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Taoist Funeral Customs and Traditions

by Cyrus

This article was written with the purpose of sharing the Taoist (Daoist) approach to coping with death and the grieving process. This is particularly from the perspective of traditional Chinese culture. The article serves to inform both those who are of Taoist faith and those who are not of Taoist faith about the traditional customs and rites surrounding death so that these customs may be better understood and respected. This writing is also meant to serve as a source of reference for those looking into what kind of Taoist funeral or mourning rites are available pertaining to a particular situation of death. This may include someone who is looking to pre-plan their own Taoist funeral or may be researching what kinds of rites are available for a dying loved one. For those who are not of Taoist faith, this writing aims to provide an insight into the emotional processes of the mourning family, as well as the overall approach to life and death from the Taoist viewpoint. Though in modernized societies the traditional ways of coping with death are being rapidly forgotten, it is the wish of the author that these ways are not disrespected and that a greater understanding of them will allow these customs to exist and evolve into ways that are more suitable for modern living. Finally, the author hopes that those who are dealing with a death and are in some way connected to traditional Taoist culture may find comfort and knowledge in the fact that there are still customs and rites in place to help ease their emotional pain.

Understanding Taoist practices with regard to the passing away of loved ones is particularly important mainly because they are often essentially the most elaborate and spiritual of all the Chinese customary rites. The Taoist perspective on death and dying is practical and comprehensive. Death will be seen as a natural transition and in fact a promotion in life. The soul is released from the body and depending on the spiritual evolution of the individual will either be promoted to return again at a higher level or if the Taoist practitioner has realized the ultimate goal there is no need to take further incarnation and he/she will return to the Tao. Ancestors are held in very high regard and it is important that they be given due respect and properly cared for so that the descendants might receive blessings and guidance from them. This is normally achieved by displaying a photograph, having an ancestral tablet or dedicating a shrine. The central focus of this care is performed during the annual Qing Ming festival or Tomb Sweeping festival. During this festival graves are cleaned and tidied and paper money and other items are burnt so that they may receive them in the afterlife. A striking comparison can be made with this and Western practices from All Souls day. Rituals for the dying are centered on ensuring a good rebirth or a swift return to the Tao for the departing soul. These may involve recitations of particular mantras or scriptures, the presence of a Taoist priest, or in certain sects of Taoism ritualized use of Talismans or Fu. After an individual has died there will be a mourning period usually lasting no longer than 49 days during which time the deceased is thought to be moving through the various levels of existence before reaching a final destination. It is common for someone who has had a close relative die to enter a period of mourning being signified by the wearing of a mourning dress and a white head covering. This contrasts with customary Chinese Buddhist mourning attire which is white in color. Today many Chinese people regardless of religious persuasion will inevitably observe some form of Buddhist mourning rites and possibly some Taoist and Confucian rites due to the fact that they are part of the Chinese culture.

Importance of Taoist Funeral Customs

Taoist funeral customs trace back to ancient times and are the oldest and most traditional practice for honoring the deceased. It holds significant importance not only for the dead, but also for the family and their friends. After one’s death, harming the spirit is a critical thing to avoid. If the spirit is not led properly through the funeral rituals, Buddhism foresees that it can linger around the earth and enter into other bodies. According to Taoists, if the spirit becomes accustomed to being in proximity to relatives and loved ones, it may come to depend on the emotions of these people. So, should it be brought back to the human realm, it can cause serious harm or disruption to those grieving for it. The ultimate goal is to send the spirit off into a realm of peace and bliss, and set it up there with a new life. Taoist funeral customs serve as a way to make peace with the deceased, make an offering to the forces of yin and yang, and to transfer the deceased to another existence at the right time. Making peace with the deceased is to release the deceased from the human realm. It is a recognition that the deceased causes no harm and bears no ill-will towards anyone living and is asking for forgiveness. An offering to the forces of yin and yang is to hope for an auspicious rebirth. A good life can only be enjoyed if the forces of yin and yang are balanced and in proper order. So the deceased is led in between the forces of yin and yang and an offering is made to the forces in order to arrange a good rebirth.

Understanding Taoist Funeral Packages

An unsatisfactory funeral can leave the bereaved with feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, and unanswered questions. The funeral may be a source of concern for many years for friends and family. The formality of the funeral can depend on many circumstances. Traditionally, Taoist funerals are paid for and arranged by the deceased family of the deceased; however, this can still depend on circumstances. A Taoist funeral can last anywhere from 49 days to 100 days. There are many customs which require specific ceremonies that need to be performed on given days. This may all depend on the type of funeral package that is chosen.

A funeral package provides a clear mentor/outline for the bereaved family that is left behind to follow. A good funeral provides a family with an opportunity to say a formal goodbye to their loved one. A funeral helps the bereaved to take the first steps in facing the reality of death, separation, and life without the person who has died. The formality of the funeral is often influenced by the lived experiences and the social status of the deceased. It also provides the bereaved family and friends with an opportunity to express their love, respect, and affection for the deceased. This, in turn, can bring great comfort to those who are left behind.

Definition of Taoist Funeral Packages

The ghost is believed to reside in the coffin for 49 days and be able to hear sounds in the proximity for a 100 pace radius. This includes yells, screams, barking, crying, etc. Therefore, Taoists believe that the funeral is extremely important as it is the last chance for the family to provide comfort to the ghost. At the same time, it is the beginning of the soul’s journey to the Western pure land or into the cycle of reincarnation. This is also why it is important to avoid deaths such as suicide as they prevent the ghost from entering the cycle of reincarnation and beginning its journey to the pure land. Although it differs in detail, the primary concept of a Taoist funeral is to comfort the surviving family members, provide a sending off of the deceased, and guide the spirit of the deceased. Funerals generally last 49 days as this is the time that it is believed for a spirit to be reincarnated. Throughout this time, it is important that the family not move houses as it will confuse the spirit. It is also important to prepare meals for the ancestors in this time. The ascetic style of funerals performed by generations of Taoists were actually prohibited in China until its openness to the west and during the cultural revolution in which religious practices were suppressed. It is also a result of the syncretic mid-century Taoist/Buddhist movement. Recently, modern Taoists, especially in western countries, now have the choice of Western-style funerals, although it is believed that the Chinese method is still beneficial to the deceased.

Components of a Taoist Funeral Package

The package provided will generally be based on the customs of the family, the type of package common for their area of origin in China, and the advice from an elder or temple official who is knowledgeable in performing the rite. The type of package can differ widely among Chinese communities in different areas/countries, and even for families in the same community.

Traditionally, the funeral package is provided in the form of paper effigies. In modern times where people are living more comfortably, the funeral package is often provided in the form of a cash donation to the temple of the deceased’s faith, and is sometimes pooled with the contributions of other families to provide a larger package with more benefits.

The funeral package is a crucial component in the sending off of the deceased back to their ancestors in the afterlife, and the key to providing the deceased with a comfortable stay in the other world. Because the funeral package is believed to directly benefit the deceased in their afterlife, it is a primary concern for the family. The provision of a funeral package is a custom of Confucian origin, and is commonly practiced by Buddhists, Taoists, and Chinese of other faiths. The difference in the funeral packages among the different faiths is the manner and time in which it is provided. This customarily takes place on the 7th day, 49th day, and 100th day following the death, and then annually for the next 3 years. For the bereaved family, it is important to choose a day and type of package that will best help the deceased.

Significance of Pedestal Funeral Tablets

The final component for a Taoist funeral package is a pair of pedestal funeral tablets. These elaborately crafted wooden plaques symbolizing the spirit of the deceased are placed on an ancestral shrine by the family after the funeral and used during mourning rites, which are held at regular intervals until the funeral is completed (either 49 days or 100 days, depending on regional custom). These are removed and taken to the crematorium to be burned after the funeral. The couplet acknowledges gratitude towards the deceased and the dead’s efforts to secure a safe passage to the afterworld. This is considered so important that lacking a pair of tablets, a substitute effigy made from paper will suffice until a proper pair can be obtained. Often families will go to great expense to procure a pair of quality tablets, as they are considered a lasting memorial and an item of worship by the family in years to come. The general rule of thumb being the more the pair cost, the better the lot the deceased will have in the afterlife. A concept which revolves around the importance of merit (deeds, words, and thoughts) in determining one’s destiny after rebirth or death.

Rituals and Ceremonies in Taoist Funerals

After the judgment, the funeral procession is performed. According to traditional Chinese custom, the date and time of the funeral is decided by divination. The funeral is a symbol that life will continue on. There is some variation of this ritual between northern and southern Chinese customs. However, generally, the coffin is placed at the front of the procession to symbolize the leading of the deceased; this is preferred by the southerners. For the northerners, the coffin is placed at the rear, and a paper effigy is burnt at the start of the journey. This symbolizes the returning of the effigy in exchange for the deceased. At the destination, the effigy is burnt again to ensure that the deceased has not been displaced by another wandering spirit. During the period between the processions, there may be rite of passage rituals. This may take the form of several ways, such as the scattering of rice or coins to symbolize that the deceased should not be forgotten. Usually, a final ritual is performed to welcome the spirit back home once it has finished wandering around. This is usually done when all present have dreamt of the deceased to indicate that it needs guidance back home.

A Taoist funeral is a forty-nine day-long ritual which is believed to guide and comfort the spirit of the deceased. The first seven days are the most critical, as the spirit is thought to be undergoing judgment by King Yan, ruler of the underworld. The Taoist priest begins with a chant to help the spirit pass through the forty-two levels of the underworld. During the seven days, more chants and rituals are performed every 3 days to assist the spirit until it reaches judgment by King Yan on the seventh day. If the spirit withstands the judgment, it is free to roam around as it wishes.

Pre-Funeral Rituals

Kept private and family centered, pre-funeral rituals serve the dual purpose of preparing the body for a dignified and respectable passage to the death state, as well as providing care and support for the family at a time of intense pain and vulnerability. It is important that the dying person feels at ease and as free from anxiety as possible. Throughout the entire process, it is not only the person who is dying who needs care and support, but also his family and caregivers. Knowledge of the coming process will enable the person who is dying and his family to make informed choices about care and treatment in the later stages of illness. Knowledge of how to care for a dying person helps both the patient and the family feel more ‘at ease’ with the process and thus less fearful. This may be in the hospital, a nursing home, or the person’s own home. Traditional Taoist views on care for a dying person in the Western world would center on the person being cared for in his home, thus enabling him to be surrounded by family members and close friends. As death approaches, if the person is of reasonable mental and physical capacity, he will be encouraged to write a will, to self-reflect, and to tie up any loose ends from his life. He should be encouraged to tell stories from his life, to reminisce with family and friends, and to celebrate the good times he has had. All of this helps the dying person to maintain a sense of closure with his life and to approach death with minimum regret. If the person has a terminal illness and is receiving this information, it may form an appropriate time for the person to engage in a similar process. Family members should not be afraid to discuss matters relating to death and the person’s wishes for it. Open and honest communication will enable provision of the best care for the dying individual. Following this work, a dying person may choose to take part in a death meditation (see 3.3.7) and it would be fitting for the family to organize a simple ceremony to bless and show respect for the person in his transition to the death state.

Funeral Procession and Rituals

A funeral procession in Taoist tradition is a festive event, contrary to the mood of sadness that one would associate with a funeral. Before the funeral, mourners are instructed to leave their homes and assemble at the foot of the main street. This symbolizes cutting off the deceased from his past environment. Once the funeral has begun, straw “ghost money” is burned to ensure that the deceased will have funds to finance his journey to the afterlife. This is accompanied by Taoist priests chanting liturgies from sacred texts to ensure that the “yin” (spirit) of the deceased will leave this world and not return. As the funeral advances, firecrackers are set off to frighten away any evil spirits that may be trailing the procession. In earlier times, a wooden effigy of a horse and a small coach were set on fire and carried along to accompany the deceased. The idea was that these items would be transformed into the real things for the use of the deceased in the afterlife. The funeral concludes at the site of burial with more concluding rites. The first seven days of the mourning period are considered the most critical. During this time, the “yin” spirit of the deceased has not completely left the world and may still influence the living. A series of prayer services held on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th day are meant to ease the deceased’s passage to the afterlife and increase the welfare of his new “yin” spirit. These services also serve to reinforce the family’s intended isolation from the rest of society for the 49-day period. At the conclusion of the mourning period, another set of services are held to “reintegrate” the “yang” spirits of the family members and lead them back to normal lives. This can be an emotionally trying period for many, because on the final day of the mourning period, some will choose to hold a “soul-coming” ceremony to formally end the mourning period and release the spirit of the deceased. This can be accomplished by leaving the house for a period of time or going to the extreme of moving the location of the front door, a ritual performed at the memorial service for author Han Suyin’s deceased father.

Post-Funeral Rituals and Mourning Period

One of the chief rituals of the mourning period is called Ching Ming or Tomb-Sweeping festival. The actual date of this festival in April has a special name, a strictly defined time within the mourning period. On this day, the living relatives visit the gravesite and tomb of the departed ancestor. They present offerings of food, light incense, burn joss paper, and make libations before the grave. This is a time when the living offer words of comfort and wisdom to the departed. He takes leave of them. Then they make the grave swept clean and burn spirit money. A sumptuous feast may also be provided for any wandering souls near the gravesite. Finally, they thank the departed for his protection and guidance and inform him that the mourning period will end shortly. At this point, the family sets out earthenware effigies called Muk-Ming, which has the general appearance of a small human figurine. There are several functions of the Muk-Ming. First, it acts as a decoy telling wandering harmful spirits that they should vacate the premises and cease troubling the family. Second, it releases the actual spirit of the deceased, granting it permission to leave the house (where he has been temporarily residing) and go on to the state of existence between reincarnations. Finally, it serves as a formal indication to the gods and Court of Hell in the netherworld that their records regarding the deceased should now be cleared and he should not be troubled for any debts or misdeeds. This last step of the ritual is largely performed only by older generations of Taoists. Today’s Chinese is mostly ignorant of the significance and meaning of the Tomb-Sweeping festival, and many have forgotten to observe this ritual for their ancestors.

The final stage of the funeral ceremony is the entire mourning period of forty-nine days. This duration is divided into three ten-day periods and one final week. This mourning period is sometimes referred to as Buddhahood for the deceased (Hansen, 46). Few books describing these rituals have been written in English, so further detailed explanation will be omitted. These practices and rituals are extremely elaborate and carry on to the present day. They are governed by the traditional Chinese Almanac and influenced by the lunar calendar. Most regular activities are prohibited during mourning, such as social gatherings, celebrations, and in some cases working. Family members alter their dress and wear a white band on their left arm or a white sash. These symbols of filial piety clothing indicate that they are in mourning and act to warn others not to say anything upsetting to these people since they are very emotionally sensitive during this period.

Modern Adaptations and Changes in Taoist Funeral Practices

Modern Taoist funeral customs are increasingly being influenced by Western funeral practices. In the past, Taoists traditionally avoided the subject of death and funerals, often at great inconvenience to the dying or their grieving families. Largely because of this, funerary customs have changed little during the past 2,000 years. Today, however, many Taoists want to hold a funeral service or memorial of some kind, strongly influenced by western practices. The issues surrounding a Taoist’s dying wishes, palliative care and terminal illness, life support systems, venting and ethical dilemmas, have all been discussed on the Tao or way seeking path, addressed nationally by different conferences and panels and are continuing to evolve. Most Taoists still prefer a simple and respectful funeral. However, many professional families desire a western-style funeral and use of a funeral home. They may opt for a funeral service or viewing, where the body may be present, followed by a short ceremony at a crematorium or the displaying of the sealed casket in a chapel before the casket is taken to the gravesite. These practices are not much different from Chinese Christian funerals held in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Today, Taoists may consult Chinese diviners, often Buddhist or Daoist, for an auspicious date and time. A Taoist funeral director can help organize a funeral that is the most consistent with Taoist beliefs and affordable for the family. Often an herbalist or acupuncturist physician is consulted for help with bereavement or grieving family members who may have internal disharmony or stress about the death.

Influence of Western Funeral Customs

With the wave of modernization and globalization, it is inevitable that foreign influences are seeping into local customs and traditions, and Taoist funeral practices are no exception. A recent survey revealed that in Singapore, 62% of the 1000 respondents said they favored Christian funeral services over Taoist ones. The reasons were variations from saying Christian rituals were easier, more comfortable, and familiar to them. The most significant reason was that 60 percent said they could pay their last respects in a more organized and comfortable manner. A possible reason for this is the better-organized wake services held at the void deck, multipurpose hall, wake parlor, or home. Comparatively, a Taoist wake is mostly held at void decks of HDB estates. This has led to the increased use of Christian funeral services owing to the fact they are more comfortable, and convenience for the mourners is important for the Chinese. The western influence of making an event a ‘classier affair’ .

Incorporation of Technology in Taoist Funerals

Computerized afterlife Another modern development for some Taoist funerals in Singapore and Malaysia is the use of the Taoist Hell Bank Note in a spiritual belief that it would help their ancestors in the spiritual realm. They burned these notes as a token that they were sending money to their departed loved ones. However, times have changed and it is common to see the paper money being offered up being burned, and printed out shiny gold leaf stickers emblazoned with the words Yin Yin Jie Mie which translates to “redeem and destroy” being pasted on the paper money. Where it is an actual representation of physical money or mere token is contentious amongst Taoist denominations, but it is now possible to do the sending of money to the afterlife in a “safe”, virtual, clean and efficient manner by utilizing computers and the Internet. This method was put into practice when Singapore’s Ministry of Defence lost track of two hell money trees (where the paper money was hung) that were planted by a group of soldiers on an island and had it cut down out of fear that the money planted was real and would result in supernatural retribution. An auxiliary spirit tablet for the deceased can be obtained for afterlife use at temple or an online store alongside with the booking of a spiritual address. This is particularly useful for deceased with unknown or forgotten names or in cases where a large number of deceased are collectively addressed as in times of war. Rather than the traditional method of paper obituaries and handwritten funeral invitations, it is possible to create a more lasting online memorial. Such memorials have the potential to be larger in scale and have more detailed information than a paper obituary due to lack of print space limitations. It also serves to be an easier method of informing the extended family and friends, especially if they are residing in different countries. The increased use of the Internet in the practice of the Taoist faith, especially among the youth and adherents from more progressive countries, also poses the likelihood of future online streaming and video conferencing of the funeral and prayers to reach out to those who are desirous of attending but are unable to do so.

Environmental Considerations in Taoist Funeral Practices

In some Taiwan, funeral service held close to 2 days before the cremation. Family will need to pay NT$50,000 (approx. US$1,515), if not mistaken, to rent a storage in the temple to store the remains that have been cremated. After the period, for those who do not wish to bury the remains, they can request the temple to scatter the remains in a deserted but government-approved area. This method is similar to scattering the remains in the river, but it has the advantage of obeying the law. And all before this has already reduced air pollution caused by burning of joss paper and incense, and at the same time, not causing any air pollution. This is consistent with the Taoist belief that air is the energy yin-yang affects the living thing in the world and the purity of the air will give positive effects to all living things. And also not causing any bad karma such as polluting the environment because in the end all funeral and its proceedings lead to is to do a good send-off for the deceased, and a good return for the living to a peaceful peace-of-mind.

Cremation has its beginnings in ancient times. It’s a way of reducing a body to bone fragments through the use of intense heat. In modern times, it is done in a chamber referred to as a retort, which is preheated to a specific temperature. The body is placed in a casket or a container, which is then inserted into the retort. The intense heat and duration of the process are designed to fully vaporize the organic matter, reducing the remains to a carbon form known as bone fragments. It is not the final disposition of the remains, nor is it a type of funeral service.

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