Follow this guide for essential dos and don’ts when attending a funeral.
Funerals are part and parcel of life, and you’ll probably go through your fair share during your lifetime. There are a great many superstitions and taboos around death, and it’s inevitable that funerals wind up inheriting some pretty specific — if unscientific — beliefs. (Cat jumped over the coffin? Uh oh, better get ready for an awkward and unexpected family reunion!)
Thankfully, funeral etiquette isn’t as complicated or outlandish. In spite of Singapore’s multicultural makeup, proper behaviour at funerals is largely a matter of common sense and empathy.
Here’s what you need to know about funeral wake etiquette in Singapore.
It is customary to offer a token sum to the family of the bereaved, which is commonly used to help cover the funeral costs. There is usually a counter set up for this, with a book to write your name and the amount contributed. There should also be someone on standby to collect the money and stash it somewhere safe.
Also, although pek kim is usually placed in a small white envelope before being dropped off (pek kim literally means ‘white gold’), don’t sweat it if you don’t have an envelope handy. It’s perfectly acceptable to just hand over cash, or even a PayNow transfer.
How much pek kim should you give, you might wonder. Unlike wedding banquets, there’s no fixed rule for how much one should give during a funeral. You can (and should) give according to your financial ability, and your personal relationship to the deceased.
In cases where you don’t know the deceased personally, it is perfectly ok to donate a token $10. Just don’t try to cheap out and save a few bucks by giving petty amounts, such as $7 or $3. That’s not how you want to be remembered by your friend’s family. Also, don’t dig out $50 and ask for $40 change back. If you don’t have small notes on you, either run to an ATM or do a PayNow transfer!
Regardless of your familiarity with the deceased, it is considered good form to pay your respects when attending their funeral. Depending on whether it is a Chinese (Taoist/Buddhist), Catholic/Christian or Hindu funeral, there will be different acts and rituals to perform.
For example, at most Chinese funerals, incense is commonly lit and offered. Whereas Christian and Catholic funerals may ask attendees to sing hymns. Hindu funeral practices may involve chanting and fire.
If your personal beliefs bar you from partaking in some or all of these rituals, it is perfectly okay to pay your respects in your own way. Instead of lighting incense or candles, you may choose to bow deeply and respectfully three times instead. You may also choose to offer a silent prayer or a simple farewell. A silent moment of remembrance is also appropriate.
It is also customary for the bereaved to return respects to you, after you have paid yours to the deceased. As this requires a family member to be on hand, it may be prudent to alert your host before approaching the altar.
And in case you’re wondering, the Muslim faith dictates that the deceased be buried as soon as possible after death, which precludes the chances of actually attending an Islamic funeral as a colleague or a friend.
Instead, some Muslim families hold a ceremony called a thalil on the 3rd, 7th, 40th and 100th day after the burial, which consists of a recitation of prayers and supplications for the deceased, after which guests may be invited to partake of a simple meal prepared by the grieving family.
Now the question is: To peek or not to peek?
In some traditions, it is customary to view the deceased when paying your respects. In others, only close family members are allowed the privilege. The state of the casket (open or closed) is usually a reliable indicator which is which.
At an open casket funeral, it is usually okay, even expected, for mourners to take a look at the deceased. Some families may opt for a closed casket with a small window in the lid; this usually indicates that only close family is invited to view.
When in doubt, ask the host. But whatever you choose to do, please be respectful.
As funerals are sombre affairs, it is good manners to avoid bright or cheerful colours, such as red, pink, yellow or orange. Neutral colours such as white, black, greys and browns are considered largely acceptable.
Funerals in Singapore are usually casual affairs, so you should dress comfortably and appropriately. Showing up in a half tux when everyone else is likely to be in tees might not be the most sensible move. Also, ease back on the jewellery and flashy accessories, as it is considered crass to be flaunting your wealth around the grieving.
Upon arriving at the wake, announce your arrival to your colleague or friend, so the host can get you quickly settled. If the family members are involved in prayers or rituals, find an empty table and wait.
When conversing with the grieving, remember to stay away from topics that may cause them emotional pain or distress. Try including other topics to take their minds off their loss. Be tactful — some light office gossip is okay, asking for an update on that work project is not.
If you find yourself caught in an awkward turn, just don’t say anything. Simply being there is enough during times like these.
You’re likely to run into mutual friends or ex-colleagues at funerals. When catching up at the wake, its ok to laugh and joke — just make sure to keep it light and respectful. As emotions may be running high, keep away from potentially insensitive or inflammatory remarks.
Help yourself to the refreshments served. Even if you don’t feel hungry, grab a packet drink or a handful of peanuts.
Especially at Chinese funerals, you’ll see a bunch of red thread on the table. Take one and tie it loosely around your finger, and discard it only after leaving the funeral, but before entering your home. There may also be coins wrapped in red paper; you may take once parcel each, but should spend the money immediately. Some funerals may also prepare blessed or holy water — buckets of clean water with flowers floating in them. You may perform a simple cleansing using the water before heading home.
When departing, some say to do so quietly, for there’s a belief that saying ‘Goodbye’ or ‘再见’ is an invitation for the deceased to visit you at home. Spooky folk belief aside, we think it’s good form to leave a dignified event quietly and respectfully.
By Chip Chen, July 2019 / Images: Shutterstock
More on The Finder:
Don’t miss out! Like our Facebook page for event updates and more.