March 21, 2010

Sibu Foochow Funeral Customs and Rites -1

My father's third sister (Aunt Pearl)  passed away after a two-day hospitalisation on 15 March at 9.23 a.m. She was 94.

It was a blessing and comfort to her and to her family that she died so peacefully without any pain or struggle. My uncle has been so frail lately that he might not even be aware of what has been going on.

And to my cousins I thank them for deciding on arranging a good wake and a memorial service cum funeral for her four days after her passing. Most families would bury their dead as soon as possible for convenience sake.

When we arrived from the long drive from Miri we saw the house having a white/beige(muslin material) mourning cloth banner - a typical Foochow and Chinese custom for mourning - over the threshold. This is symbolic that death has occurred and mourning is on going. The white banner would only be taken off after the burial .

The family came out to welcome the " ngie ga" (maternal relatives) with hugs and tears started flowing. My cousin Rosie (Second Brother's daughter) and I (First Brother's daughter) are considered "Ngie Ga" or Family of the Mother (the deceased). My  Aunt Maggie (Fourth Sister to Aunt Pearl) came with cousin Vivien (daughter of First Sister Lily)  the previous day to pay their last respects. They had flown in from Singapore. In the old days any offence committed by the  bereaved family towards the maternal relatives would be settled on this occasion. The penalty was quite handsome. The gravest penalty would be the stopping of the execution of the burial by not allowing the coffin to be closed. It must have happened in the past. This was the last chance for the maternal family to make even any ugly score of the past. In China the bereaved family would all kneel down the moment some of these Ngie Ga came to show their respect to the family of their dearly departed mother. A respectable passage of time would be given to the bereaved family to cry their heart out before the Ngie Ga would ask them to stand up.

In reality my cousins (James the eldest) and Datin Judy(the eldest daughter) especially have always been the kindest and most diplomatic of relatives.Indeed my aunt had brought the whole family of four sons and three daughters up to be very courteous and polite people. And perhaps the next generation also.


Off white/beige muslin mourning cloth/banner over the threshold.

This is the Chinese style obituary (or announcement) which summarises her life and achievements which also includes the achievements of her children and her grand children. No details are spared her. So it is indeed a good farewell statement for the deceased. It also records her death time - her age and her origin in China (Fuzhou Ming Ching - 14th District or 14 Du)


The funeral photo temporarily framed in white paper (to indicate death) stood with candles on a table for relatives to bow when they pay their last respects. Because she had lived such a long life hundreds of people came to pay their last respects in the four days of vigil. This photo is to be carried in the procession to the cemetery ahead of the coffin but it will be "returned" home after the funeral bundled in red cloth by the eldest son. After that the photo will be hung up in a prominent place in the living room. It is a Foochow practice (or Chinese practice) not to hang photos of living persons with those of the dead.


The "memorial hall" was created out of the living room of the old house. Chairs were arranged on two rows opposite each other. Family members and relatives could sit and chat and remember her with fondness. When cousins who have not met for more than twenty years (like Rosie and Rosalyn above) it was a good time to remember their younger days with humour. We had all shared some good family jokes. Aunty Pearl had a great sense of humour and she could make us laugh at times in spite of the fact that we should all be serious in our attitude and "study hard". When reminiscing we would share moments of laughter and moments of great sadness.  I am sure she would only be too happy to know that so many of her nieces and nephews and siblings have come from distant places to be with her bereaved family. Her own children and grandchildren had flown in from Canada and Australia.


Having said so much  we need to realise that funeral customs differ in time and location. There are different customs in different regions of China, and ours could even be too far off from the place of our origins which is Fuzhou of China!!

We have abolished the wearing of funeral clothes for example. In the past in Sibu I remember any of the elders' passing would send the women folk making mourning clothes in five different materials according to how close the relationship is with the dead.  I also remember that they would even  be sewing until sunrise as there were so many offsprings! The sons and daughters would wear the rough beige muslin (belaju) material. Grandchildren from sons would wear yellow. Grandchildren from daughters would wear blue. And the next generation would wear purple.And another younger generation would wear red.

My cousins opted for the plain white t-shirt and simple white trousers for the funeral only.

Another custom which my cousins practised was the offering of cooked food (they catered) for all those who came to pay their last respects at their home. Thus when we arrived at about 8 at night we were quickly ushered to the table to have our meal. This is part of the Foochow funeral custom.

Most of the Foochow funeral customs are based on an eclectic concept of Confucian School ethics and Christian elements. Some are from Chinese ancestral worship practices like bowing to the funeral photo.

I hope by writing this I have not offended any of my Lau cousins. This article would also help many of my relatives who are overseas to have a pin hole look at the grand funeral. And for the younger ones perhaps this is educational especially those who cannot read Chinese.

My heartfelt condolences again to my cousins and nephews and nieces on their loss of a great family member whose life spanned two centuries and whose life must have impacted in numerous people. May God bless her soul.

8 comments:

wenn said...

my condolences.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Thanks Wenn....

Ann said...

Hi CY,

In Primary school, I observed so many Foochow funerals having the service in the church next door.

Beige for children, yellow for grand children and blue for grand grand children.

I only attended my dad's funeral which was quite "modern" and he had prearranged with the funeral director. We wore a white T shirt and dark coloured long pants.

A joke in the family, when my Ah Kung died, in the busyness of everyone, my Foochow Uncle was assigned to organise the clothes. He bought the Foochow colours, and by the time people noticed, the clothes were sewed. One strict uncle was not happy. To keep the peace, My dad said, said, since we were in Sibu and Grand dad lived most of his life in Sibu, it was good that when his cortege went passed the Sibu road, people wopuld know who the bereaved are.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Ann
What are the Cantonese colours?
Today the Cantonese Assoication Social and Welfare Committee would be in charge.
I am sure you Chan family must have been gracious and humourous about the "Foochow elements".
In fact I have never attended a traditional Cantonese funeral but lots of Hakka ones here in Miri.

Ah Ngao said...

i think the best colour is still white.when my papa left us,we just wear white T shirt.if some(atually still quite a lot) pratices or adhere to each traditional type of funeral costumes,then...many "protocols".

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Yeah
I agree..for funeral I would request black or white...White is more a Chinese colour. Black - European/Christian.

Ann said...

My dad died in Kuching. He has already arranged all his "HAO SHI" with the funeral director. As he was dying in Nomah hospital, the directors asked what colours were required. We consulted an aunty who wasn't very old, but the oldest alive in the clan. (You may know Caterine Chan, dean of MSS, she's my second cousin). This Aunty said, white and black for the children, blue for grand children. I forgot what for great grand children. The children also wore MA, the gunny sack like a vest, I don't remember if we wore a hood. the married girls and SIL had a patch of red.

Because so many of us lived abroad, we "Dropped" the mourning things into the grave.

My Dad's was a very nice blend or fusion of East and West. He had a Roman Catholic service, we wore our Cantonese mourning clothes. There were lots of flowers.

In fact we got the florist to scour the whole of Kuching for his favourite North Borneo Orchid. There was none.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

So your dad had a traditional funeral. The patch of red meant that your SIL still had parents.
Normally your drop mourning things after 7 days. It is practical to drop them after the funeral. No shame. No shame..many would say.
North Borneo Orchids are hard to find.
Yes I know Cath..good friend ..what a small world.