Most Chinese Christians in Singapore were brought up in non-Christian homes. Hence, while Chinese Christians do not practice the worship rituals of their former religion, some common cultural practices among the Chinese people also preserved at Chinese Christian funerals, although they are not adhered to too strictly.
That said, let me first run through the typical proceedings when one attends a Chinese Christian funeral in Singapore.
On arriving at the funeral, one is greeted by the family members. Typically, the family members of the deceased would be wearing a white T-shirt, matched with a black bottom.
One shakes hands with the family members (not necessarily all of them, but at least, all those whom one is acquainted with), and one would say something comforting like, “I am sorry about your loss”.
One or more family members whom one is acquainted with will accompany one to the coffin of the deceased. As one is standing next to the coffin, one should bow one’s head slightly as a mark of respect, and observe a few moments of silence. Unlike Chinese funerals involving other religions, there is no need for one to burn joss-sticks or bow three times before the photograph of the deceased. (The photograph of the deceased is placed in front of the coffin, similar for other Chinese religions. However, for Christian funerals, an opened-bible is placed on the altar table in front of the coffin, instead of a joss-stick holder).
After visiting the coffin, the family members will then escort one to an unoccupied dining table outside the altar area. They would then ask one whether one prefers to have water or a packet drink. And as a family member goes to fetch one’s drink, it would be a good time to get ready one’s “pek kim” (donation), and to hand it over to the family member, when he/she returns from fetching one’s drink.
Besides drinks, the family of the deceased would have prepared some other light snacks for visitors, in the form of groundnuts, melon seeds, and sweets, and these are placed on a cardboard plate on every table (and replenished regularly). In addition, if one is an evening visitor, it would not be uncommon for one to be invited by the family to help oneself at the buffet dinner.
It would be considered impolite for a visitor to be left alone. Hence, one or more family members (typically, those whom one is acquainted with) would sit and chat with one, unless they are busy attending to other visitors.
Most visitors would stay and chat with the family members for about half an hour to an hour. When it’s time to leave, one should go around shaking the hands of family members (again, not necessarily all family members, but at least those whom one is familiar with), and saying something comforting like: “Please take care”, to which, the response that one would receive would be along the lines of “Thank you for coming”.
Typically, an evening service is held only on the final night of the wake (unless the deceased in well-connected to the church, then, the church may also hold services on other nights). In my church, the evening service is held at 8pm and lasts for about an hour, during which the pastor will give a sermon, and a number of songs/hymns will be sung. Family members of the deceased may also want to give their eulogy during the funeral service.
At the end of the service, the pastor would invite family members, followed by friends, to have a view of the deceased. After the family members have viewed the deceased, they will be made to stand in a row next to the coffin. This is so that after friends have viewed the deceased, they would pass by the row of family members, and have the opportunity to shake each family member’s hand, and to wish them well (something like “Please take care”). Visitors would then usually make their way home after shaking hands with family members.
Having described the typical proceedings when one attends a Chinese Christian funeral in Singapore, here are the do’s and don’t’s
- Do dress appropriately
Clothes that draw attention to the flesh would not be appreciated by family members of the deceased. Also, one should pick the colour of one’s clothes carefully – dull colours (black, white, grey, or blue) would be welcome, and bright colours (yellow, green, orange, pink, red) should be avoided (especially red).
- Do not remove the bible from the altar
Usually, the bible at the altar doesn’t belong to the deceased, but the undertaker. It is not meant to be removed.
- It is acceptable to ask the family members how the deceased had passed away
Sitting together with family members of the deceased can sometimes be awkward, in that if one isn’t familiar with any of the family members, one can be at a loss for a conversation topic. Unless the deceased had died under suspicious circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the family members about how the deceased had passed away (indeed, most family like to talk about the deceased’s last days). If the family members wish to steer clear from this topic, they would lead the conversation, and ask the visitor how he/she knows the deceased, where he/she is living at nowadays, or what he/she is currently doing for a living, etc.
- It is acceptable to absent oneself from the funeral service
The funeral service usually lasts for about an hour, and if one does not wish to stay for the service, it is recommended that one leaves before it starts. Should one need to leave urgently midway through the funeral service, it isn’t a taboo to do so, but it simply draws too much attention. Hence, it is advised that one checks the timing to the funeral service before visiting the wake (it is usually stated on the obituary).