Deep Dive: Buddhist Funeral Customs in Singapore
It’s common to find Buddhist funerals in Singapore when at least 30 percent of the population are practising Buddhists. Sooner or later, you may find yourself attending one even if you aren’t a Buddhist.
To help you prepare for that, we’ll be diving deeper into Buddhist funeral customs in Singapore, including some things to keep in mind before and during the wake. So if you’re ready, let’s get started.
A General Overview of Buddhist Customs
To understand how Buddhists view death, it’s important to first get a good idea of reincarnation. This concept revolves around the idea of beginning a new life in a new form after one’s biological death.
Think of it this way: a Buddhist in Singapore who died at 80 years old would be reborn as an infant at another place. Buddhist doctrine also states that humans may be reincarnated as animals in their next life, among others.
For Buddhists, the cycle of reincarnation would go on and on until one’s soul reaches enlightenment or nirvana, which is a concept that frees one’s soul from suffering.
For this reason, you may come to find that many Buddhist customs go back to reincarnation.
For instance, some Buddhists refrain from touching or moving the body of the deceased for at least 4 hours because they believe that the soul doesn’t immediately leave the body. This practice reflects the belief that the reincarnation process may take some time.
Meanwhile, other Buddhists believe that reincarnation happens directly after death. Regardless, most Buddhists believe prayers and chanting are vital during the funeral service so that the deceased would gain positive karma.
Karma influences how a person will be reborn. Essentially, it’s believed that a person who has lived a righteous life would enjoy a pleasant one in their next life.
Cremation is also allowed and sometimes encouraged under Buddhist customs, as it’s believed that Buddha himself was cremated.
Common Elements in Buddhist Funerals and What They Mean
In Singapore, Buddhist wakes are typically held from 3 to 5 days, usually at the void decks of HDB flats or funeral parlours. Majority of practising Buddhists in Singapore are also of Chinese ancestry, which is why you’ll also find Chinese funeral customs being practised.
If it will be your first time attending a Buddhist funeral soon, you may find that some customs are a little bit different from what you’re used to. To help you understand some of them, we came up with a list of common things that you may find in a Buddhist funeral and what they symbolise.
In many Buddhist traditions, the deceased is openly displayed on a casket wearing simple, everyday clothes they normally wear. That’s because Buddhists believe in simplicity and modesty, which is also why Buddhist wakes are also fairly simple affairs.
This is also the reason why wearing extravagant clothing and accessories during the funeral or wake is taken as a sign of disrespect. Instead, guests should wear simple black or white clothing during the wake or funeral.
If the casket is open, guests are also expected to pay their respects by viewing the casket and offering a slight bow and prayer.
You can find the altar just beside the casket. Apart from a picture of the deceased, a typical altar would feature an image of Buddha, incense, candles, flowers, some fruits, and sometimes food.
While candles and flowers are pretty customary during funerals, a plate of fruits, food, and some incense sticks symbolise offerings to Buddha. When a monk is present, the family of the deceased sometimes gives them the food offerings on the altar.
Offering food also goes hand in hand with Chinese funeral customs. Food offerings are believed to appease the deceased, who becomes a family ancestor.
Portraits of the deceased are also common in many funeral customs, not just among Buddhists. In the context of Chinese customs, only wealthy families in earlier times could afford commemorative portraits. Today, many families simply use a photograph of the deceased.
In most cases, you might also spot a bowl of red thread placed at each table. Guests are expected to tie one around their finger as it’s believed to ward off evil spirits that may be present during the wake.
Guests must remember to remove the thread from their finger and throw it away before going home. Otherwise, it’s believed that the evil spirits would follow you home.
This practice is mostly borrowed from Chinese folk religions, not so much of a Buddhist tradition.
Incense is an important part of Buddhist funeral customs regardless of denomination. Burning incense is said to calm the spirit of the deceased, purifying both the surroundings and present individuals.
Not all guests are expected to light an incense stick. Nonetheless, it’s still seen as a sign of respect, even if you have different religious beliefs.
When lighting one, be sure to bow three times and place it carefully in the container filled with ash. It’s also considered disrespectful to blow the flame, so make sure to avoid that.
The Chinese custom of offering “pek kim” or bereavement money is to help the deceased’s family cover some funeral costs. The amount is typically given in odd denominations, which are considered auspicious in Chinese culture.
While there’s no minimum amount you can give, the standard amount is $30. You may place this in a white envelope to be given to a family member during the funeral.
Chanting is arguably the most important aspect of a Buddhist funeral. As mentioned above, it’s said to give positive karma to the soul of the deceased.
Normally led by a monk, the prayers or chants will depend on which Buddhist denomination the deceased followed. Guests aren’t required to join in, but they are expected to be respectful of the process.