“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.” – Sir William Ewart Gladstone
Why Funeral Care?
As a Chinese Christian in Singapore, I have found it extremely difficult to discover, maintain and preserve my cultural and religious heritage throughout my life. In my short 20 years here, I have spent a lot of time speaking with the elderly and to really immerse myself in their life stories. In all, the thing I understood the most from it was to live life with my eyes open and reject the temptation to close them with distractions and addictions; lest I rot to my death in regret.
That we may even be able to do that successfully, our ancestors have spent thousands of years to bring up wisdom from the waves of our collective unconscious and to lift it up, like a star above endless oceans of chaos and potential; but wisdom only shines as bright as eyes can see it and we need only to know where to look. In life, we are as alive as we are wise, and in death, our ability to pass on wisdom relies on an understanding of our lives in its full context; future generations will see our lives through our eyes and keep our story, only completed at the moment of our deaths, with them. That is the role of a funeral, to tell that story in as complete a manner as possible.
The funeral tells the story of a person’s life, in its entirety, from the foundation of his religious beliefs, through the cultural dressing of his ethno-national customs and to the manifestation of his communal self, in the people he leaves behind, all gathered for him in their hearts, as much as with their bodies present. I have been to many funerals, probably more than almost everyone my age, probably more than most who are much older than myself too; I have seen good ones, where closure and healing flow, from the altars of the Divine, set up before the casket, to those who look to it for strength and peace; I have also seen horrible ones, where overpriced and substandard liturgy was provided for an already tumultuously grieving community, almost in blatant disrespect of a sacred life lost. Death is a significant experience for everyone; though the deceased have returned to the Divine, those who were close to him in life remain in agony of his loss, or worse, reveal their indifference towards his existence and lack thereof. It is here that a clear, stable and well researched funeral care service makes all the difference.
Chinese Funeral Rituals
In Singapore, Chinese identity rests on the pillars of three elite religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. These ancient faiths have deep roots in Chinese history and have been preserved and handed down, through the generations, to us in our society. However, from the ground up, the local Chinese folk religion, in its ever evolving and unpredictable nature, remains another major influence in the community, but due to its disorganised nature, Chinese folk religion is better understood in its shamanistic experience than with any description I can give here. As such, though this manual acknowledges and accomodates local folk rituals, it will deal primarily with funerals of the elite forms of Chinese religion in Singapore.
From its origins in Zhou Dynasty China (周朝), to the establishment of the Celestial Master (天师) in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝), the orthopraxical ethnic religion of the Chinese people expresses itself through Orthodox Taoism (正一道) in Singapore, which emphasises the purity of its rite, separate from Buddhist and Confician influences. Being an ethnic religion, it is practiced exclusively by the Chinese people, and as an orthopraxical religion, its adherants are united by its practices, rather than its beliefs. Maintaining its elite form in its institution of ordained priests (道士) and their temples (道观), it also embraces Chinese folk religion, often bringing its local masters (法師) and mediums (童乩), as well as their shrines and temples into its fold. A good Taoist funeral should, therefore, be based on a strong foundation of Orthodox ritials, performed by a priest, but supplemented with folk rituals, performed by a master, only as the family sees fit.
From its origins in Haryanka Dynasty India, to the establishment of the White Horse Temple (白马寺) in Han Dynasty China (漢朝), the historical orthodoxical universalising religion of the Chinese people, expresses itself through Mahayana Buddhism (大乘佛教) in Singapore, which emphasises later Sutras (经) that expand beyond the Tripitaka (三藏); predominantly of the various Chinese schools of Buddhism, with the exception of a community of Nichiren (日蓮) Buddhists from the Soka Gakkai (創価学会). Being a universalising religion, it is practiced in various ethnic groups and as an orthodoxical religion, its adherants are united in its beliefs, rather than its practices. Maintaining its elite form in its institution of monks (和尚), their temples (庙) and monasteries (寺), its adherants often also incorporate Chinese folk religion, consulting its local masters (法師) and mediums (童乩). A good Buddhist funeral should, therefore, be based on a pure expression of Mahayana rituals, lead by a monk, but also be open to accomodate folk rituals on advice of the family.
From its origins in Herodian Dynasty Judea, to the establishment of the Church of the East (東方教會) in Tang Dynasty China (唐朝), this orthodoxical universalising religion expresses itself through Western Christianity (西方基督教) in Singapore, which is derived from the Latin Liturgical Rites; either of Protestantism (基督新教) or Roman Catholicism (罗马天主教). Being a universalising religion, it is practiced in various ethnic groups and as an orthodoxical religion, its adherants are united in its beliefs, rather than its practices. Maintaining its elite form in its institution of pastors (牧师), priests (神父) and their churches (教堂), its adherants often reject Chinese folk religion, totally avoiding its local masters (法師) and mediums (童乩). A good Christian funeral should, therefore, be based on a pure expression of Christian rituals, lead by a pastor or priest, and, unless specifically requested, not include folk rituals.
RUI KANG & CLARE YONG, NUS FASS