Taoist funerals are somewhat uncommon in Singapore, but not unheard of. You may know them more as Chinese funerals since the majority of Taoists are of Chinese ethnicity, after all.
Whether you’re attending a Taoist funeral soon or just curious, this quick guide will take you through the most basic things you need to know about Taoist funeral customs in Singapore.
A General Overview of Taoist Customs
There are plenty of variations on how Taoists view death. Some Taoists believe in the concept of reincarnation or the rebirth of a soul in a different form, while others believe that souls become ghosts that watch over their family.
While the Taoist doctrine doesn’t really elaborate on death, its meaning still varies from one denomination to another. This is why you won’t find a fixed definition of death in this context.
However, most Taoists believe that the body is filled with evil spirits and ghosts. In order to free the body from these entities, a number of rituals are performed.
Ultimately, rituals will depend on the family’s dialect group, which commonly includes Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, and Hakka in Singapore.
While some nuances exist among denominations, the majority of Taoist funerals follow the same core beliefs and customs.
Common Taoist Customs and What They Mean
Taoist and Buddhist funeral customs are highly similar in many ways. For instance, Taoist funerals take place at HDB void decks or at funeral parlours, where they last an odd number of days (3, 5, or sometimes 7).
As mentioned, Taoism doesn’t really focus on death in its teachings, which is why it doesn’t have specific rules on how burials or wakes are carried out.
Historically, many Taoists are of Chinese origin, which explains why Chinese and Taoist funeral customs are generally seen as one and the same.
Once someone has died, the body is cleansed with a damp cloth and talcum powder before being dressed in their finest clothes, usually in white, black, brown, or blue. The colour red is avoided at all costs because it’s believed that the body will come back as a ghost if it’s used.
The face of the deceased is then covered in a yellow cloth, which represents freedom from worldly concerns. Meanwhile, the body is covered with a blue cloth, which represents harmony and immortality.
Removal of Mirrors
If a wake is held at a place of residence, the family of the deceased removes all mirrors for the entire duration of the wake. It’s believed that the person who sees the reflection of a coffin in a mirror will shortly have a death in their family.
It’s common for the deceased’s relatives and daughters-in-law to wail and cry as loud as they can during mourning. This is seen as a sign of respect and loyalty to the deceased.
Giving of Pek Kim
It’s also customary to give “pek kim” or bereavement money to the family of the deceased to help with funeral expenses. There’s no minimum amount you can give, but be sure to only give an odd amount in a white envelope.
Burning of Joss Paper and Paper Money
Family members normally burn joss paper (often comes in the form of a house, car, clothes) and paper money during the funeral as it’s believed to provide the deceased with their necessities in the afterlife.
Some Taoists also believe that the deceased becomes a beneficial spirit that will continue to bring good luck and watch over their family. One way to appease beneficial spirits is to provide them with their needs, particularly in the form of burning joss paper or paper money.
On the day of the funeral, a short procession is held, starting at a kilometre away from the cemetery or crematorium. Behind the hearse, the order of the funeral procession follows the status of the family members, normally arranged from oldest to youngest.
As the coffin is being lowered to the ground, mourners must also look away as looking at the coffin is considered bad luck.
Post-funeral Mourning Period
Relatives of the deceased mourn for 49 days, reciting prayers every seven days. Seven is considered lucky among the Chinese while the 49-day period is borrowed from Buddhist traditions.
During this period, relatives are expected to wear a mourning pin. Traditionally, children and grandchildren of the deceased do not cut their hair during this period as it’s considered bad luck.
Moreover, relatives of the deceased are also expected to refrain from celebrating “joyful” occasions like Chinese New Year, birthdays, and weddings for at least a year. It’s said that doing so will displease the deceased’s spirit.