Posted at 01.01.2019
In Singapore, most the Chinese originated from regions of the Kwang-tung and Fukien provinces of China. As a result, Chinese religions were highly influenced by the homeland of the migrants, however different from those in urban China as the Chinese in Singapore enjoyed a larger freedom in expressing religious activities because of the limits of approved and permitted religion in China (Topley. 1961). Besides that, the Chinese believed highly in practices of folk religion and cultural practices which were often a combination of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
History and Ideas of Buddhism (Theravada)
On the other hand, Buddhism includes two major forms, the Theravada and the Mahayana. In this essay, I'll be concentrating on the Theravada School of Buddhism as it is the key form of Buddhism in Thailand. Theravada Buddhism was established through the 3rd Century B. C India, in reign of Emperor Asoka (Gombrich 1988). Among the key areas of the Theravada Buddhist is the focus on a meditative method of the transformation of consciousness and this the life of any Arahant is ideal and is considered the paramount approach towards Nirvana/Nibanna (Keown 2000).
This goal of enlightenment can be interpreted as liberation from cycles of rebirth or an illumination from the limitations of existence because of this of overcoming of desires and accumulation of karma in one's life (S. Radhakrishnan, Iqbal Singh, Arvind Sharma. , 2004). A person that will not obtain nirvana or enlightenment cannot escape the cycles of death and rebirth and would inevitably be reborn in to the 6 possible states; Heaven, Human life, Asura, Hungry ghosts, Animals or Hell (S. Radhakrishnan, Iqbal Singh, Arvind Sharma. , 2004).
Stages and Significance of a Singaporean Chinese Funeral
Based on my recollections two years ago, my beloved grandmother passed away when my family was away on any occasion in Malaysia. We received a phone call from Singapore and hasty flew back again to attend her funeral. When we arrived, every item in the main living room of the house were cleared for the ceremony as it was believed that objects that had been in contact with the departed were impure and not ideal for the funeral (Chee-Kiong 2004). A red blanket or fen bu was also placed over her as a symbolic meaning of the division between heaven and earth, with her still residing on earth as she is yet prepared on her behalf journey (Chee-Kiong 2004). The blanket also served three other functions of protecting against other spirits from entering the home, preventing the soul of the departed from wandering out of our home and protecting us from harm (Chee-Kiong 2004).
A few hours later, a Chinese priest arrived at the home with a bucket of water scented with pomegranate flower discovered as tian shui or heavenly water. This bucket of water was considered befitting the cleansing of your body as it had not been taken from the home, which is believe to be impure. This ritual was an important part of the preparation as an impure body would be despised and punished in Hell (Chee-Kiong 2004). Following cleansing, she was then decked out in her shou yi or generational clothes, consisting of 9 layers of clothing to ensure that she had satisfactory garments for all the seasons in Heaven. Pearls were then located in the mouth and hands so that she could use these to bribe the judges in Hell (Chee-Kiong 2004).
Following that, the funeral preparation proceeded to the phase called ru mu or entering the coffin. The body was placed into the coffin with personal articles such as toothbrush, comb, spectacles and even her favorite pillow. This ensured that the coffin was prepared as comfortable as is feasible as she'd utilize them in the otherworld (Chee-Kiong 2004). This is followed by a bag of rice, joss paper and paper money for her so that she'd not go hungry and could have sufficient funds for both the bribing and personal expenditure. Once this was done, my dad and his brothers took turns to take a spoonful or rice and symbolically fed her. I was told that this process was crucial to be able to prevent my grandmother from learning to be a hungry ghost. Next we took turns to whisper hao hua or pleasant words into my grandmother's ears to comfort her soul before nailing the coffin shut. A chair was then put before the coffin with her clothes and shoes. The Chinese character hun or soul was also written on the chair along with a big picture of her, this picture is known as the "longevity portrait" as it is think that my grandmother would be present and sitting on the chair for the funeral (Chee-Kiong 2004).
The following day marks the commencement of the seven days funeral where guests and friends of us attended. My family and I were dressed in mourning clothes comprising coarsest cloths, white shirts and trousers, straw overcoats, hats and slippers. Upon arrival, the guests performed a ritual bai which is a bow before the altar with a single lighted joss stick in the hand, as an act of respect towards my grandmother. They were then served with food and invited to take a sit and proceed onto conversations. Through the entire funeral, we consistently burn paper money for my grandmother to invest in the otherworld and offered food in the mornings, noons and evenings, so she would not go hungry. Prior to the visitors left, they were given a red thread to ensure a safe journey home and protection from evil spirits.
On the final night of the funeral, an elaborate altar was constructed, representing the shen zuo or altar to the Gods which consists of pictures of several gods in Daoism (Chee-Kiong 2004). Around 6pm in the evening, several musicians along with priests dressed up in white robes arrived at the funeral. Musicians stroke their gongs signifying the beginning of the ritual or qi tang, as the priests startled chanting to invite the deities to observe the funeral ceremony. The priests then invited us to execute the ritual of crossing the bridges or nai be qiao, which involved procession over the wooden bridge 13 times, leading to the "Gates of Hell". At each one of the crossings, we threw coins onto the bottom to appease dangerous spirits. This signified us accompanying and assisting my grandmother on her journey (Chee-Kiong 2004). Around the 13th crossing, we bid a final farewell to her as her soul is now making its way through the "Ten Courts of Hell" and trailed at each level for actions and deeds completed on earth. On the 10th level, she'd be given a final verdict on what she would be reborn as based on the actions and deeds carried out (Chee-Kiong 2004). This was also where she might use the pearls and paper money to bribe the judges for a better rebirth. Right after this ritual, a peculiar event occurred, as a dragonfly flew in to the house and landed onto my mom's shoulder. I used to be later told that this signified that my grandmother had a nice rebirth.
Early the next morning, my children gathered once more, in preparation for the cremation of my grandmother. Her body was placed on the ling che which really is a decorated van with recorded Buddhist chats playing inside. I suppose this is to provide her with peace prior to the cremation. The van then made its way to the temple with us walking behind followed by a band of musicians playing discordant music to scare away malicious spirits on the way (Chee-Kiong 2004). In the arrival of the temple, Buddhist monks chanted prayers for my grandmother and lead us across the coffin 3 x, prior to the coffin was pushed in to the enclosed burner for cremation. The next day we returned to the temple to pick up the ashes and bones to store them in a joss urn, that was positioned in a columbarium at the temple where we still visit at this time.
As we can observe, this Chinese religious funeral encompasses elements from different beliefs, for instance the Taoist deities from Daoism and the Buddhist chants for the cremation, that i will illustrate further in the next section based on a funeral in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Stages and Need for a Buddhist Funeral in Thailand (Chiang Mai)
In Thailand, "Ghan Sop" translates into the ceremony for a deceased person. When someone in the family dies, the corpse is kept in the house for 7 days for a funeral rite before the cremation. In my opinion, these seven days transcends the 7 steps which Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha took soon after birth, as Buddhism targets rebirth, this may reflect the quantity of time needed for the deceased to reach the phase of liminality for the preparation of rebirth (Dhammananada 1993).
Upon death, the corpse of the deceased is left alone for 3-8 hours following the last breath ceases as Buddhists assume that the spirit of the deceased will linger on for a moment, and that it is important to permit it to calmly make its journey to ensure a enjoyable rebirth. Subsequently, prior to the commencement of the funeral, the undertaker puts a coin in to the mouth of the deceased, for him/her to pay fees through the journey and binds sacred thread known as "Sai Sin" onto the neck, wrist and ankles of the deceased. These different parts the body represents the attachments the deceased had during life. With the neck representing the burden of experiencing children, wrist as a connection between the husband or wife of the deceased and the ankles symbolizing the material goods that the deceased every tried to achieve during life.
The ceremony commences from the very first to the 6th day, but never commences on the Friday ("Wan Suk") as "Suk" in Thai means happiness. Guests often reach the house of the decease dressed up in dark or white clothes and Monks arrive each night around 7pm for the 6 days to help chant Buddhist Scriptures while holding the sacred thread which stretches in to the coffin. This sacred thread is thought to help infuse or transfer the monks chanting to the deceased to aid the deceased in acquiring the words of the scriptures for his/her journey (Buddha Dharma Education 2010).
During the funeral ceremony, food is also offered and guests should partake in conversations, even when the monks are chanting. This helps lifts the atmosphere and reduce the sorrows and tears, because for a Buddhist, death is a passage to rebirth and by lifting the atmosphere, it could help provide the deceased with peace and assurance without concerns of undue attachments regarding leaving, which might bring about more sufferings (Dhammananada 1993). As accordance to the Buddha's teachings people should treat each other lovingly when alive and continue leading a good life even after the passing of someone you care about (Dhammananada 1993). Sometimes, a book containing stories, poems and personal writings of the deceased person would also be given out during the ceremony to represent the Buddhist teaching of spreading wisdom and knowledge to others. I believe this may help the deceased acquire good karma or merit to help carry a pleasurable rebirth.
On the 7th day, a funeral procession is organized for the cremation and transportation of your body to the temple. At the head of the funeral cortege, monks and sons or grandsons of the deceased who become non permanent monks for this ceremony would escort the coffin with the ladies following behind. However, nowadays the coffin can even be transported using a van with the men standing next to the van.
Upon reaching the temple, a final rite is conducted by washing the body of the deceased with juice from a green coconut to purify the body. The funeral cortege then walks 3 x round the funeral pyre with the monks holding the sacred thread while chanting and, the son of the deceased holding the portrait of the deceased. This symbolizes 3 Buddhist beliefs of life impermanence, the life span suffering and the life vacuum (Mishra 2004).
Before the cremation, guests place flowers, incense sticks and candles before the coffin. The flowers are called "Dork Maijian" which are sometimes created from paper thin wood. This technique represents the guests providing wood for the fire to help the cremation. Following the cremation, the remains can be kept by the family, scattered onto rivers or perhaps left behind. It is because what is left are just remains of the components of earth, water, wind and fire as the deceased has already departed and has taken rebirth into a fresh form (Dhammananada 1993).
Differences between your two funerals
In the context of an Singaporean Chinese funeral, a hybrid of beliefs can be identified (Oxfeld 2004). Firstly, the Confucian principle that caring for the dead is a filial duty in the same way as repayment (bao) and profound kindness for the years of sacrifice parents lead to upbringing of these children, have long been emphasized in Chinese culture (Yan 1996). This explains the elaborate detail of items in the coffin to ensure that the deceased is comfortable and resources directed at aid the deceased in the journey. Secondly, the idea of salvation and reincarnation in Buddhism is incorporated in to the concern with punishment and unpleasant rebirth if obligations to the deceased are not properly made (Oxfeld 2004). Similarly to the Thai Buddhist beliefs, both rituals engaged in cleansing of the body and chanting to ensure a pleasurable rebirth. Nevertheless, dissimilarities can still be observed as the Chinese place pearls into the mouth and hands of the deceased while the Buddhist only place a coin in to the mouth. Both encompass the theory that the deceased use these objects throughout their journey. In my opinion, the Buddhist ritual didn't focus on this around the Chinese, which even burn paper money for the deceased to use. And lastly, the idea of summoning the soul of the dead back to transform and deliver it can be observed in both the Singaporean Chinese and Taoist funerals (Davis 2001). For instance the chair represented the occurrence of the deceased.
The Thai Buddhist funeral on the other hand, revolves around preparing the death for a proper rebirth. The result of the rebirth is highly reliant on the deceased as an individual when compared with the Singaporean Chinese funeral, which can involve bribing the judges in hell. The path to rebirth also varies in various ways, in the Chinese funeral, evil spirits are available on the path to the 10th degree of hell which requires the company of the family to assist in the rebirth. The Chinese ritual also centered on the "otherworld" where in fact the deceased would use items in the coffin such as toothbrushes and combs. Which I believe seems to contradict the thought of rebirth at the 10th level of Hell.
Furthermore, the Chinese funeral incorporated the Thai ritual of walking round three times prior to the cremation of the body. Another different facet of these two funerals is the fact that in views of Thai Buddhist, the cremation of your body represents the phase of rebirth. But for the Chinese, the rebirth seems to occur at the 10th level of Hell, through the crossing of the bridge. This in my opinion seems to show that the Chinese funeral concentrates on the certainty of an good rebirth by like the areas of different beliefs.
Concepts of Sacred
Based on Eliade's theory of sacred and profane and Van Gennep's conditions of the rite de passage, both Chinese and Buddhist funeral can be perceived as a form of ontological transformation whereby the deceased shifts from a profane space of amorphousness to a sacred space of hierophany revealing its purpose or fixed point of journey, marked by the three phases: separation, margin, and aggregation (Turner 1987; Eliade 1959). The first phase is denoted by the last breath the deceased takes which detaches him/her from his state of fixed point or profane state and into the phase of margin which really is a period of ambiguousness, seen as a the funeral ceremony lasting 6 to seven days to prepare the deceased for rebirth.
The deceased is then regarded as a neophyte, whereby pearls or sacred threads are located or bind onto various areas of the body and then cleansed with water or coconut juice. These rites symbolize detachment from the profane world to be able to enter the sacred in a Tabula rasa or clean slate. The decease would then maintain the state of sacred poverty, with no obligations, status, property, or attachments. According to William James's "law of dissociation", "whatever that's associated now with one thing and today with another, is dissociate from either, and grown into an object of conceptual contemplation of your brain (Turner 1987)". Within this state of betwixt and between, associations with the decease are detached and are only reflected in the memories of the living. This stage of liminality may as well be a stage of reflection for both the living and the deceased, with the deceased reflecting on the nice deeds that will carry a good rebirth and the living reflecting on the religious significance of the ritual and the recollections of the decease's past.
The crossing of the bridge or cremation in this aspect is the axis mundi which centers round this transformation, and sets the funeral in to the phase of aggregation where the deceased detaches from the profane and in to the sacred space of rebirth, hereby giving his/her existence a value that may be understood as the accumulation of karma or good deeds during life. It opens the entranceway for the deceased and symbolizes that the deceased is no more present and has progressed onwards into another world.
Social context of the funerals
With mention of the two funerals mentioned in this specific article, it seems that both Singaporean Chinese and Thai Buddhist funerals share a common meaning, with the intention of getting together to help the deceased prepare for your final journey. This elaborate process of rituals involving the community helps provide socialization experiences that transmit the values of the culture from generations to generations (Yoder 1986). The data to these ritualistic funerals may then be carried over through generations, and represents the people of the culture itself.
Apart from that, it aids in the needs of the living in three different facets. Through helping the living to face the reality of death, realize the physical and emotional separation from the deceased and guidance towards a new view of life (Jackson 1963). Through the preparation of your body, the family notice that the deceased has to continue his/her journey without them as they cleanse your body and nail the coffin shut, they face the truth of death.
At the start of the ceremony, the living proceeded onto a fresh stage of the ritual, where relatives and friends start getting into the picture and accompany them (Yoder 1986). This then allows them to see the beginning of life in a fresh social setting, without the deceased around, permitting them to give attention to the physical and emotional separation.
Additionally, this allows the relatives and friends to provide support and reflect how the roles of the deceased can be replaced in the foreseeable future. This aids the living as a guidance and social support towards the future (Yoder 1986). As time passes, the living can also reflect on the comfort and kindness received through the funeral to draw upon enjoyable memories. These important social areas of the funeral cannot be neglected as it is a substantial channel for the bereaved to express them and also receive help from others.
Unlike western beliefs, funeral rituals mentioned in this specific article emphasizes on the various means of attaining a good rebirth, some aspects of the Chinese ritual seem to be built upon the foundation of the Thai ritual, pertaining to good deeds or karma to attain a pleasurable rebirth. However in the Thai Buddhist ritual, judges of Hell didn't exist and burning of money was of no importance towards a good rebirth.
This will not mean that an example may be more advanced than another or is an improved version, but should be viewed as a cultural practice or belief that binds the community together and support one another in times of need. Besides that, these rituals can even be used to observe how different cultures employ their beliefs to take care of the bereavement of death and progress onwards. In a very sociological sense, it can help bring thoughts and values of a community mutually as one in terms of understanding the requirements needed for each other. These funerals denote the foundational basis of a culture and community as death starts with life's first breath and life commences at the touch of death.