Funerals: finding meaning beyond rituals

By Darren Ching


A month ago, my beloved grandmother, Ah Ma, died. She was 85.

Ah Ma was never particularly religious apart from the basic Taoist chants she did every morning by the side of her bed.

Nevertheless, like how people of her generation are, she was extremely pantang (Hokkien for superstitious).

To her, death was a taboo she would rather not talk about. However, before her passing, she told my dad she wanted a Taoist funeral.

I knew Taoist funerals were elaborate, but I was surprised to discover my significance in her funeral as the eldest grandson — I was treated just like another son, after my uncle and dad, and given more roles than my aunts.

In 2011, The Guardian reported that Chinese families still favoured sons over daughters as males ensure the continuity of the bloodline.

This gender bias has existed since ancient China and has a wide influence on Chinese religions, Taoism included.

While Hindu and Muslim funerals are held within a day, Chinese funerals are generally longer, lasting between three to five days depending on the age of the deceased.

As the eldest grandson, I was expected to be physically present for all her funeral prayer rituals. But the week Ah Ma passed away coincided with my theatre performance, causing me to be caught in a conundrum.

Although it was a tough decision to make, I eventually chose to perform instead of attending the prayer ritual at her wake.

I knew many of my relatives disapproved of my decision, and I was afraid that they would regard me as being “unfilial”.

An article by the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, explained that the performance of funeral rituals is an extension of Chinese social ethics.

Filial piety, a core virtue among the Chinese, is the main reason for these rituals, and is shown by one’s participation in all aspects of ancestral rituals.

Would my absence at the prayer ritual then mean that I was unfilial to Ah Ma?

It bothers me that even in today’s age, society remains rigid in the way it holds onto its traditions.

I do not believe that one’s filial piety should be based on one’s presence at the wake.

Rather, I believe the way we treat our loved ones while they are alive matters more. What we say and do for our loved ones can show how much we respect them.

Dr Paul Schoenfeld, a clinical psychologist from the Everett Clinic, a group of medical centres based in the US, said that rituals and rites connect us to the generations that have come before and after us.

It provides a valve to discharge emotions, and to rekindle connection among the living.

I do not deny the significance behind these rituals, especially if they had been requested by those before their passing.  

Yet, surely there has to be other ways to commemorate the dead in addition to these traditions.

In Western culture, it is common to see family members give eulogies at a funeral.

Eulogies are tributes to the deceased, to commemorate the fulfilling life he or she has had.

Although eulogies are not held during Taoist funerals, my father wished for me to compile a video montage of the fruitful life Ah Ma had lived. As eulogies can be lengthy, this would have been a good substitute for speeches.

Sadly, the Taoist priest disapproved of our video montage idea due to religious reasons.

Over the five days at the funeral, I met distant relatives whom I would typically see only once a year during Chinese New Year; some I had never seen in my life.

Ah Ma‘s funeral was a gathering of sorts, bringing together people who might be distant but bounded by blood.

Educator and grief counsellor Dr Alan Wolfelt wrote in an article that the sharing of memories at the funeral affirms the worth we have placed on the person who has died, legitimising our pain.

This teaches us about the dead person’s life apart from our own and allows us glimpses into that life that we are likely to cherish forever.

Ah Ma had seven children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren for whom she had sacrificed a great deal for. Beyond the sharing of memories at the funeral, a video montage at the funeral would certainly have been a good summary of the long life Ah Ma had lived.

It might have been deemed culturally unacceptable, but I believe that Ah Ma would have approved of our intentions — the younger generation wanting to share special moments of her life — as a mother and a grandmother.

While it might be impossible to completely disregard the traditions we have when it comes to death and funerals, I believe that there is certainly room for cultural traditions to meet the practices of the modern world halfway.