“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
This phrase by Lao Tzu, the famous philosopher and founder of Taoism, perfectly encompasses how Taoists perceive death. Death, according to Taoism, is a natural part of the life cycle that should not be feared or avoided but rather accepted as a necessary shift. Taoists embrace this phenomenon with acceptance and peace since they do not believe in an afterlife. Rather, the emphasis is on living in the present moment and enjoying life to the fullest. As death is considered a liberation from the physical body and a return to the Tao, the source of all life, it is regarded as a new beginning rather than an end. Human spirits, according to Taoists, continue to exist after death as part of the continuous process of Tao. As a result, Taoist funeral practices and rituals differ from those of other religions and cultures.
Let us delve into the relationship between death and Taoism, funeral rituals and customs, and how these traditions have evolved over time.
The Concept of Yin and Yang
Around 1200 BCE, the theory of Yin and Yang came into existence with the popular practice of divination. Oracles ‘read’ yarrow sticks by tossing them onto a table after asking the universe a question. They used yarrow stick patterns of broken lines (Yin) and unbroken lines (Yang) formed on the table to forecast the future.
According to this practice, both the Yin and Yang lines are required to acquire answers to critical concerns in the future. This gave rise to the Yin and Yang principle, which asserts that in nature, opposites must coexist. This includes good and evil, light and darkness, female and male, and life and death.
The Yin-Yang principle states that death is the transition from being to not being, from Yang to Yin. As the natural world is incapable of distinguishing between life and death, both concepts work in harmony to keep nature in balance. Taoist teachings emphasise that humanity should strive to see death in the same way.
Taoism and Funerals
A Taoist funeral revolves around celebrating the life of the deceased and paying tribute to their journey into the next life. It focuses on the concept of filial piety, which aids the deceased in repentance and earning forgiveness from the deities. The purpose of the funeral rites and traditions is to ensure that the deceased has a smooth transition into the next life. Taoist funerals are often simple ceremonies attended by immediate family and close friends and do not focus on mourning the loss of a loved one.
Taoist funerals in Singapore are organised based on the family’s dialect group, which includes Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese, and Cantonese. Therefore, funeral processions vary by dialect, particularly in terms of setup, prayer rituals, and deities. Even within the same dialect group, these funeral practices may differ. It can be due to the deities worshipped, modernisation, Taoist temples, or familial preferences.
As society advances and with dialect-specific burial practices not being faithfully passed down to future generations, Taoist funerals with mixed approaches are becoming increasingly common among practitioners. Regardless of the specifics, what matters at the end of the day is that the deceased is remembered and given a respectful send-off with Taoist practices.
Taoist Funerals in Singapore
When the body arrives at the funeral home, morticians will clean the body using a wet towel dusted with talcum powder and apply makeup to make it look presentable. The deceased will then be dressed in the most appropriate or preferred outfit as determined by the funeral directors or the deceased’s family and friends. The most common colours are black, white, brown, or blue. The body should never be dressed in red, which is considered the colour of life. Taoists believe that wearing red can transform the deceased into a vengeful spirit. If the deceased is over the age of sixty with no unmarried children and has grandchildren, they could wear a special attire known as ‘Longevity Suits’, which comes in different colours and designs.
A Taoist funeral typically includes an altar with a portrait of the deceased displayed in front of the casket. The favourite dish of the deceased will be on display as an offering, and family members and guests will pay their respects to the departed by lighting candles and joss sticks at the altar.
While Taoists accept death as a natural part of life, many believe it has a potentially evil aura that must be carefully managed through rituals. Covering reflecting surfaces during a burial ritual is one example of this, as it is believed that viewing the departed’s reflection can cause another death.
During the funeral service, there would be at least one priest, if not more, to guide the gathering through the many rituals and chanting of Taoist scriptures. These chants are intended to keep the spirits of the departed, grieving relatives, and guests at the funeral safe and protected. The chanting accompanies drums and other musical instruments, such as erhus, cymbals, and flutes.
In certain dialect groups, one of the priests will circle a fire with nine tiles representing the realms of hell. They are then shattered with a sword, symbolising the release of the deceased from torment.
Guests can participate in the ritual by burning various luxurious items made with joss paper, such as money, houses, and clothes. They are burned as an offering to the deceased to carry with them to the afterlife. Nowadays, people also burn electronic items on joss paper to ensure that the deceased has a comfortable life. The bereaved are advised to mourn as loudly as possible during the service in order to showcase their love for the deceased. After everyone has paid their respects to the deceased, the casket is hammered shut, and as it is considered impolite to witness this, attendees usually look away when it occurs.
Following that, white and yellow papers are attached to the casket’s surface, and the casket is taken outside while the prayers continue. When the body is being transported to its final resting place, loved ones are expected to look away while it is gently lowered to the ground.
Taoist Funeral Services in Singapore
Funeral directors play a vital role in any community as they oversee all aspects of a funeral, from minor logistical issues to providing emotional support for mourning family and friends. They are skilled and well-versed in the funeral procedures of many religions and cultures, making them a reassuring presence at funerals.
Our expert funeral directors at A LifeGrad Funeral Services LLP have over 15 years of experience in fulfilling a loved one’s final wishes and providing them with a memorable and heartfelt farewell. We also offer Taoist funeral packages that can be tailored to the venue and the preferences of the family.
We take care of everything related to a funeral, from casket selection to post-funeral services, and we provide reliable information about our funeral products and services. For more information on how we can help, reach out to our team of experienced funeral directors at +65 6262 3086.