A Buddhist Wake & Funeral 

It’s been less than a year and I’ve lost another grandparent. This one hit me harder than the previous because we did not expect it to come by so fast.

My maternal grandfather was a great man, he cared for all of us deeply and you could tell he knew his end was near. It all started when he was admitted into the hospital after feeling unwell for some time. Found out he had a lung infection, and after going in and out of the hospital for about a month, he finally left one Sunday morning. This was about a month ago. I remember that day very clearly as I rushed to his hospital bed at 5.30 in the morning to say goodbye. It was heartbreaking as all 18 of us held him one last time.

We immediately held his service the next night and for three days long. Unlike my paternal grandmother’s last year, we opted for a simple and not too traditional, yet beautiful service for him with Buddhist monks and nuns chanting. It was held at the amazingly comfortable and professional Nirvana Memorial Centre in Sungai Besi. The facilities and services there are top notch, it even felt like a five star hotel environment. Only the best for my Gong Gong (“grandfather” in Chinese).

The first day we headed over after lunch to prepare, though there wasn’t much preparation for us to do as they had prepared everything beforehand (part of the package paid for). The only things we did were folding the prayer paper gold/money that us grandchildren to do, but the rest of the family chipped in and helped as well. By the third night we had at least twenty large bags full!

The room we had was named “Orchid”, to which my mother mentioned was Gong Gong’s favourite. :’) The room was larger than the others around as we opted for the corner room with a larger hallway to accommodate more people. We knew that we could expect a large crowd of family from his nieces/nephews travelling from another state as they loved him very much. We have a rather large family as my grandfather was part of 10 siblings (and he was the last surviving sibling 😥 ), each with plenty of children, he himself has 5 children. Plus, there’s the numerous relatives, friends and colleagues that each of us immediate family had and his own friends as well.

His altar had a really huge blown up photograph of him (which my uncle took 3 years back) that was so comforting to look at. He had this warm and contented smile that made me want to just sit there and stare at him. On the altar were flowers (the entire building was very flower based, so pretty!), a joss stick sand pot to hold the thicker type of joss stick, food including a bunch of his favourites we brought, tea, a large bowl of water and a basket of fresh yellow chrysanthemum flower heads. Nirvana (or maybe it’s a Buddhism culture) uses a lot of flowers throughout the entire funeral process. Mostly yellow and white flowers as a sign of mourning. There was minimal joss stick burning so it wasn’t smoky (plus, it was held indoors with air conditioning on full blast that we were all shivering). The only joss sticks present was that one stick lit and replaced constantly burning at the altar throughout. Even that, the monk/nun would handle. For the food offerings, it was provided by Nirvana and was vegetarian food (because Buddhism) but they allowed us to bring in anything we want. So we made the effort to buy all his favourite chicken rice, fried rice, lamb chop, egg tarts, roti canai, coffee, tea and a few other tidbits he loved. The chrysanthemum flower heads were for guests to place into the water bowl as a sign of respect to him. It was like lighting up a joss stick but a much more environmental friendly way. So when there were a lot of people, the bowl was overflowing with flowers.

Behind the altar, separated by a wall, was the casket positioned with the foot nearest to the back of the altar and head furthest. The top half of the casket was opened with a glass covering over. My grandfather was dressed in a smart looking suit with a light green shirt and dark green tie (his favourite colour). Again, he was ever so slightly smiling, looking contented. :’) An umbrella was placed over the opened top half of the casket. Again, this must be the superstition of protecting against evil forces/prevent black cat from jumping over. The bottom half of the casket had prayer papers and cloth draped over the closed cover.

There were also the whole set of paper paraphernalia; the huge mansion-like house inclusive of two maid/servant, wide screen television, mobile phone, clothes, shoes, accessories and even a satellite dish for the television; a car that was supposed to be a Mercedes-Benz complete with a driver; two bridges (one gold, one silver) that I think was supposed to symbolise either reincarnation or a bridge to heaven (?).

You know when we thought we’d be expecting a large crowd? Well, we still underestimated. The crowd was waaayyy larger than expected as there was barely any seats/tables to spare the whole first night. Everywhere you turned, you’re bound to almost bump into someone. To be honest, I felt proud of my grandpa to see how much he affected all these family and friends. Each one of us immediate family were busy talking to family and our own friends/colleagues who had come to pay their respects. Even my own colleagues took the effort to come after work hours, despite only knowing them for less than 6 months.

We immediate family (children and grandchildren) had an attire to wear, a plain white tee and long black pants just like the Taoist one. We also had the cloth belt and a small square coloured patch of cloth pinned on our left sleeve to differentiate our rank in the family. I had a white belt with a red cloth tied onto it and a blue cloth with a red centre on my sleeve. We also had to wear this same set of clothes for all three days unwashed. We couldn’t wash our hair with shampoo, only with water for three days, slightly better than the Taoist rule last year.

For the prayer sessions, there were three sessions on the first night starting at 7.30pm. Each session was about 30 – 45 minutes with intervals up until 11pm. This time, I’m unable to translate or explain what each prayer session meant as the monks/nuns were chanting in Chinese and what I think is Sanskrit. Plus, the chants were so sing-songy it was hard to even hear them clearly, but it was very soothing to listen. While they chanted, we would sit/stand/kneel behind them with our palms pressed together and every so often we were asked to bow once or three times as instructed either by them or another man who was the coordinator for this service. They even gave us a cushion each to sit or kneel on rather than on the carpet floor itself. So really, the hardest thing we did was sit still for 45 minutes straight. Standing was much more comfortable really.

The first night were monks and the second night and third day were nuns. I later found out that there had been a mixed up on the first night where we initially requested for nuns throughout the process. Not too sure why but I guess my family preferred nuns as they had a more soothing chant. They chanted facing a separate altar placed adjacently next to my grandfather’s. There were three statues of which we later asked were the middle is (one of the variations of) Buddha and two (variations of) Kuan Yin on each side. It was a very complicated explanation by the nun of who and what they represented. Long story short, they are all variations of Kuan Yin but the middle statue was one who has achieved the status of Buddha and completed all tasks/stages required. The two other statues has not. So it’s like a rank thing. Also, they were all from the west side, supposedly they are in care of all death and the dead.

Please, if you know more about Buddhism and its variations, depictions, rituals and meaning, correct me as I only know what I have been told thus far. Again, I genuinely want to understand and I could only ask so much in so little time.

On the second day, went over early to bring Gong Gong his lunch and hung around still folding paper gold/money. Again, prayers started at 7.30pm and this time we had 4 sessions with intervals. This night, there was about half the crowd of the first night and it was much calmer as we didn’t have to rush here and there with lesser people to address. Towards later in the night, before the final prayer session, we the immediate family followed the nuns downstairs and outside to a separate and controlled shed where they placed the paper paraphernalia and paper gold around it to be burned. We were then instructed to call out for my grandfather to come and collect his items. I guess in a way, it is also to tell any “wandering” spirits that these items belong to my grandfather and it’s not their for taking. So we watched the raging flame engulf the paper until it was in ashes and went back inside. Other than this, the second night was pretty similar with the first.

The third day was sending Gong Gong to his final resting place at Nirvana Memorial Park in Shah Alam. This time, we started way early at 9am. It was a sombre morning as this was going to be our last viewing of him before they shut the casket for good. They opened the casket completely, even the glass covering so we could see him and touch (his clothes, we didn’t touch his face as I’m sure they would have put on some form of chemical preservation?). We stood there, talking to him, saying our goodbyes and tears just started flowing. Then they took in the flowers that were sent in the last two days, cut the flower heads off and arranged them neatly around his body in the casket (so pretty :’) ). Next, there was a ritual where his children laid very traditional grand cloth-like blankets which was supposed to symbolise comfort in his afterlife. All this while, there was a flying bug/insect, which of course the elders mentioned that it was Gong Gong visiting us. I mean, as much as it sounded ridiculous, what harm could it do to just be comforted by the thought that he was still with us in some way.

Then we had one last prayer session, where the other guests could view him one last time. After that, we gathered in front of his altar, us immediate family kneeled in prayer while his casket was sealed shut with a golden axe. This was done by the people from Nirvana. I think this part, we were allowed to watch which is why we were in front of his altar instead.

After a short break, they moved the casket into the hearse. Next we moved downstairs onto the road where the hearse was parked onto a road leading to the exit of the building compound. We were asked to stand behind the hearse, put our hand on the back of the hearse and while it drove forwards slowly, we were to shout out calling him and to wish him well on his smooth journey in the afterlife. It went on for a short distance until the hearse reached the exit, where we got into our own cars and followed behind on our way to the memorial park. We did stop by my grandparents house for him to visit one last time. I think the most exciting part about the drive had to be this other car from Nirvana where they drove in front of the hearse to stop any oncoming traffic at junctions to let about 10 cars through so that we were all in a single line following one another.

At the memorial park, we were brought to a hall that I think should be the crematorium place behind. My grandfather’s casket was placed on an automated trolley-like doorway. While we were kneeled in front of an altar setup, the casket moved towards the doorway which was now opened to reveal a golden statue of Buddha with a green laser light shining from the jade on the forehead. This laser light moved up and down the moving casket as if it was blessing as my grandfather went away. But I have a feeling the laser was a sensor for the mechanics to know when to close the door after the casket fully moved in. Very dramatic and it really hit us deep because this was it, his physical being was leaving 😥

Next, we prayed at a temple nearby, changed into red colour clothing to symbolise the end of our mourning period and had lunch while we waited for the cremation to be completed. We decided to complete everything on the same day rather than come back the next day. It took about 2 hours so we hung around the place. We returned to the hall where each of us immediate family took turns to place a piece of his remains into a green urn. So yes, as morbid as it sounds, I picked up a piece of my grandfather’s bone and placed into an urn. I honestly thought it would be all ashes, didn’t expect there would still be small pieces of bone.

We brought him to his final home at the columbarium. Performed a prayer session for him then placed the urn inside the space. We also put in his reading glasses and wrist watch next to his urn.

Aaaand that was it.

Basically I did nothing for four days except to pray, reminisce, cry, sleep, and repeat. All in all, the service was beautiful I would say. He truly deserved the best and I miss him so much.

Gong Gong, Popo and us young ones

Gong Gong looking so fine back in the day

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