Thursday, March 31, 2022


For thousands of Chinese families, the annual visit to the burial grounds of their departed family members will start this weekend. This is Qing Ming or All-Souls Day which usually falls in the first week of April. This year it falls on 5 April. It is a mark of filial piety for Chinese families to pay their respects to their ancestors with prayers and offerings of food. Family members also take the opportunity to spruce up the burial area. This explains why Qing Ming is also referred to as "Tombsweeping Day".

Perhaps most fascinating of the Qing Ming rituals is the burning of papier mache offerings. Over the years, these paper mache offerings have changed in keeping with the trends. I recall decades ago witnessing the burning of this huge paper replica of a mansion. The patriach of a family supermarket in my neighbourhood had passed away at a ripe old age. His children wanted to make sure their father would live in luxury in his after life.

A papier mache mansion all ready to be burnt as an offering to the deceased.

At the time as I was watching the 'mansion' make its way up in smoke to the other world, I thought about my dad. When he passed away in 1957, I remember my grandma made sure we burnt offerings of paper money - lots of it, in silver and gold, also clothes, food and his reading glasses. She wanted to make sure my dad would be comfortable and would always have money to spend.

Today, being well-provided for takes on a new definition. It is no longer about sending necessities to the beloved deceased. The trend now is to go for paper replicas of luxury items like the latest gadgets, LV bags, jade and gold jewelry, a BMW, and even a yacht!


I was in Chinatown a few weeks ago hoping to find that little shop which used to make paper offerings for Qing Ming. It was no longer there. Not surprising. It is a dying art, literally. In land scarce Singapore, for example, who can afford to buy a burial plot? Most people these days choose cremation over burial. It's cheaper and more convenient in many ways.

With the younger generation losing interest in the old ways, Chinese traditions and customs will soon disappear into the history books. There might come a day when Qing Ming will no longer be observed if young parents of today do not pass it down to their children.

Whether that is a sad thing or not is debatable, I suppose.

With Ching Ming just around the corner, my thoughts of late have dwelled much on the topic. Death can knock on our door at anytime and anywhere. It can strike down the young and the old, the healthy and the infirmed, the rich and the poor. Death is the ultimate leveller. It comes to the best among us, and to the worst among us. Yet we know precious little about how best to prepare for death.

Countless books have been written about how to live a happy life, but none about how to die happy. Is there such a thing as the art of dying? And can it be taught or learned? Has anyone been through the death experience and shared it with a loved one in a dream? How does one deal with one's approaching death? Why is death nearly always associated with pain, fear, grief, loss and visions of the Grim Reaper? Isn't it possible to meet our Maker with joy, celebration and visions of beautiful Angels of Love waiting to embrace us? Lots of questions but hardly any answers. Death remains a taboo topic and few are comfortable talking about it. But there is now a gradual acceptance. It makes sense to plan how we want to go while we are still around and still lucid enough to decide. 

I have since learned more about death rituals after taking up a course on End of Life: Death and Dying as an elective for my MSc in Applied Gerontology. Attending the 2-day Death Festival organised by Xiao En Funeral Services in 2018 further opened my eyes to a more positive side of death. Understanding death takes away the fear and replaces it with quiet acceptance as something natural and for many, it is a welcome release from pain. 

God willing, if I am blessed with good health and long life (dare I say 100?), I will want to spend my twilight years on community service, doing voluntary work that I am passionate about. And when the time comes, I want to go in my sleep, surrounded by all my loved ones. I will leave instructions for them to celebrate the occasion with a toast to me for having lived a full life. No public viewing of me at my wake party, please. I would appreciate some privacy, thank you. I will have written my obituary to be read by my daughter. I will have taken my last portrait, of my own choosing (already done!). I will have my favourite songs from 1960s played at my farewell party. No one should wear black. Only rainbow colours. I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered in a mountain stream. No need for anyone to make that obligatory visit to the columbarium every All Souls' Day.

"Death smiles at us all; all a man (or woman) can do is smile back." Amen

Paying my respects to my parents at the temple in Jalan Gasing. My mom passed away 65 years after him. In those days, young widows remained single for the rest of their lives.

1 comment:

Pak Idrus said...

Cremation pollutes the atmosphere, whereas buried in the earth nothing is left; all are absorbed by the earth. As to die happy you may want to consider reverting to the religion we all are born. Take are.