Hokkien Funeral Rites: An Observation

Hokkien Funeral Buddhist Altar

My maternal grandmother, bless her soul, was buried today. She was my last surviving grandparent, and her death means the end of an era for me. We buried her according to Buddhist rites. These are what they entailed at least for my side based in Klang, Malaysia (mainly because most other sources cite Singapore and that’s a completely different ball game).

Note that this may be incomplete as I wasn’t there for some of the rituals (being an “external granddaughter” meant my presence was not completely compulsory).

So, what can you expect at a Hokkien funeral?

Funeral Prep

For both my grandparents, the funeral rites took place at home. Prep work included:

  • Ancestral portraits are taken down
  • The altars are covered
  • Mirrored and other reflective surfaces are also covered
  • Clothes for the deceased and other items prepared
  • Funeral date set. The Chinese prefer odd numbers for the funeral – days 3, 5 or 7, counting from the day the deceased left

Day 1: Setting up the home

  • Family members gather home/at the funeral parlour for the body’s and casket’s arrivals
  • Family members who were not present during the death of the deceased must enter the house crawling – though this is not usually practiced these days
  • Kids below the age of 5 are taken out of the house before the body is moved into the coffin
  • Family members kowtow before the coffin and cannot look at the body as it is being transferred to its new “home”
  • Once done, an altar is set up outside with the deceased’s picture, along with offerings of fruits
  • Two candles and large joss sticks are kept burning at all time

Taboos that start now

  • No crying out loud
  • No tears on the coffin
  • If menstruating, you cannot touch the coffin

Days 1- Day before Funeral

There’s a whole bunch of things that happened. This gets exceptionally long:
Burning paper money

The Ingots, aka the Bribe

  • Folding of joss paper into ingots begin! There are two ingot types you can fold them into – the roll ’em and tuck edges in type, seen in this post, and the smaller, more “realistic-looking” 5 Dollar ingots (apparently the folding technique you choose indicate its value)
  • Minimum bags required – 10 large garbage bags. More is better but also dependent on how much you want to pay
  • Outside, a small fire is kept burning to “bribe” the way of the deceased as they make their way through Purgatory. You burn the same paper money as you fold (pyromaniacs rejoice!). The fire must be kept burning at all times, and it takes skill to ensure the flame doesn’t die out
  • To take a break, light a large joss stick and stick it into a stack of paper money (this was new to me!)

Paying Respect

  • There will always be a table with money box, a guest book, and sweets. Fill in the guest book, drop some money in as a form of respect, and take a sweet
  • Head to the altar and pay your respects. You can either bow three times before the altar, OR take a joss stick, light it, bow once, and put the joss stick in the joss stick box
  • Bow to the deceased’s relatives and offer them words of comfort if you want
  • Go in to see the dead body and then head back outside

Food

  • The deceased always eats first. The eldest son’s wife will be responsible for offering the food to the deceased at the altar. After a suitable period of time (15 – 30 minutes), meals will be served to visitors and the family members
  • Depending on the package you select, there will be at least 3 meals. If you are coming to pay respects, skip dinner and just eat at the wake.
  • There will be food to eat (whether there are tables to sit is another matter).

Buddhist Praying Rituals

For my family, we had 3 “sessions” of prayers lasting 30-45 minutes each. What happened:
* Day 1: During the first or second session, the names of the surviving children and grandchildren will be read out. If you have an English name, it will be transliterated (mine was not too pleasant to hear). When the monk/nun calls out your name, bend your head to “check in”
* Days 2 – Night before funeral: “Opening” session (as I call it) will usually be the longest. Everyone holds one joss stick, listens to the nun chant to Buddha, and then bow and stand as required (cues will be given). Second session usually involves a lot of sitting and then paying respect to the deceased between the chants. I cannot remember what the third session is.
* Night before funeral:
* The paper house, car, servants and 2 sedan chairs should have arrived long before this
* Before the third prayer session of the night begins, these paper goods will be put somewhere safe to be set on fire.
* Remember those 10 bags? The ingots you folded will be dumped all over these items (to make it easier to burn)
* After the prayer session, the monk/nun will lead the family members outside. They will say a blessing for the deceased to “receive” these items
* Family members will be instructed to “shout” and “call out” to the deceased to come take these items. Basically we’re telling them to collect their afterlife house and belongings
* SET IT ON FIRE and watch it all burn. As the fire can get quite hot, make sure you stand back. And keep the kids who WILL want to get burned away
* Make sure it all burns

Funeral Day

Ye gods this was today and it was very long. Thoughts are probably going to be very jumbled.

  • Things to prep: A colourful change of clothes (could not be black or white)
  • Grandkids stood outside while children were inside. As the prayers began, grandkids shuffled in for one last look at the deceased, then stood outside as the adults took their turns
  • Visitors and extended family members can come in now to pay their final respects
  • Kowtow again as they sealed the coffin. A large cloth embroidered with the 8 immortals (I think) was draped over
  • A live band played music to drive away evil spirits
  • Everyone moves outside
  • Table set with offerings, including a roasted suckling pig
  • Prayers were held again. More joss sticks were burnt
  • Offering to the deceased for a safe journey by the kids and grandkids. Libations poured
  • Men and women divided into two sides
  • Spouses of the female members pay their respects by offering I think rice, oranges, and pouring libations. Each generation pays their respect separately
  • Final respects to be paid to the coffin by non-immediate family members and other visitors. Bow to the deceased’s photo, then to family members
  • Coffin loaded into car
  • As my family has been having a lot of deaths in a short span of time (3 immediate family member deaths in 10 months, 3 non-immediate members in the same time), it was recommended by another relative that we take an extra step to ward off misfortune. A grandchild was to take some pulled up weeds, chop the roots off symbolically in front of the hearse, and then it could move. My brother was the only male grandchild old enough and probably skillful enough to do this (other cousins were much younger)
  • Live Music plays as the children lay hands on the hearse and escort it to the “graveyard”
  • Procession ends near the main road, everyone gets on the bus, and we continue our journey to the cemetery
  • At the cemetery, we stop by the Main Temple to pay respects to the “Land Gods”
  • Remember that roasted suckling pig I mentioned? We had parts of it here.
  • Move to my grandmother’s final resting place (next to granddad)
  • Family kowtows (this time on hard, hot and spiky tar road) as coffin is unloaded and moved to the plot
  • While coffin is loaded into the grave, everyone turns their back on the coffin
  • The sons look into the grave to ensure that the alignment of the coffin is straight
  • Prayers and libations offered to the deceased and the land gods nearby
  • At the end of it, each family member goes up to the grave, grabs a handful of dirt, and throws it into hole
  • Immediately, said family member turns back on the hole and leaves the area immediately. You cannot wash your hands.

And that’s it… For the cemetery!

When we came back, there was more to be done. In our absence, the staff left behind had set up a table with food. My grandmother’s clothes were fastened over the chair, to indicate her sitting there.

Upon alighting from the bus, my eldest uncle brought over my grandmother’s tablet and set it on the table. Another uncle brought the joss stick urn. Candles were lit. Everyone got another joss stick.

This time, we “welcomed” my grandmother home and then invited her to eat. After that, everyone went outside to wash our face, hands and legs in flower water. A comb was included in the water to “clean” our hair as well.

Immediately thereafter, everyone went to change clothes, to symbolise the end of mourning. We had mee sua, aka longevity noodles, as lunch. Then it was cleanup.

Note: I know I said we buried her according to Buddhist rites, but yes, I am well aware that a lot of the things we’ve done here would be closer to “following Chinese customs and traditions.” Don’t flame or leave nasty comments, this was just an observation of what happened.

Naoko @ Geminianeyes

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