Malaysia – Multi-racial Farewell Ceremonies

Life is a linear path, and birth, old age, sickness and death are the inevitable processes of life. When a person passes away, the last rites of passage will be the funeral. The completion of the funeral represents a peaceful farewell from the world for the deceased, while at the same time the family is also able to say their goodbyes. 

Malaysia is a multi-racial country, with the main ethnic groups being Malay, Chinese and Indian. For the ethnic Chinese, there are various religious funeral rites such as Buddhist, Taoist and Christian, and Islamic and Hindu rites for the other ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups and religions have different cultural practices, religious ideologies, beliefs and values, making Malaysia’s funeral culture appear diverse in many ways.

Traditional Chinese funerals

Buddhist funeral rites are fairly simple and mainly include chanting sutras, praying to the Buddha, reciting mantras, ceremonial rites, food offering, smoke offering, pacifying wandering spirits and others. Adherents believe that by cultivating blessings and generosity for the deceased, exalting the Three Jewels, helping the poor, benefiting society, and even giving alms to all sentient beings and dedicating merits to the deceased can enable the latter to transcend as soon as possible and be liberated from the cycle of samsara. Believers of Pure Land Buddhism also believe that chanting sutras and reciting the Buddha’s name on behalf of the deceased will bring the latter peace, benefit the family and bring great merit for those who help; peace and tranquility in the soul can liberate the deceased from suffering and achieve happiness – allowing the deceased to transcend the cycle of rebirth and be reborn in a higher existence.

Taoist funeral rites are divided into seven ceremonies that include setting up the altar to invite the deities, worship and repentance rituals, smashing of hell, traversing the Ten Courts, crossing the Golden and Silver bridges, assuming the lotus position, and sending the deceased to the afterlife.

Taoism follows the ancient Chinese concept of “transforming mortals into gods and spirits” after death, believing that one will exist in another state and advocating filial piety as the main purpose. Taoist funeral rites can be roughly divided into four stages. The first is the end-of-life treatment, involving ritual bathing, changing the clothes, covering the deities, setting up the ritual area, assuming the mourning status, announcing death, setting the altar at the foot of the coffin, burning joss paper and reciting funeral scriptures . The second involves encoffinment, setting up a mourning parlour and making offerings. The third involves observance of religious rites and paying of respects. The fourth involves remembrance rituals for the first seven to seventy-seven days, as well as one hundred days, first anniversary and third anniversary.

Christian funeral rites (including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) are presided over by a priest or minister, and prayers are held around the gravesite for the deceased to rest in peace and ascend to heaven. The predominant colour for traditional Christian and Western funerals is black.

For Christians family members,  they are expected to assist in the funeral arrangements throughout the entire process. However, when it comes to the funeral rituals, the stance is to attend but not participate, no offering of incense, no dancing, no kneeling, no worshiping and to stand or sit in silence through the whole process.

The portrait of the deceased should not be displayed at the centre for people to pay their respects, but displayed at the left side of the venue. However, the portrait can be displayed at the hearse during the funeral.

Compared to traditional Chinese funerals, the funerals of the other two major ethnic groups, the Muslim Malays and Hindu Indians, are simple.

Muslim funeral rites

When a Muslim dies, the family of the deceased will first inform the neighbouring Muslim community centre or mosque. A relative of the same gender will then wash and shroud the body with al-Kafan (a shroud made of white cotton). The neck, shoulders, torso and feet will be bound with ropes, exposing only the face so that the family members may kiss the forehead as they mourn and send off the deceased.

The body must be buried within 24 hours and cremation, embalming, makeup and any decorative items are prohibited. Before being transported to the cemetery, those attending the funeral wear conservative and simple traditional Malay costumes, perform the “Solat al-Janazat” (funeral prayer) for the deceased and read the “Surah Yasin” of the Quran. The burial is done facing the direction of the holy city of Mecca and those present hold three handfuls of dirt and scatter them into the grave, signifying “from dust one comes and to dust one returns”. After the funeral,  the family prays five times a day to God for blessings and forgiveness for the deceased, representing the eternal filial piety of the living to the deceased.

Indian funeral rites

Somewhat different from the Muslims, the traditional faith of the Indians is Hinduism. Hindus do not advocate burial and funerals are commonly conducted by cremation with the cremated ashes being scattered into the sea or river. When a member of an Indian family dies, the deceased is first purified with water by a close family member and then dressed in traditional Indian clothing. When the coffin arrives at the crematorium, the next-of-kin will anoint the forehead of the deceased and the eldest son (if the deceased is the mother) or the youngest son (if the deceased is the father) will perform the ceremony of holding the fire tray.

Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation, and they believe that “the power of fire can purify the body of the deceased, and “the power of water can purify the soul of the deceased.” Through the purification power of fire and water, the soul of the deceased can be liberated from the material world to the afterlife and enter the cycle of reincarnation.

After reading about the funeral customs of these three major ethnic groups, have you gained a deeper understanding of the cultural customs of other races? Of course, the custom provided here may vary according to different beliefs, cultures and regions Therefore, these customs are only representative of the practices of the three major ethnic groups in general. We hope that as Malaysians we can learn more about the cultures of different races so that we can respect each other.

Ancestral Tablet

Ancestral Tablet

The ancestral tablet is also called “soul tablet”, “spirit tablet”, “soul seat” and others. In Buddhism, it is called “lotus dais” or “lotus seat”. It is generally used as a temporary seat for the soul of the departed to reside, and convenience for the family members, relatives and friends to pay their respects.

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