Life and death is a cycle. One day we will all be dust, fertilising the soil with the shell that used to house our personality and returning our chemical elements to the carbon and nitrogen cycle.
I am fascinated by funerary rites. Every culture and religion has their own way of dealing with the dead. Some are elaborate, verging on hedonistic (check out the Sulawesi Tana Toraja funeral). These would take months in preparation as the family of the dead would accumulate funds to finance the best and most amazing send off for their loved one. The more fantastical funeral is reserved for the family elders while the younger ones have a less elaborate funeral. For them, death is a celebration of the long and wonderful life of the deceased.It is an expensive endeavour, hence the large gap between the time of death till the laying to rest.
Nearly all would have a funeral procession of some note. For the Malay Muslim, it is a sombre one with those attending reciting prayers for the dead under their breath or in a low voice. The Hindus and Taoists have an elaborate procession, with music and attendants on foot and in cars. The Christians are quite varied, depending on geographical location, with most having a solemn procession. In New Orleans, however, the black community celebrate the funeral procession with rousing music (the famous Jazz funeral) and dancing attendants.
Malay Muslim funeral rites are quite inclusive of the family members. They are encouraged to pray and to recite passages of the Quran to be "gifted" to the deceased. I was privileged to be allowed to help wash my grandmother during her funeral; her frail, stiff body cradled by her daughters and granddaughters. We gently washed her pale, cold flesh with scented water, pat her dry with care before she was wrapped in white, clean funeral shroud.
Commonly, there is a "director" of the event, usually called tukang mandi mayat, who will help obtain the supplies needed and to give the directions for the preparation of the deceased. Such individuals are highly respected and are usually given a token of appreciation by the family of the dearly departed at the end of the funeral. They are usually volunteers trained by the religious authorities. Although many uses the professional services provided by bodies like Lembaga Tabung Haji and the khairat kematian people of the mosque in the neighbourhood, but many still use the volunteer tukang mandi mayat.
The family members are expected to report the death and make arrangements for the burial. Usually, the nearest cemetary is used but for those who passed away far from home, they may be transported back to be buried. The closest male relatives are often the ones to shoulder the dead to the cemetary and help to lower the body into the grave. The imam will lead the prayer before leaving for the cemetary and to give the funeral rites.
For Malay Muslims, lamenting of the dead is forbidden. It is said that breast-beating and excessive displays of sorrow will hurt the deceases soul. I think the same goes for Christians, no matter the denomination (I have only ever been to a Catholic funeral mass and an Anglican wake). But for many cultures, demonstrations of grief is a must. The Taoists funeral rite even involve people who cry for the deceased, wailing and lamenting loudly how the dead will be missed. I had a first-hand taste of this at the funeral of a dear teacher of mine, the late Mrs SS Tan, who taught me English and Literature. She was also my form mistress (class teacher) in Form One. I went just before they prepared to leave for the memorial park to give my last respects.
When I arrived and saw her photograph, tears welled and fell unbidden. It had been so long since I had seen her and she did not remember me when I greeted her on Sports Day a few years after I had left her class. In the picture, she looked just as a I remembered: the kind eyes, her fine fair skin with a dusting of blush, the rose of her lipstick and the luxuriant wavy hair framing her face. It only struck me then that she really is no more. A strange thought since I was never a favourite student or anything of that sort. But the remembrance of her kind and firm ways, how she taught to me the difference between 'despite' and 'in spite of' and her enthusiasm in showing us how to analyse the literary works assigned to us opened the floodgates and I cried. It was terrible since I did not anticipate tears and had no tissue paper or handkerchief on me. There I was trying to cry in a discreet manner and wiping my tears surreptitiously in one corner as the Tao priest conducted the funeral rites, and came a member of the family, handing me a packet of ang pow.
"A gift from the family," he said.
I was bewildered and tried to give it back. For the Malays, it is customary to give a small token to the bereaved family, not the other way round. He had quickly walked away and left me clutching the little red packet. It was later that my friend told me that I was given the ang pow because I had cried at the funeral and that it was an honouring to the deceased.
No matter how a funeral is conducted, lavish or no, I realise that the funeral is for the living. The dead doesn't care what happens to the shell that once housed their souls, but the ones left behind do. Honouring the deceased and participating in the rites help to garner a kind of closure for the family and friends. Then comes the reminiscence and telling of happy stories about the deceased, past misdeeds erased like they never were. Don't believe me? Look at how Michael Jackson was lauded after he passed away. I think it is better to concentrate on the good times rather than the bad when one thinks about a deceased; after all, the dead cannot defend him/herself and digging up past resentments and anger surely cannot be a healthy endeavour. Which is why I admire the idea of an Irish wake, where the grieving family and friends sit and drink and eat while exchanging reminiscence of the deceased.
My father often reminded us that it is more important to attend a funeral than it is to attend a wedding. He said that showing support and to help when a person is in bereavement is more crucial because that is the time when you are needed the most.
I can fully get behind this philosophy cheekily; you don't need to bother about a date when attending a funeral.