All the last rites performed for the dead in the funeral parlors along Hume Street were a fusion of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism beliefs.
The core belief is that death is universal. When a person dies, the soul will leave its body. But it will not realize immediately that death has occurred upon itself. This detached soul will hover above the body, become very distress to find itself in a new dimension. It will take a week for the deceased to finally realize its departure. And it took about 49 days for the next rebirth to occur.
Therefore, it is paramount to offer guidance in the form of prayers to comfort this disorientated soul and steer it to the path of another rebirth. Hence, a wake will be conducted to chant prayers to pacify the soul and lead it to a safe realm.
After the family had purchased all the necessities, an undertaker washed the corpse with scented water and dusted it with talcum powder. It was then dressed in the silk longevity suit and for a female, “make up” will be applied to its face. All these tasks were done on a hay mat. Once complete, the deceased will be placed into the coffin, with feet facing out towards the door. The coffin will be put on a stand about a feet from the ground.
A small piece of ancient coin is placed between the lips. The face will be covered with a small piece of yellow silk cloth. Another bigger piece of blue silk cloth printed with mantras or Buddhist scriptures will be used to cover the corpse. A paper umbrella is opened up and placed on the coffin. To prevent the body from decaying, dried ice will be pumped into the coffin.
An altar will be set up at the foot of the deceased. Foods were placed in front of the deceased’s large portrait. A large urn to hold joss sticks will be placed in the middle. A pair of big white candles will be placed on either side. The pair of male and female servants made from papers were placed on either side of the coffin. All around the coffin were blue and black cloth banners with words of condolences. Floral wreaths were also displayed around the altar.
Two large white paper lanterns with the deceased’s surname and age written onto it were placed outside at the doorstep of the funeral parlor. For a married woman, both the surname of her husband and herself will be written. The husband’s surname will be written first follow by her own. It is interesting to note that three additional years were added to the actual age of the deceased. One year each for Heaven, Hell and Earth.
Nearby, a separate table will be set up against the wall for the “nam moh lou” to conduct prayers. On the wall, you can see a large scroll with the paintings of three very important figures in Buddhism. They were the Sakyamuni Buddha in the middle representing enlightenment. On one side is the Avalokestivara Boddhisattva (Guanshiyin Pusa) who had vowed to release all sentient beings from sufferings. And on the other side is the Ksitigarbha Boddhisattva (Dizang Pusa) who is in charge of karmic retributions. The prayers to evoke the blessings from the above three for the deceased were chanted accompanied by the clanking of cymbals, blowing of trumpets and beating of gongs.
It is proper for all the children to be at the bedside when a person dies. Sometimes many could not make it in time. For those who could not, they were required to kneel down and crawl towards the coffin. It is a form of asking for forgiveness for not making it. Later, the children and grandchildren would sit on straw mats beside the coffin, burning paper money in a large urn throughout the night.
Those attending the wake are required to light incense and bow to the deceased as a form of respect. They will also place some money called “pak kam” or “white gold” into a donation box to help defray the cost of the wake and funeral. The bereaved family will give two pieces of sweets tied to a red string or a red packet with the words “toh cheh, yau sum” meaning “thank you for your sympathy” to the donor.
Other relatives and friends would help fold some gold and silver paper ingots for the deceased. Some would indulge in a game of cards or mahjong to stay awake during the wake. Normally, a wake lasted for 2 nights from 7pm to 11pm.
All the paper offerings were burned on the second night. This was done after the “nam moh lou”, using an ink brush with some red ink at the tip, activate the paper offerings and chant some prayers. These offerings became valid and they will serve their new master or mistress diligently. Doesn’t this sound like a fairy godmother using a magic wand to turn all things into real?
When the ceremony was finished for that night, everyone will leave. All the lights at the parlors went off and doors slammed shut. The two large white paper lanterns with candles inside still remained at the door, leaving the lights of the candles flickering in the dark. In the dead of the night, stray dogs loitered around and began howling. The ambience is so spooky and eerie, enough to make your hair stand on ends. In moments like this, I will quickly shut my bedroom window and jump into bed, pulling the blanket over my head!!
At the funeral, everyone present got a last glimpse of the deceased and according to their ranks, made a final bow. The deceased favorite possessions and more hell bank notes will be piled into the coffin. Amidst the crying and wailing of the family, all looked away as the coffin were sealed with yellow papers and then carried out onto the hearse by pallbearers. The spouse of the deceased will stay behind and not allowed to follow the procession. The deceased and the spouse are in the same rank. In olden days, a spouse is called “half way spouse”.
It is customary for all the son-in laws, who were the closest “outsiders”, to hoist up together, a long piece of red cloth held by a pole. This act is called “hei chew”. This auspicious act will bring them good luck. Next, they were also given the honor to lead the procession with two friends carrying the two white giant lanterns. The hearse will follow from behind.
The eldest son of the deceased will sit next to the coffin in the hearse. He will hold a large lighted joss stick and a paper tablet bearing the deceased’s name.
With their hands holding to a long piece of white cloth and their heads pressing firmly against the hearse, the rest of the grieving family followed closely from behind, weeping and wailing.
Friends and relatives will follow from behind, many holding umbrellas under the basking sun.
A few meters in front, the bereaved family will stop and turn around to face these friends and relatives. They will have to kneel down and make a deep bow to these “guests” as a gesture of thanks and appreciation for turning up for the wake and funeral. After this, the procession will continue on….
The “nam moh lou” will lead them, chanting prayers and sprinkling small white rectangular papers into the air, bribing the malign spirits along the path to “move aside and make way”. The funeral band played some solemn music as the cortege winds its way slowly along Hume Street…….what a sorrowful last journey on earth!
Perhaps the only consolation for the bereaved family is the belief that this death is not the end of it all. Death and rebirth is a continuous cycle, without a break, until Nirvana is attained. Nirvana means the cessation of birth and suffering. It is Enlightenment.
Part 2 ~ The most extravagant journey in life…..人生最昂贵之旅程
Part 1 ~ Unfolding a Panorama Called Hume Street….伸展“谦街”的一幕