Do’s and Don’ts When Attending Chinese Christian Funerals in Singapore

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

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

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Tips for Worship Leaders Preparing for a Funeral Service

  1. Chose the Songs Early

I have an established working relationship with my pastor that whenever he asks me to lead worship at a funeral service, he would select the same songs.

As a worship leader, you might think to yourself: “It is so boring to sing the same old songs again”, but I can think of a number of merits to this approach, the most important being that it cuts down the need for rehearsals. Indeed, if you have been involved in this role (of leading worship at funeral services) for some time, you would realise that there isn’t much time to prepare for the service. Often time, you get a call, and you go ‘live’ the day or day after, if not the very day you receive the call.

That said, sometimes, the family members of the bereaved may have a special request for a particular song/hymn to be sung during the funeral service. So, shortly after receiving notice that your services are needed, you will need to quickly establish whether the family members of the bereaved have a special request. If they do, you will need to check whether you have the chords to that song, and whether you are able to comfortably play that song. If the family members want to print the songsheet themselves (for example, as part of the entire programme booklet for the funeral service), you will need to give them the version of the lyrics that you plan to sing. That said, NEVER ask the family members to find the lyrics on the Internet on their own, otherwise, the audience could end up singing a different version of that lyrics from that which you are singing!

  1. Always Arrive Early

I always make it a point to plan to reach the wake an hour before the stated time of the funeral service. Firstly, leaving home earlier buffers me from an unforeseen traffic conditions. Secondly, my pastor also arrives early, and we always spend a couple of minutes running through the programme again, even though we’ve been worked together on several funeral services before. Thirdly, you will need to set up your guitar stand and test that you mike is working properly. Last but not least, the bereaved family members may want to have some face time with you; usually, it is to thank you for your time and service, and to check if there is anything you need from them.

Ten minutes before the service officially starts, I am typically on stage singing. I do this to warm up my voice, and to ‘introduce’ the songs to those who may not be familiar with them (of course, not everyone would be paying attention, since typically, people would be sitting everywhere to chat with relatives and long-lost friends, and it is only at the time when the service officially begins that people make their way to front). One reservation I may have about singing ‘impromptu’ before the service officially starts is that it could disturb people who are trying to have a conversation. However, to date, I have never had anyone complain about this. If you still have some reservation about this, one suggestion would be to perhaps lower the volume of your microphone.

  1. Avoid Spicy and Atypical Food Before the Service

You should avoid spicy food before the service, as it could affect your voice. Also, before the service, do avoid any food that you are unaccustomed to. Tthe last thing you want is to have to rush to the toilet mid-way while leading worship!

  1. Check That You Have Everything You Need Before Leaving Home

The items that you need to bring include:

  1. Guitar
  2. Guitar chords (I have all my chords printed on A4 paper, and I have them filed in a white folder)
  3. Songsheets (if it is your responsibility to print them. I’m fortunate – my church uses a songbook, which is my pastor’s responsibility to bring to the service)
  4. Music stand (never assume that the undertaker will provide a music stand. I have been to services where the undertake only provided one and which my pastor needed for his sermon notes)
  5. Portable light source for the music stand (Christian funerals are typically well lit, so I invariably don’t have to use my portable light source, but bring it just in case)
  6. Mint sweets (to soothe my throat after leading worship, but also to mask any bad breath, just in case I need to speak to bereaved family members after the service)
  7. Guitar tuner
  8. One extra set of guitar strings (just in case any break)
  9. A bottle of water (typically, people who attend funerals are served water, but you should bring just in case the family forgets to serve you)

If it helps, you should make a checklist, and check through the checklist before you leave home. This is to ensure that you have everything you need, especially when you are in a hurry, when there is a tendency to forget.

What Songs to Chose for a Christian Funeral?

My pastor sometimes asks me to help him lead worship during a funerals that he conducts, and he typically requests me to sing these three hymns (which would be interspersed between his message):

  1. Amazing Grace
  2. Blessed Assurance
  3. What a Friend We Have in Jesus

These songs are fairly well-known, so I have never encountered an audience that has struggled with these songs.

A few other hymns/songs that I would add to this list (that is hymns/songs that are pretty well-recognised, and which the audience are unlikely to have difficulty singing) include:

  • Because He Lives
  • Great is Thy Faithfulness
  • Abide with me

For novice guitar players, I need to warn you about ‘Blessed Assurance’. Most of the contemporary songs that we sing are played at 4/4 time, and ‘Blessed Assurance’ is traditionally played at 3/4 time. Hence, if you would like to play ‘Blessed Assurance’, you will need to know how to strum at 3/4 (waltz) timing. I learned this the hard way myself the first time I played the song at a funeral service. My pastor sang at the timing that he was familiar with (3/4), which made him seem as if he was singing ahead of me. As you can imagine, that was a rather embarassing experience, and the impromptu ‘solution’ that day was, of course, for me to stop strumming and to lead the rest of the song acapella.

The same actually goes with ‘Amazing Grace’. Traditionally, ‘Amazing Grace’ is played at 3/4 timing, but thanks to modern versions of the song which are played at 4/4 timing, I was able to pull off during the first funeral service that I led. However, these days, I play the song at 3/4 timing.

Incidentally, my pastor pastors the English speaking congregation, but sometimes, when he realises that there are a lot of non-English speaking people in the audience, he would add the Hokkien song ‘Hold My Hands’ (牵我的手).

In case you are not familiar, ‘Hold My Hands’ was written by Pastor Lim Ghee Tiong (a pastor from Sarawak), and a Youtube video of the song can be found here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIUEnY8udKA

Now, if you find the above hymns to be too dated, and wish for something more contemporary, I can recommend the following songs:

The reason I recommend ‘In Christ Alone’, is that there is a particular verse in that song that deals with death, and which goes like this:

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

Similarly, for 10,000 Reasons, the last verse concerns death, and it goes like this:

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore

Hope that helps.