Funeral rituals in Singapore

Funeral - Taoist Void Deck

Image adapted from: An Lok Funeral Services 

I remember attending my first 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.

To help prevent instances where you may potentially offend someone, here are some religious funerals customs commonly practised in Singapore, and the meanings behind them.

Chinese funerals

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

Funeral - Taoist Black Cat

Image credit: @hopeless_heir

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

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 him from departing peacefully.

2. Flour is sprinkled on the floor to check for the deceased’s footsteps

Funeral - Taoist Powder

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

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 deceased 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 certain direction so that the body faces Mecca

Funeral - Muslim Grave

Image adapted from: @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, deceased can look directly towards the Kaaba.

4. The dead are buried within 24h to prevent decomposition from being seen

Funeral - Muslim Man Digging Grave

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

Funeral - Hindu Lamps

Image credit: Everplans

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

Funeral - Hindu Ashes Water

Image credit: Scattering Ashes

After cremation, the deceased’s ashes are scattered over a body of water. 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 returned to the earth, fire, air, and sky by burning it in the open.

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

Funeral - Hindu Crow Offering

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

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. Hence, feeding crows symbolises feeding one’s ancestors.

Hindus believe that if the crows do not eat the food fed to them at funerals, it means that the deceased has some unfulfilled wish.

Catholic funerals

8. Caskets are blessed with incense as a symbol of prayers rising to heaven

Funeral - Catholic Incense

Image credit: Hailey Is A Genius

Incense is widely used during worship in Catholicism and funerals 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 olden days, the use of incense was also to mask bad smells.

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

Funeral - Catholic Rosary

Image credit: Church of the Resurrection

The recitation of the Rosary is usually held during a vigil before the funeral to pray for repose of the soul. Unlike Communion, which is open only to Catholics, anyone can participate in Rosary prayers if they wish.

In Singapore, 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.

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 you may attend or pass by.