Chinese death rituals

Singapore Infopedia


Funeral rituals form an important part of Chinese social life. The Chinese undertake these rituals partly out of filial piety, and partly out of the belief that there is a continued relationship between the living and dead.1 Although traditional rituals have gradually been simplified over the years, current practices continue to reflect these beliefs.2 This article focuses on the burial customs of non-Christian Chinese who subscribe to the folk religions of Taoism, Buddhism or Confucianism. The rituals practised by such Singaporean Chinese differ according to dialect group and may incorporate elements from more than one dialect group.3

Preparations for the wake

According to Chinese folk religions, death is a disruption to the cosmological balance. The performance of death rituals is therefore aimed at re-establishing order and harmony. In addition, the Chinese believe that the dead continue to influence the fortunes of the living. As such, funeral rituals not only exemplify respect and filial piety, but are also done for the sake of recompense.4

When a death occurs, the living room of the deceased’s home is cleared of all furniture and household items, as death is considered to be a polluting element. The idols of deities and mirrors at home are covered with a piece of red cloth or paper so as to avoid offending them by “exposing” them to death.5 A red or white banner is plastered over the main door of the house to indicate that a death has occurred in the household.6

Mourning garments
Traditionally, after a death, each family member of the deceased wears a different-coloured mourning garment that corresponds to their relationship to the deceased. There are differences among the dialect groups in terms of the colours and patterns used in mourning clothes.7 Nowadays, white or black garments are commonly adopted as the general colours of mourning.8 It is also taboo to wear bright colours such as red or yellow during the mourning period.9 Immediate family members wear a coarse burlap overcoat, hat and slippers to show that the mourners’ care for appearances and personal comfort have given way to grief.10

Mourning pins, or xiao (孝; which also means “filial piety” in Chinese) – small pieces of coloured cloth pinned on shirt sleeves – are worn from the first day of the funeral for a period of either 49 or 100 days.11 The grades of xiao correspond with the order of the mourning garments. It is worn on the left sleeve if the deceased is male, and on the right if the deceased is female.12

Preparation of the body
Traditionally, the body is ritually washed, sometimes with water scented with pomegranate flowers, and dressed. This ritual reflects the belief that a deceased with an unclean body will be despised and punished in the afterlife, and is thought to help the soul in its journey through hell and towards heaven.13 The deceased’s eldest son washes the body, symbolically wiping the body three times.14

When the washing is completed, the body is dressed in what is known as shouyi (寿衣), which is made up of several layers. Each layer represents a generation of descendants. It is believed that the thickness of the layers corresponds to the fullness of life led by the deceased. However, the cleaning of the body is now carried out by professionals at the funeral parlour or mortuary, and the bodies are not dressed in shouyi here because of Singapore’s hot and humid climate.15 Instead, the deceased is dressed in his or her best or favourite outfit.16

A pearl, believed to have the ability to protect the body of the deceased,17 used to be placed in the deceased’s mouth to ensure a smooth journey through hell. Coins – for paying guardian spirits so that the deceased would have a safe passage – may also be placed in the left hand. However, the pearl is now substituted by either a coin or a grain of rice – the coin is used to bribe officials or judges in the afterlife and the grain of rice ensures that the departed will have enough to eat.18

Coffining the body
After the washing and dressing of the body, the rulian (入殓), or “entering the wood”, ritual is performed.19 A mirror and a bag of grain are placed in the coffin to “light the way” and to ensure that the deceased will be well fed in the afterworld.20

In addition, large amounts of joss paper, paper money and some personal articles are included in the coffin for the deceased’s use in the afterworld.21

Finally, small pieces of red paper are stuck to the seams of the coffin to ward off evil spirits, and food offerings are presented to the spirit of the departed.22

The wake
A Chinese wake may last between three and seven days, but it is usually a three-day affair in Singapore unless the deceased was an eminent personality.23 It is always held for an odd number of days because this “signif[ies] the incomplete cycle of life and the hope of reincarnation”.24 Family members take turns to keep all-night vigils during the wake to watch over the body. It is common for family members, relatives or friends to gamble through the night to stay awake.25

In Singapore, wakes are held either at funeral parlours or in the homes of the deceased. For Singaporeans who live in public housing, wakes are often held at the void decks of Housing and Development Board flats.26

The wake enables relatives and friends to pay their last respects. Because death is viewed as inauspicious, pregnant women or children are discouraged from attending wakes. Visitors, who are expected to dress in dark colours, light a single joss stick and pay their respects to the dead by bowing once while holding the joss stick with both hands. They may also bow thrice without holding the joss sticks. One or more representatives of the deceased’s family will stand or kneel by the side of the altar to acknowledge the visitor, who also gives a slight bow to the family before leaving the altar.27

Friends and relatives of the deceased may express their condolences by sending flowers, banners or blankets to the wake. Visitors also typically make monetary contributions known as baijin(白金) or 帛金 (bojin) in Mandarin; peh kim (either 白金 or 帛金) in Hokkien; and “white gold” in English – supposedly because the money is usually enclosed in a white envelope.28 The money is used by the family to cover funeral expenses.29

Attendees, who are expected to leave quietly without bidding goodbye to the bereaved family, may take with them a piece of red thread (which is usually left on the tables at the wake) to ward off malicious spirits.30

On the final night of the wake, depending on the religious beliefs of the deceased, Buddhist monks, nuns or Taoist priests are engaged to conduct the funerary rites.31 These rites are believed to be necessary for the deceased’s soul to complete its passage through the netherworld and transform from a ghost into an ancestral being.32

Burial or cremation
Before the burial or cremation of the body, family members, relatives and friends pay their last respects before the coffin is closed and carried by six pallbearers to be placed in the hearse. At the top of the hearse is a figure of a lion or crane, indicating whether the deceased is a man or woman respectively.33

The funeral procession is led by a band of musicians, as it is believed that music frightens malicious spirits away. The cortege then forms behind the hearse, with the deceased’s daughters and sons in the first row followed by other family members.34

For burials, the coffin is lowered into the ground, with two lighted candles, a pair of joss sticks, and a simple offering placed by the grave. After the burial, the eldest son carries the joss urn home, and the second son or eldest grandson carries the photograph of the deceased. These are then placed in the ancestral altar at home.35

However, due to space constraints in Singapore, most of the dead are now cremated. In this case, the family returns to the crematorium after cremation to collect the bones and ashes of the deceased. The remains are picked up from
a tray using chopsticks and placed in an urn. The urn is either placed in a columbarium, on an ancestral altar at home, or installed at an ancestral tablet in a temple or ancestral hall.36 Family members and friends pay their respects to the dead by performing rituals at the ancestral altar or tablet, including the offering of food and joss sticks.37

Teresa Rebecca Yeo

1. Tham Seong Chee, Religion and Modernization: A Study of Changing (Rituals Among Singapore’s Chinese, Malays, and Indians (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1985), 62. (Call no. RSING 301.295957 THA)
2. Lee Siew Hoon, “Satisfying The Dead and The Living,” Straits Times, 10 April 1988, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1989), 121. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS]); Tong Chee Kiong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore (New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 43. (Call no. RSING 393.095957 TON-[CUS])
4. Tham, Religion and Modernization, 61.
5. Tham, Religion and Modernization, 60.
6. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 123; “Singapore Funerals Taoism Condolence Practices,” Singapore Funeral Services Provider, 27 June 2014, 7. Chang Jue, Our Customs & Traditions: The Origins (Singapore: People’s Publishing, 2012), 122–25. (Call no. RSING 390.089951 CHA)
8. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead,” Straits Times, 17 October 1989, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 35.
10. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 35, 73; Lee Siew Hoon, “Satisfying the Dead and the Living,” Straits Times, 10 April 1988, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 124–25.
12. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead”; Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 36.
13. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 29, 31
14. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead.”
15. Singapore Casket, Personal communication, 25 November 2015; Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 30; “Singapore Funerals Taoism Condolence Practices.”
16. “Singapore Funerals Taoism Condolence Practices.”
17. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 30.
18. Tan E. B., “Filial Piety and Burial Customs,”  Burning Bush 9, no. 2 (July 2003). (Call no. RGEN 230.07115957 BB)
19. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead.”
20. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 30.
21. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 30.
22. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead.”
23. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 33; Cephah Tan, “‘Discard Practices Like Gambling and Displaying Wreaths’,” Straits Times, 15 May 1990, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Lee Wee, “Wakes: Most Residents are Accommodating,” Straits Times, 31 May 1996, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Gambling Popular at Funerals,” Straits Times, 31 May 1996, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Tong Chee Keong, Trends in Traditional Chinese Religion in Singapore (Singapore: Ministry of Community Development, 1989), 35. (Call no. RSING 299.51 TON)
27. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 34.
28. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead”; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 130–31; Zhou, Changji 周长楫 , Xinjiapo min nan hua ci dian 新加坡闽南话词典 [Your Mother-In-Law's Minnan Dialect Dictionary] (Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, 2002), 127. (Call no. Chinese RSING 495.1703 ZCJ)
29. Kor Kian Beng, “People Opting for Cheaper Funerals for Loved Ones.” Straits Times, 6 February 2009, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 34.
31. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead.”
32. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 124–25.
33. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 40.
34. Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 40.
35. “Family and Friends Give Offerings for Dead”; Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 40–41.
36. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 135; Tong, Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore, 55.
37. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 135.

Further resource
Sit Yin Fong, “The Chinese Funeral Takes On a New Look,” Straits Times, 4 November 1948, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at November 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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