taoist funeral rites but are aimed at accommodating to the cultural habits of a specific group of people.

It has already been established that there had been an influence of the cultural background of the Chinese people on Taoist funeral rites. However, this influence of culture has been made very explicit in modern society today. The means of attaining the above mentioned goals of Taoist funeral rites have become subject to cultural and social forms. Funeral rites may consist of the ritual prayers led by a Taoist priest, sermons on religious doctrine and the performance of certain rituals to honour the deceased and seek guidance for a better rebirth. However, the method of conducting these rites today may be different from that of ancient times and may vary according to the cultural background.

A Silent Storyteller: The Enduring Legacy of Pedestal Funeral Tablets

Pedestal funeral tablets, small slabs often mounted on stands, have served as poignant memorials for centuries. Transgressing the boundaries of time, these tributes offer a glimpse into the lives of the departed, whispering stories etched in stone or painted on wood.

The format of the tablets is deceptively simple. Typically adorned with the deceased’s name, birth and death years, they often feature an engraved portrait or emblem. This visual element offers a window into the individual’s identity. A soldier might be depicted wielding a sword, while a scholar could be portrayed surrounded by books. These symbols not only personalize the tablet, but also hint at the passions and achievements that defined the life lived.

Beyond the basic information, the inscription breathes life into the memorial. Elegies, short and heartfelt, offer glimpses into the deceased’s personality and the impact they had on those left behind.  These messages can range from stoic pronouncements of strength and stoicism to tender expressions of love and loss.  The choice of words reflects not only the relationship between the deceased and the living, but also the cultural norms and beliefs of the time.

 

The enduring appeal of the pedestal funeral tablet lies in its ability to transcend language and cultural barriers. Even without deciphering the inscription, the visual elements and the simple act of commemoration speak volumes. These silent storytellers remind us of the universality of grief, the desire to remember, and the enduring power of human connection.

Furthermore, pedestal tablets offer valuable historical insights. By studying the iconography, materials, and inscriptions, we can glean information about past societies – their social structures, values, and artistic styles. These seemingly unassuming memorials offer a window into the lives of ordinary people, enriching our understanding of the human experience across time.

In conclusion, pedestal funeral tablets are more than just markers of a life ended. They are testaments to the enduring power of memory, offering a platform for loved ones to express their grief and celebrate the life lived. As silent storytellers, they bridge the gap between past and present, reminding us of the preciousness of life and the importance of leaving a mark on the world.

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