Funerals in Singapore

I remember attending my first Muslim funeral at 12. Back then, I sat back and watched as the adults handled things. But even so, I had loads of questions. For example, why was the body placed in a certain direction when we prayed for it?

I got my answers eventually, but a lot of young Singaporeans still don’t know why certain funeral rituals are carried out. A Chinese friend once complained that he got scolded for looking at the coffin as his grandfather’s body was placed into it – but why?

From rituals like flour sprinkling to offering food to crows, here are 9 religious customs commonly practised at funerals in Singapore, and the meanings behind them.

– Chinese funerals –

1. Caskets are watched to prevent cats from “waking” the dead

You’ll often see the deceased’s relatives watching over the casket, even through the wee hours of the morning. Besides keeping the deceased “company”, this is also to prevent any cats from jumping over the casket – especially at void decks where stray felines roam freely.

black cat
Image credit: Ben Griffiths

The belief is that if a pregnant, black cat jumps over a casket, it will pass on one of its 9 lives to the deceased and “awaken” his soul – preventing them from departing peacefully.

2. Flour is sprinkled on the floor to check for ghostly footsteps

footsteps in flour
Image credit: iStock

Taoists believe that the spirit of the deceased will return home 7 days after death. It is customary to sprinkle powder or flour on the floor and leave the deceased’s favourite dishes overnight as offerings on the 7th day. If footprints are seen the next day, this means that the spirit had visited the house.

The belief is that the deceased will be reincarnated within 49 days. If footprints don’t appear in the powder, it simply means that the deceased has already been reincarnated.

– Muslim funerals –

3. Graves are built in a direction for bodies to face Mecca

muslim funerals in singapore
Image credit: @muhammad_syah97

Drive past Choa Chu Kang Cemetery and you’ll notice that the Muslim graves are all built in a particular direction – specifically, at a right angle to the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

When Muslims are buried, their faces are turned to the right, so by building the graves this way, the deceased can look directly towards the Kaaba.

4. The dead are buried within 24h to prevent exposure to decomposition

muslim burial ceremony
Image credit: Muslim Funeral Services Ltd.

When it comes to Muslim funerals, be sure to pay your respects as soon as possible as the deceased are typically buried within 24 hours. This is because delaying the burial is seen as “torturing” the deceased. Since embalming is forbidden in Islam, an early burial is also for hygiene purposes, preventing the living from being exposed to bacteria.

– Hindu funerals –

5. A lamp has to stay lit for as long as the body is in the house

hindu diya lamp
Image credit: Pexels

At Hindu funerals, the deceased is placed on a piece of white cloth to symbolise purity. A lamp is then positioned by the head of the body and lit along with dhoop or agarbatti, which are types of incense.

This is symbolic of showing light to the soul as it exits the body into a new reincarnation. The lamp has to be lit for as long as the body is in the house to ensure the soul is able to cross over smoothly. Hence, family members have to take turns to keep watch over the body and lamp.

6. Ashes of the deceased are scattered over a body of water

scattering ashes in the sea
Image credit: Scattering Ashes

After cremation, the deceased’s ashes are scattered over a body of water – in Singapore, that’ll be the ocean. Hindus believe that one’s body is made up of the 5 elements of nature – water, earth, fire, air and sky – and that one should return to the elements upon passing. 

It is for this reason also that Hindus practise cremation, as the body is believed to return to the elements when burned.

7. Offering food to crows is akin to feeding one’s ancestors

feeding crows at funerals in singapore
Image credit: Tamil Samayam

Crows are held in high regard in Hinduism – some believe that their ancestors return in the form of crows, while others believe that crows can transport food to their ancestors.

It is also said that if the crows do not eat the food left for them at funerals, it means that the deceased has some unfulfilled wish.

It is also common to see families preparing a grand feast for their deceased loved ones on annual death anniversaries, consisting of their favourite meals. After prayers are completed, the food is then offered to crows by placing them on banana leaves under a tree. Families should make the offering in groups with an odd number – you may even hear them “calling” for the crows with a bellowing kaa, kaa, kaa!

– Catholic funerals –

8. Caskets are blessed with incense to represent rising to heaven

censer catholic incense
Image credit: iStock

Incense is widely used during worship in Catholicism around the world, and funerals in Singapore are no exception. Incense grains are lit up in a censer and then swung around the casket by a priest. The smoke of burning incense symbolises that prayers of the faithful are rising to heaven. In the olden days, the use of incense was also to mask bad smells.

9. A Rosary group will help pray for the repose of the soul

rosary group
Image credit: Mother of All Peoples

The recitation of the Rosary is usually held during a vigil before the funeral to pray for the repose of the soul, which in the bible, refers to a state of eternal rest.

Unlike Communion, which is open only to Catholics, anyone can participate in Rosary prayers if they wish.

Here, most Catholic churches have their own Rosary groups that will help pray for the departed at funerals. These groups are usually from the deceased’s own parish, though members of the group may not necessarily know the deceased personally – everything is done out of goodwill, on a voluntary basis.

Read more about the Catholic holidays of Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter.

Common funeral rites in Singapore

As funerals are solemn affairs, it’s good to be aware of certain traditions and taboos – even those outside your culture and religious group. We hope that this guide will enlighten you on some of the practices you might come across at any funerals in Singapore you may attend or pass by.

Read more about other local cultures and customs:

Cover images adapted from: @muhammad_syah97, Tamil Samayam, iStock
Article originally published on 14th August 2017. Last updated by Ra Krishnan on 26th August 2022.

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