A Hakka/Taoist Wake & Funeral

I have to say, this is probably the first wake that I’ve ever been actively involved in (not that I’m complaining, hear me out first). So I am not sure if this seems to be a norm in other cultures/dialects, this is only my first hand experience of witnessing a traditional Taoist wake and funeral in the Hakka dialect & customs.

The Hakka rituals in prepping the deceased in the afterlife is a very unique, detailed, complicated and sometimes contradicting process. Having said that, I’m still proud of my culture and where I come from.

If I could summarise these three days, it would be every action done and choice made has a meaning and/or story behind it. I’m not kidding, I’m talking about every prayer session done follows a story, there are reasons behind why we aren’t allowed to do/wear certain things and even the design of the tombstone has meanings. All of which I will divulge into later on. This account of events are only what I’ve learnt from this experience, there are probably other versions of stories, reasons and customs out there, so if you know better, I would definitely like to know more. I decided not to photograph any of it as I think it is inappropriate and the elders might deem it disrespectful to my grandmother. So, looooong wordy post ahead.

First off, I was told that attire had to be of plain, dull colours such as white, black, dark shades of blue, green, brown to show that you are mourning . Red, yellow and orange are to be avoided at all cost, because those are colours of celebration and prosperity (very Chinese New Year colours). I learnt later on that even a hint of red is frowned upon as I wore a grey tshirt with a smidge of red pattern on the front :/ Nonetheless, I only wore it for awhile as I would be changing into a brand new set of plain white tshirt and black pants provided by the funeral parlour handling the wake. This set of clothes would last me throughout the entire mourning period of 3 days, without getting washed. Well, budget constraints I supposed?

We arrived at my grandparents house in the evening and pretty much everything has been set up. Two tents with deep blue curtains and blue plastic chairs, the standard here in Malaysia (auspicious events like weddings, birthdays, etc have red plastic chairs instead), we’re placed in front of the house. Since my grandmother passed away peacefully inside the house, her casket was placed inside the house where all the living room furniture were moved to another room. If the deceased passed away anywhere else outside the house, the casket would have to be placed outside the house under the tents instead. Why? I’m not too sure either.

I’ve come to know that the position of the casket has to be a certain way as well. The casket has to be placed where the foot faces the door and an altar set up in front of the foot. So once you enter the house, you’ll see the altar with the casket directly behind. On the altar, it’d be the usual joss sticks, candles and food offerings set up with flowers and a large photo of my grandmother. Her casket was open but had a glass covering over so you could see her. There was large prayer paper opened up on top of the glass covering from her neck below, an umbrella opened right under the casket cover at the head and a tiny recorder with a prayer chant on repeat. All these I supposed is to protect her from any evil. However this umbrella does have a story behind it, it is said to also protect against any cat, particularly a black coloured cat, from jumping over the casket. Myth has it that if a black cat jumps over a casket, the deceased body will come alive. Well, now…

In the front porch, there was another altar set up for the Gods. Now, the Taoist and Buddhist culture here is pretty similar. So I think this set up is very much like the Buddhist custom. There was a large banner with what I’m assuming is three Buddha’s (if I’m not mistaken, there are three but the specific are unclear to me) and two Goddesses at the end which looks very much like Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) to me. On the table there were about 7-8 more Gods I’m unsure of. This altar was mainly handle by the priests conducting the prayer sessions.

Now that I’ve described the scene, onto what happened. The ones who actively took part in the prayer sessions were the immediate family; sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren (me). We all wore the same white tshirt and black pants but were given a small patch of cloth and cloth belt of different colour according to our rank to identify us. We were all also given a prayer charm to attach to the front of the tshirt in order to protect us from any supernatural harm.

On this note, this whole wake process is actually communicating with the underworld and for us family members to help guide my grandmother through the process so she doesn’t have to be alone. So a lot of the things we do is to protect both us living family and my grandmother from any lurking souls or underworld soldiers that may also be present. Chinese believes that after death, you will, to put it plainly “go to hell” where you will be judged upon of any wrongdoings during your life. So this wake is basically “opening up the underworld”, guiding my grandmother with the help of priests, bringing her to Justice Pao where he will decide her afterlife fate. So if you have led a good and honest life, you will be sent to heaven among Buddha, Kuan Yin and the rest. Earlier I said that this process is contradicting, because while we believe good souls go to heaven, there is also the part where we honour our ancestors every year during Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day and we burn paper and food offerings including money, gold, houses and cars. Ultimately these items are sent to hell (if you notice, the money currency burned are usually marked ‘hell bank’). So here’s where I’m very confused, if every year we burn items to hell for our ancestors to aid them in the afterlife, does that mean they’re constantly in hell? Including all those who have been truly good and sent to heaven? What about reincarnation? Because we also believe that. There’s even a prayer session for that later on. So if the soul is reincarnated, how is the soul supposedly still in heaven or hell?
please know that I mean no disrespect to anyone, I genuinely want to understand

Back to the wake, there were about five prayer sessions with each lasting about half hour to an hour on the first night starting in the late evening after we had an early dinner. The entire three days were conducted mainly in Hakka so I was pretty clueless as my Hakka knowledge was zero. I merely followed what everyone else was doing or asked the others. Luckily, the Hakka language was sounded very much like Cantonese where I’m better at so I understood simple basic instructions by the priest. There were four Taoist priest or more commonly known as Nam moh lou, each taking turns for each session. Most of the sessions were us either kneeling or sitting down on the front porch facing the Gods, each holding one joss stick while the Taoist priest led the chant out loud. Whenever he bowed, we followed, which was almost every five minutes. Sometimes we were required to bow three times consecutively, usually at the starting and ending of the session or a pinnacle point of the chant as a mark of respect. Another time is whenever we asked for something that required a yes/no answer from the Gods or any spirits. Usually a jiaobei is used but the one that the priest used were in a form of four bells. Basically, after the question/permission is asked, it will be dropped on the floor. If one half is facing up and the other down, the answer is yes. If both halves are facing up or both down, answer is no.

So that was about two to three session, what it means I cannot help you there because I did not understand the specifics. However, one particularly interesting session was one that mourned the loss of a life by crying. I sat down with a joss stick in hand facing another simple altar setup with a wooden plaque of what I suppose is my grandmother’s name on it representing her. The Taoist priest starting chanting, and I must say it’s rather pleasant to listen to as it was a very melodic tune to all of them. Then about 10 minutes in, I started to hear his voice break down as if he was crying and singing. I’m not even kidding, this guy was so convincing that I started to tear up despite not understanding about 90% of what he was saying. He was standing right next to the group on us sitting down and since I was seated in the front half, I sneaked a turn around to look at him. Now, with that crying and mourning voice, I half expected him to have a tear in his eyes, but nope, he looked exactly the same as before. My, my, this guy has got some talent.

Then there was a session where we had to stand in a line and one by one walk up to the set up altar, pick up a coin and place it into a bowl then pluck off a leaf from this huge branch and throw it into a box. Then repeat it again and again as we walk around in a circle. Barefooted. Not that I’m a princess and don’t want to get my feet dirty, I have no problems going barefooted. The only thing that was painful is that the altar was set right outside the house on the tar road where little pieces of jagged edged stones are scattered. Well, foot massage it is πŸ˜›

The second night of the wake started with a naming prayer session that I think was the most amusing one yet. There were those paper prayer paraphernalia such as a house, car, servants, driver and others that I couldn’t make out. The priest started chanting in front of the house and servants, as he described and talked about the house, he touched each aspect of the house with a red inked paint brush. In a way, it looked as if he were “activating” them to be sent to my grandmother. Then onto the paper servant and driver, he asked us what would their names be and their wages. It was kinda funny for the wage part, because after the elders agreed on an amount the priest would ask if they (paper servant & driver) agreed by using the bells that I mentioned earlier. The first amount was rejected and only had an agreement when it was increased πŸ˜› The same process was done for the car as well.

Earlier in the afternoon, the priest had set aside some large space filled with sand. Then they started to sculpt it into two dragons coming towards a circle platform. It was pretty darn cool, I must admit. I’m not sure if the circle platform represented heaven’s gates or hell’s gates as there was a small arch doorway stuck in front of the dragons. About a dozen eggs with a Chinese character written on it each was placed around the platform and one egg in front of each dragon’s mouth. Then about almost 200 coins were scattered all over the platform and dragons.

Later that evening, the priest led a prayer session where he walked around it while chanting with the lot of us following behind one by one. I think we must have circled the sand sculpture for about half an hour. Then they had us sit down in front of the platform but at a distance. Two priest then started performing a really cool dance/fight scene. It wasn’t anything violent, more of a reenactment of a tame fight between some forces? I’m not sure but I was in awe. There was even fire breathing as well, okay, more like spitting oil into a bonfire. I’m sure there’s a story in there. Then it ended with one priest breaking the eggs in front of the dragons. They were raw eggs. After that, we were told to collect the coins, which we were to keep for good luck.

Another session involved a certain popular figure in the Chinese history. One of the priest portrayed Justice Pao who is a famous judge, whereby in this situation he’d take into account all the good or bad deeds in your life and then decide your fate in the afterlife, whether you go to heaven or hell. So in this reenactment, there were two bridges in front of Justice Pao (made of paper with the support of tables and chairs, very creative tbh), the golden bridge and the silver bridge. No idea what it meant but one of the elders held a wooden plaque representing my grandmother and guided it over the golden bridge towards Justice Pao where he would pretend to flip through a book as if he was looking for her name and read/chant as he decided, then another elder held and guided her back down the silver bridge. This happened about five more times. Apparently I later found out that this session is to also “wipe her memories of this life” as she crossed the bridges so as to move on to her next life and be reincarnated. During this bridge crossing, the priest asked us to shout out and persuade her to cross the bridge. You know, for the dramatic flair, because usually if you know you’re gonna lose your memories you wouldn’t want to cross that bridge. So we as family had to persuade her to go and move on.
Back to my point earlier, here you have reincarnation. Then there’s the whole going to heaven or hell based on the deeds of your life by Justice Pao. So I guess if you have to pay for deeds by going to hell, no reincarnation? Then if you go to heaven because you’ve done good while living, do you stay in heaven or be reincarnated to a better next life? Hmm…

Then it was the burning of the paper prayer paraphernalia. Since there was a huge field in front of the house, we used it for the burning. While we stood around in a circle, they set up the house, car, servant, driver, boxes of other paper personal items and the numerous bags of paper gold ingots. Then came my grandmother’s actual items such as her clothing, shoes, bags and a couple of her personal belonging. To be honest, I started tearing when I saw her clothes. For the first time since the whole wake started, it dawned upon me that she wasn’t here anymore. Seeing her clothes made me think of all the times she babysat me as a kid, cooked me meals and her constant reminders to drink more water :’) Then they lit all of that on fire as the priests chanted. With the amount of things in the pile, the fire grew so huge it had to be about two storeys high. But of course, it didn’t go out of hand. After awhile, everything burned and the fire died down and we went back inside.

On the third day, we started in the late morning. The priest told us that this would be our last chance to see my grandmother as they would be closing the coffin. As for the closing and transporting the coffin outside the house, we all were not allowed to see it happen. So we were told to wait outside under the tents facing the opposite direction. I was told that we weren’t allowed to see because it had to do with dealing with underworld-y forces and us living people may not be able to handle if there were any lurking spirits. So if we weren’t strong enough in terms of our chi or if our yin and yang wasn’t balanced, we could be very vulnerable. Now, I haven’t fact checked this superstition but you know, better be safe than sorry since it’s just a simple act of not looking.

A band was set up and playing some really sad songs, didn’t help with the tears 😦 After they moved the coffin outside, another altar set-up was in front with food and fruits offerings. Again, we could not have any shoes on but was provided with white socks. They had us standing in a single line by family ranking and the chanting started. Then the priest passed the first person two paint brushes, one in each hand. We had to pass both brushes over our shoulders to the person behind while saying something in Hakka. No clue what that was.

Then in that single line, we walked around the coffin while the priest chanted. On each side of the coffin, there was a bucket of water and we were handed a stack of prayer papers. As we approach one side of the coffin, we dipped one piece of prayer paper into the water and swipe it along the side of the coffin, sort of like blessing the coffin. The same thing happened on the other side of the coffin as we walked around and around. This was a sad session as the priest was cry-mourn-chanting like on the first night. Every other 5 minutes, the priest would stop walking, and kneel down as if he was breaking down and also as a sign of respect, so we all followed and went on our knees with our heads bowed. This lasted for about half and hour.

Next, all of us immediate family stood behind the altar next to the coffin while the rest of the relatives and friends had their chance to pay their last respects. So every time someone pay their respects toy grandmother, we’d bow in respect to them back as a sign of appreciation. A very courteous affair.

When it was time to load the coffin into the hearse, again we weren’t allowed to see so we were asked to look away. While the funeral parlour people set up everything else for transport, the priest with two family members went around the house to take down all the covers over the God’s altars as if we were inviting them back into the house as we were done with the ceremony at the house. Then we started the funeral procession. It was a 20 minute walk behind the hearse from the front of the house to the main road where a bus was parked. The band also followed in a car blasting sad-ish songs very loudly in the neighbourhood in the early afternoon. Once we reached the bus, we all got into it as the memorial park was about an hour’s drive away.

At the memorial park, the coffin was lowered into the ground that had been already dug. Apparently the whole not allowed to look applied as well when the coffin was lowered but it was done as we stopped by the main building where we rested for a bit. An altar was set up in front of the grave where we placed our joss stick at as a mark of respect. Then the elders were asked to check if the coffin was aligned. Not sure the significance of that but that would be the last chance to align as no more adjustments would be done after that.

The priest begun the last prayer session and chanted. After that, we were each handed a small packet of uncooked rice and asked to look down and hold out the front of our t-shirts to collect as the priest threw loose rice grains over us. The rice collected in our shirts combined with the packet of rive was to be brought home and mixed in with our own rice to eat. Apparently, it’s for good luck. So imagine me who has no idea what was going on, following everyone else holding out their t-shirts and looking down then suddenly hit with what felt like stones hitting my head and neck πŸ˜›

Finally, we went up to the front of the altar one by one where there was a bucket of sand at the side, grabbed a handful of sand, threw into the grave on the coffin and walked away. We were also warned not to clap or wipe our hands over the coffin after throwing the sand because it was human instinct to instantly get rid of the remaining sand stuck to our hands. That would be disrespectful.

Aaaand that’s it. We could take off the socks and wear our shoes, change out of our three day old set of clothes and into a fresh set. Not sure why, but we had to wear something red. I guess it’s a sign of the end of the mourning period, but red though? Kinda odd, there we were about 15 of us wearing red together in a group. It honestly looked like it was Chinese New Year in the middle of the year hahaha. We finished late afternoon and we had one final dinner hosted by us immediate family for those who attended the funeral as a sign of appreciation for being there.

Well, there we have it, a Malaysian Hakka/Taoist wake and funeral. Super elaborate (don’t even get me started on the cost of all these) and definitely an eye opener for me towards my culture.
Should there be any mistakes or wrong assumptions I have made, please do correct me. If you know the reason/story behind any of the sessions I mentioned, I would definitely like to know more.
So yeah, this was my weekend. Hope this post was somewhat informative.


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