A look at the rituals and rites of different communities as they prepare to send off family members who have passed on. And even in death, there is no forgetting our loved ones as seen in the annual Qing Ming festival (Chinese All Souls’ Day) which is observed from March 27 to April 14 this year.
Do you ever wonder about the rituals that take place during a funeral? For example, why do the Hindus cover all mirrors, framed photographs or altars when there is a death in the family? Why do the Chinese look away from the coffin during a funeral procession? And why do Muslims bury their loved ones as soon as possible, usually on the same day?
In multicultural Malaysia, rituals differ vastly according to one’s religion and culture. As different as they may be, each culture holds fast to its rituals because these serve a purpose. For one, rituals guide the grieving to cope with their loss.
Death can create chaos and confusion but the structured rituals that are performed at funerals give a semblance of order and help the bereaved through a difficult transition.
A.P. Muthu Kumara Gurukkal, religious advisor to the Malaysian Hindu Sanggam National Council, says: “It is important to grieve for your loved one. If there is no channel for grief, you can go mad. Seriously. Some people say you shouldn’t cry at funerals. But if you don’t cry and express your sorrow when a loved one dies, it may affect you mentally and emotionally. Even an animal cries when its partner dies.”
Ustaz Md Khas shares the same sentiment. “When someone passes away, of course, you will be sorrowful. But in Islam, you are not encouraged to cry too much or scream. It happens sometimes, but not often. When a loved one dies, Muslims recite prayers, the Surah Yasin. Why cry when you can pray for the soul of the deceased,” explains the ustaz who is based in Kuala Lumpur.
Muslims usually bury the deceased as soon as possible after death, before decay sets in.
Some rituals have practical significance while others have a more spiritual meaning. There are rituals regarding how to handle the body appropriately, address the spiritual fate of the deceased (praying for the soul, etc) and rituals to help the grieving cope. Some rituals are religious in nature, while others are cultural and societal customs.
Thus it is important to understand the meaning behind rituals before practising them or dismissing them as superstition, says Muthu Kumara.
The practice of covering mirrors, photographs and pictures of deities, for example, is a practical one.
“When there is a death in the family, people are sorrowful. You take away family photographs because when the grieving family members look at the photos, they will remember the good times spent with the deceased and feel even worse. You cover the altar or remove pictures of deities because in times of grief, a person may blame or scold God for taking their loved one away. God is not bothered if you scold him but you will incur bad karma if you do so. You cover the mirrors because you don’t want to look at sorrowful faces,” explains Muthu Kumara.
Sinologist Dr Lai Kuan Fook weighs in.
“In Chinese funerals, when the coffin is being sealed or lowered into the grave, people are usually asked to look away, especially children. Why? Some people believe it is bad luck. This is largely superstition. You look away because you don’t want to have a lasting impression that will weigh on the minds of those mourning,” he explains.
Muthu Kumara offers another example. According to Hinduism, before a priest performs the funeral rites, the corpse is bathed by the next-of-kin.
“In the olden days in India, houses were small. There were no large bathrooms or large rooms and so the body was moved to the front of the house to be bathed. A screen of white cloth was erected to ensure privacy. Houses at the time did not have piped water, so the family members fetched water from nearby wells. Now, people still follow this practice even though they have big houses and piped water. The body is still bathed outdoors and often, people fetch water from a neighbour’s house. It has become an accepted custom,” says Muthu Kumara.
Adds Dr Lai: “When we perform the rites for the deceased, it makes us (the living) feel better and at peace. When a parent dies, for example, the children remember all the parent’s sacrifices. If a child fails to fulfil his duties or perform all the necessary rites, he or she won’t have peace of mind.”
Different religions offer different explanations on what happens to the soul upon death. As a result, funeral rites differ. But there is one commonality: prayers for the deceased.
“We respect a person when he is alive, so we must also respect them when they are no longer with us. We pray for the soul so that it leaves this world easily,” says Dr Lai.
Chinese culture, he explains, is influenced by three belief systems: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
“Confucianism, for example, doesn’t talk about the next life but it places great emphasis on filial piety. When your parents are alive, you serve them well, according to the proper etiquette. When they die, you also worship them accordingly. So all the rites must be observed properly. Some of these rites are very elaborate. For example, paper money and material possessions are burnt to enable the departed to live comfortably in the afterlife. It makes the bereaved feel better.
“There was this man I knew who longed for a Mercedes Benz 230 all his life but he could not afford it. When he passed away, his son burnt a paper model of the Mercedes Benz 230 so that his father could have his dream car in the afterlife. This made the son feel better,” says Dr Lai, who is an advisor to the Nirvana bereavement care group. “Buddhism, on the other hand, believes in the afterlife and so, at funerals, you have a monk who will chant sutras for the soul.”
Elements from the three belief systems often merge to form a popular folk religion. Sometimes bits of folklore superstitions creep in.
“Sometimes you see incense by a tree. Some Chinese believe that odd-looking trees have spirits of the departed and so they worship it,” says Dr Lai.
For Hindus, the belief in reincarnation weighs heavily on the rituals that are performed for the departed. Hindus believe that in death, only the body dies – the soul lives on and takes on another birth.
“If you live a good life and do good deeds, you go on to a better life in your next birth. If you are evil and do bad things, your next birth will not be so pleasant. The cycle of birth and death continues until one achieves self-realisation.
“All the prayers and rites – that are performed during and after the funeral – are for the smooth transition of the soul to another realm. For Hindus, prayers for the deceased continue days after the funeral. Depending on the nature of death, prayers are conducted for 16 days, 31 days or even longer.
“Prayers are also held every year on the death anniversary. If a person dies suddenly or tragically, prayers must be held longer to calm the soul. If the death is sudden, the soul is unprepared to leave and will be uneasy. If prayers and rites are not performed accordingly, bad things may happen,” says Muthu Kumara.
“Everything (about what rituals are to be performed) is written in the Vedas. But many people don’t know the meaning of these rituals,” observes Muthu Kumara.
The Hindus believe that when the soul leaves the body, it goes to meet with the god of death, Yama, who will evaluate his fate (karma) before the soul can be reborn. The prayers and rituals are to ensure the soul’s smooth passage to Yama and to the next life.
Christians believe that Man faces divine judgment and is rewarded with eternal life or eternal damnation. The rites after a person dies relate closely to this belief.
Christian death rites are uncomplicated. When a person dies, the body is placed in a coffin. There is a wake (an ancient practice of sitting with the dead) and the coffin is left open so that relatives and friends can say a final goodbye.
On the day of the funeral, the coffin is taken to the church where a minister conducts the service, attended by family members and friends, before the coffin is taken for burial or cremation.
The death rites of the Catholics differ slightly, partly because Catholics believe in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, where it is believed the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for Heaven.
When a Catholic is on his death-bed, a priest will perform the last rites and anoint the person with holy oil. Upon death, a vigil (or wake) is observed before the funeral. The Catholic funeral Mass includes the reading of the Gospel and a sermon (homily) by the priest. This is followed by holy communion, after which the body is blessed with holy water and incense. After the closing prayer, the body leaves the church for cremation or burial.
When a death occurs in the family, the living take a pause. While the rituals and rites give the bereaved a sense of closure, they also remind the living of the transcience of life.
Uztaz Khas shares: “At the Muslim burial, once the body has been lowered into the grave (facing the Kiblat) and the prayers have been recited, those present will take three handfuls of earth and throw it into the grave. The significance of this is that we come from the earth and to the earth we shall return.” - By S. Indramalar