Taoist Funeral Packages vs. Buddhist Funeral Packages: What’s the Difference?

Taoist Funeral Services

After the mourning period is over, a ceremony called “Lau Chu” in Cantonese will be done to officially mark the end of the whole funeral and mourning process.

After the burial or cremation, a time frame, either 49 days or 100 days of mourning period has to be observed. Relatives are not supposed to be attending any joyous occasion such as a wedding, housewarming, or birthday celebration during these days. They are not allowed to hang any festive decorations but mourn during festive season such as the Chinese New Year. All forms of celebration or festival are prohibited during this mourning period. The family shall not keep any urns at home after the burial or cremation. No worship or prayers can be performed at home as well.

On the final day of the funeral before the deceased is sent off to the crematorium or burial ground, a detailed prayer session called the “Day of Sending” will be done. This is to allow the soul of the late deceased to be made known by the priest and have all rites completed before the last send off. The family and relatives will follow the priest to end the final session and then he will lead to the chanting of “Fuhn Sou” (Cantonese) which means “returning a soul”.

In Taoist funerals, on every night until the day of burial or cremation, a prayer session will be held. Offerings including food, fruits, sweet tea, water, wine and joss sticks will be prepared as the priest chants and blesses the food. At the end of the session, the plates of food will be collected and placed at an open altar for the late deceased to “enjoy”. Every night, there will be 3 main prayers, starting either at 7 pm or 8 pm. However, this could be subject to the different timing given by the Taoist priest.

Taoist funerals are presided over by Taoist priests. The initial contact with the decorative undertaker is done by the funeral director who will be appointed by the bereaved family. After the packages and details have been selected, the Taoist priest will take over the direction of the ceremony until the day of cremation or burial. The deceased’s family are instructed to follow closely to the priest’s directions and rituals whilst mourners are not obliged to do so.

Funeral Directors and Family Members

In the case of a Taoist funeral, the family appoints a funeral director. The funeral director is responsible for the planning and coordination of the funeral services. He will also arrange the necessary paperwork to be submitted to the relevant authorities. Unlike Buddhist funerals, there is no strict itinerary to follow for Taoist funerals as the family members will take turns to be present in the processions for the wake and the actual day of funeral. It is worth noting that the wake for a Taoist funeral normally takes 5 days to organize. Family members will take turns to attend to the deceased, in the form of praying to the deceased and burning of “joss-sticks”. It is a common sight to see family members and distant relatives sitting around the deceased, either chatting with one another or taking a rest. The presence of a life soul in the vicinity of a deceased will provide the necessary spirituality and serenity to the deceased. As Buddhist funerals are more streamlined and families might not have the resources and know-how to carry out a traditional funeral for their loved ones, Buddhist funerals in Singapore are often handled by a professional funeral services company. While the family members can witness the encoffin process, it is the funeral director who will take charge and guide the professional conduct of the encoffin process. Also, it is the funeral director who will have to take the lead in the chanting and the playing of prescribed rituals; family members will have to follow the instructions led by the funeral director. Given this obligation of the funeral director, families of the deceased might choose to engage a Buddhist funeral services company to handle all funeral arrangements. Such service providers often offer different packages to cater to the needs of families from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It is worth noting that the funeral director has to be accredited by the National Environment Agency for the purposes of organizing funeral-related activities in Singapore. For Taoist funerals, the family will have to strictly adhere to the schedule planned by the funeral director. Each family member will be assigned specific roles and tasks to perform at different time slots of the day. The family will have to get together one day before the actual day of the funeral to form the prayer group. The prayer group will be led by the most senior person in the family and his role is to offer prayer to the deceased. The prayer session will last for about 15 to 20 minutes, and praying etiquette will have to be observed throughout the entire process. On the actual day of the funeral, the prayer sessions will be conducted in the final resting place of the deceased in the morning. After the burial of the deceased, another set of prayers will be offered.

Funeral Procession and HDB Void Deck

During the “crossover decade” of the 1980s and 1990s, when the funeral profession in Singapore was gradually progressing from a more traditional, sometimes village-based and family-run activity to a modern service profession, a group of younger funeral directors began exploring the idea of a trade association to help upgrade the profession. The idea gave birth to the Singapore Funeral Parlour Operators’ Association (SFPOA) which was formed in July 1992. It is with this spirit of continuous improvement and embracement of change that the Taoist funeral service has developed through the years. Today, the funeral procession and corresponding religious rituals for a Taoist funeral service in Singapore are a unique blend of traditional ritualistic elements punctuated by the background music of mantras played from electronic instruments like the CD player and audio speakers, and the clanging sounds of bells, and modern elements like the use of a hearse to carry the casket and the chanting of “sutras” by Taoist monks assisted in the mourning switch over from the residential unit of the diseased to the void deck of the HDB domestic block close to the service location. This chanting of “sutras” signifies the start of the funeral procession. At the void deck, the pallbearers will place the casket on the funeral coach while the family members will present traditional “ancestral respect” to the diseased by offering kerchief and joss sticks to the pictures of the ancestors and origin masters that are placed on top of the funeral coach. For modern convenience and respecting the policy of the wider adoption of non-smoking regulations, the estate management and the town council normally designated a smoking corner at the void deck for the mourning attendees. They are advised to wait at this location during any intermissions between segments of the religious processions. Upon completion of the rituals at void deck, the custom is then migrated to either proceed for the religious service at the service location, or from the afternoon of the last day of the wake onwards, the final procession and the cortege travelling to the crematorium for the final cremation. From the undertaker point of view, the procession and associated rituals are subject to his direction as he is the person who will lead and guide the casket bearers following him to ensure a smooth and orderly procession either at the void deck and on road. When traffic or weather conditions do not permit, he will arrange suitable means to indicate the safe entry onto the road arteries from the side lane where the hearse is parked and riders, especially the pillion riders, will form up to follow the hearse just like a motorcade.

Taoist Funeral Setup and Offerings

The setup of a Taoist funeral is centred around two main types of offerings: food and joss paper. A food container known as ‘chok’ is placed in the middle of the area and serves as a form of invitation for the deceased to enjoy its contents. It is often filled with an assortment of meats and vegetables in various dishes. In some wealthier Taoist funerals, an additional two food containers known as ‘san’ and ‘dong’ may be offered to the deceased, each inviting the deceased to enjoy its contents even further. A combination of both paper ingots and joss paper are also offered to the deceased on tables flanking the food container in the middle. These are characteristic brown and yellow in colour and have the same use: paper ingots are used in the afterlife as a form of currency and finance, while joss paper is used to create protective wards around the house of the deceased in the afterlife. It is important that each of these offerings are placed on a dedicated table in the correct order from left to right in increasing distance from the deceased. If not, the eldest son of the deceased will have to ensure that this is rectified. In addition, photographs of the deceased are placed in a portrait dedicated solely for the use of prayer. Over time, Taoists have developed various traditions that have attributed to the setup of modern-day Taoist funerals. For example, the method in which the food containers are placed and the type of offerings have changed and adapted. Nowadays, more importance has been placed on the type and quantity of joss paper that is offered as it is believed that a greater number of paper ingots and joss paper would benefit the descendants of the deceased. Lunisolar dates are used to determine the length of these Taoist funeral services, which often span over a week. On specific dates, it’s customary to see various shops and houses burnt to the ground in the form of offerings. This is an expression of filial piety and ultimately aims to provide for the deceased in the afterlife. It must also be noted that traditional Chinese customs bar women from making paper offerings during their menstrual period, as it is believed that the offerings would bring diseases into the afterlife. These funeral practices not only offer insight into the rich heritage of Chinese culture but also highlight the various ways in which beliefs and customs have altered over time.

Buddhist Funeral Services

As for Buddhist funerals that offer packages with columbarium service options, the respective packages would include transportation, service, and casket or urn enclave charges. However, the corresponding niche allocation charges are usually separate as they are payable to the columbarium authorities directly. Some funeral companies provide the value-added service of using a digital platform to help oversee and coordinate the columbarium niche allocation process to further ease the arrangement process for the family members.

There are also Buddhist funeral services that include a free-noting session by a certified counselor. Such sessions are typically held in the mornings and are free of charge. These counselors are certified with the relevant authorities and have undergone specific training in bereavement counseling. In providing such sessions as an essential service to the community, the funeral company may seek reimbursement of up to $20 per person through the Medical Social Services department. The Medical Social Services are part of the Division of Medical Social Services Family Health Care and Community Health at the Ministry of Health in Singapore and provides financial assistance and support to Singaporean citizens to enable them to afford quality health care. The family members of eligible applicants could also enjoy similar financial assistance when necessary.

On the other hand, traditional Buddhist funeral services that offer the option of cremation or burial and do not include the columbarium or burial plot service would cost more. This is because an additional day of service at the wake, embalming and dressing services would be required as compared to a Buddhist cremation service. Additionally, parlor wood and a thicker lining cloth that are used to construct the coffin for a traditional Buddhist funeral is generally more expensive than the materials used to produce a coffin for a Buddhist cremation service. Such thicker lining cloth is essential as it is important for the safety of the pallbearer as they carry the deceased to and from each journey throughout the funeral.

Some of the common packages offered include a simple Buddhist cremation, a traditional Buddhist funeral (which has the option of a cremation or a burial) and a Buddhist funeral with a columbarium or burial plot service. Buddhist cremation services include the procession, service, and cremation charges. However, the actual cremation fee is usually not included and is typically payable to the relevant authorities directly.

Buddhist funeral services offer different service packages that cater to the needs and preferences of the deceased and their family. The various packages usually differ in terms of the chanting services available, length of the funeral, type of materials used for ceremonial and ritualistic items, and the type of materials used for the construction of the coffin. Additionally, the packages also differ in terms of the specific rites and customs that will be observed during the funeral.

Buddhist Funeral Service Packages

In recent years, the National Environment Agency has also set up a one-stop e-portal where death certificates can be issued online and all relevant public agencies will be informed automatically. Also, the ashes may be scattered at sea within the nearest available dates and a particular sea area may be chosen online. With the increasing digitalization in the application for burial and cremation service, funeral companies are looking forward to providing seamless services for the families.

On the other hand, the cremation package is for the actual act of cremation while the casket package covers embalming services and usage of the viewing hall. Depending on the arrangements made with the funeral director and the family, the package can include additional services like arranging for the ashes to be scattered at sea or in a park. These services can usually be added on top of the package for an additional sum of money.

For the funeral packages, it is usually divided into ‘traditional’, ‘cremation’, and sometimes ‘casket’ services. The traditional service package is for families who are looking for a religious and formal event for their loved ones. It includes basic items such as the booking of a wake venue, arrangement of the funeral service, and providing necessary items like the tentage, admission fees for the venue, and five photo enlargements with frame.

Aside from offering different packages for Buddhist funeral services in Singapore, the packages can also cater to the needs and preferences of the deceased and the family. Nowadays, funeral companies usually provide a one-stop service where they can help families with every aspect of the funeral, from providing death announcement banners to the actual columbarium or burial plot.

Tables, Chairs, and Incense Sticks

It is commonly seen that families opt for the free thinker’s funeral. Mainly, that is due to the differing opinions and requests made by the older or younger generations. The older generations hope to perform the traditional kind of Buddhist funeral rite. On the other hand, the younger generations who are in favor of modern practices want to incorporate new traditions and modify some of the ancient rites.

However, for the modern Buddhist funeral, family members and relatives will burn smaller incense sticks during the ceremony. This is called the ‘Tabulation of Merits’. It involves the burning of incense sticks that are being placed inside a metal container which looks like a big rectangular tray with lots of mini ‘hills’. Traditionally, gold paper is burnt in the shape of gold that represents ‘money’ in the afterlife. But that is not the case for the modern free thinker’s funeral. Lots of tiny incense sticks will be placed on top of the golden paper on every hill and will be burnt throughout the entire ceremony. The family anticipates this action and gesture will help the deceased to accumulate merits for the afterlife.

In the traditional Buddhist funeral, families of the deceased offer a full set of five items, namely tea, sugar, rice, water, and oil to the deceased. This is according to a teaching of the Buddha known as ‘五大斋食’. It means that there are only these five types of food that a practicing Buddhist can accept. The main purpose of the offering is to transfer merits from the offering to the deceased so that he or she will be benefitted in the afterlife.

For the traditional type, tables and chairs are provided during the ceremony for the monks to chant. The family members and other attendees will be seated orderly in a designated area. The chairperson of the funeral will be standing in front of the monks to start the chanting ceremony. Each chair has a specific order. The monks will be seated according to their seniority when they attend the chanting ceremony.

There are two main types of Buddhist funerals in Singapore. The first type is the traditional Buddhist funeral. This is where most of the rituals are taught and guided by the monks, including the chanting, washing of the body, and other rites. The second type is the free thinker’s or modern Buddhist funeral. This is where the family members have a say in all the rituals that they want for the funeral.

Buddhist Customs and Offerings

Buddhist funeral customs are somewhat more standardized compared to Taoist practices and may also involve additional complex rituals and frequent participation from Buddhist monks. In the period leading up to the cremation or burial, Buddhist customs involve everyday prayer offerings accompanied by Buddhist sutra chanting, often led by Buddhist monks. Besides mundane food and fruits used in these daily prayer offering sessions, there are also more formal prayer sessions that involve grand offerings, such as ceremonial burning of items representing earthly goods and the sending of these goods to the deceased through the act of burning. These formal prayer sessions tend to take place once every seven days. Another formal session that takes place 49 days after the death is a grand prayer ceremony led by a Buddhist monk, involving further ceremonial rituals and more extensive grand offerings such as a vegetarian feast. It is where the action of transferring ‘merits’ gathered from the ceremony to the deceased takes place. Therefore, it is common for a Buddhist family and the deceased to be assigned a ‘merit dedication book’, and the family is supposed to leave the book in the Buddhist temple for a continuous period of 100 days in order to complete the ‘transfer’ process. Also, after the cremation/burial has taken place, there are certain rituals that are to be carried out. For example, after the cremation, the family members and relatives should collect the remains of the deceased, usually in the form of cremation beads, and then head to the Buddhist temple for a final prayer led by a Buddhist monk before transferring the remains to the crematorium management for safekeeping. On the 100th day of the deceased’s death, another grand prayer ceremony should be conducted in the Buddhist temple led by a Buddhist monk to ‘officially’ conclude the funeral process. By following what is stipulated by the Buddhist customs, the family hopes that the deceased will have a smooth and favorable rebirth.

Final Act and Open Casket

In a Buddhist funerary service, friends and family members can assemble at the place where the final rites will take place. The lid of the coffin, which is usually left open during wake, will be closed and a blessing is given by the monk presiding over the ceremony. Once the blessing is complete, the casket will be transported to the crematorium. In the crematorium, the family members will again witness the casket being moved into the furnace for cremation. The actual process of cremation is much more serene and dignified than it sounds. Nevertheless, most crematoriums will not allow family members to witness the start of the process as it is deemed too distressing to viewers. It takes a few hours for the furnace to reduce the deceased to bone fragments. The bone fragments will then be ground to ash, collected and eventually transferred to a cinerary urn. This urn will be inhumed in niches of a Buddhist pagoda-shaped columbarium. This is because the Buddha advised that the body be cremated as it signifies the body will return to its original elements more quickly and therefore the deceased can begin their new existence more quickly. The Buddha also advised that the grave should be no longer visited or maintained any more than is necessary to perform the funeral. It does not prevent anyone from visiting the grave if he or she wishes to. However, the act of storing the ashes in a columbarium will reduce the burden on the descendants in terms of visiting and maintaining the burial site. It is also a form of changing attachment and spreading the goodwill to others since the use of the niche is on a first come first serve basis. The entire process of the ultimate funeral is actually very therapeutic. The family members are kept busy throughout and there is immediate closure as the ashes of the deceased will be placed together in one single niche in the columbarium. All these help facilitate the mourning process. The teaching of the Buddha conveys beings who have not achieved Nirvana will be trapped in Samsara, the cycle of repeated birth, life and death. Nevertheless, death is seen as the cessation of suffering and the opportunity for one to reach enlightenment. Therefore, it is essential to handle the final rites and the disposal of the body properly to ensure a good rebirth for the deceased. By following the advice laid down by the Buddha more than 2500 years ago, Buddhism is not only able to reduce the stress on the surviving family members, it assures a good rebirth for the deceased.