The sounds of cymbals, drums and suona accompanied Taoist prayer chanting, around 100 members of the Hau family gathered together at their ancestral house in red mourning attire, burning incense and kneeling to pray under the guidance of five Taoist priests. Through joint effort over several months, the entire family organized a commemoration ceremony in conjunction with the third death anniversary of the late old Mrs Hau. The 30ft joss paper house is dedicated to eight deceased relatives.
In traditional Chinese beliefs, a deceased person’s soul would depart to the Underworld, where they would pass through the Ten Courts of Judgement. Even if a person always did good deeds while alive, there might be unintentional mistakes for which they were punished. Descendants will engage Buddhist monks or Taoist priests to facilitate merit dedication rituals to help their ancestors atone for past misdeeds thus achieving enlightenment.
The head of the household is 69-year-old Hau Kim Heng, whose grandfather hailed from Nan’an, China yet eventually settled in Sungai Rambai, Melaka, where the family prospered and spread across different regions in Singapore and Malaysia. Hau Kim Heng used to work at Singapore in the construction industry, then he returned to the ancestral home to take care of his ageing parents until they breathed their last. His mother passed away peacefully at the ripe old age of 93, with five living generations, therefore a ‘Joyful Funeral’ was held where all the family members wear red mourning clothes.
The dedication of merits is very important in the Hokkien community, the late old Mrs Hau also commended the practice, therefore Hau Kim Heng and siblings decided to throw a grand ceremony in honour of their beloved mother. The dedication of merits usually spans three days, smaller occasions merely 24 hours, yet the Hau family decided on a large scale event spanning five days. The full itinerary comprises ‘soul summoning’, four sessions of prayer chanting held in the morning and at night, request for pardon, destroy city walls, morning assembly, repayment of treasury debts, appease roaming spirits, and dismantle the joss paper house. Last but not least is burning the joss paper house and give thanks to the Jade Emperor.
The leading Taoist priest for the Hau family’s dedication of merits, Haw Eng Thian, is a Zhengyi Taoist affiliated with Mount Longhu in Jiangxi, China. After ordination, he goes by the monastic name Hóu LuóZhǎn. Although just in his forties, he spent almost 30 years in the profession. Both Haw’s father and maternal great-grandfather are Taoist priests, he sparked a keen interest since the tender age of 10, following his father to attend various ceremonies on weekends and holidays, lending a helping hand while learning basics such as drumming, rhyme and rhythm in prayer chanting. Haw started out upon leaving school after Form Two, by the age of 20 he is capable of handling small to medium-scale ceremonies, therefore his father handed over the reins to him.
At the beginning of his career, Haw handled mostly small to medium-scale ceremonies, where neighbours would assist the host family in preparing offerings and meals. However, community bonds weakened with the passing of the older generations, such tasks had to be outsourced to service providers and food caterers. As a Taoist priest, Haw tries his best to accommodate various requests by different host families. Sometimes he has to travel to two or three venues in a day, his passion alleviating the fatigue as he does his best to fulfill his duty at each ceremony.
The dedication of merits not only commemorates deceased ancestors, it also strengthens family bonds, as well as continuing the legacy of cultural customs. By properly performing each ritual, paying respects to ancestors while inducing younger generations to uphold moral obligations, complete virtue is achieved.
The Taoist priest paves the way to the Underworld, using a soul-summoning banner to invite the souls of deceased ancestors to their respective memorial tablets. Each soul-summoning banner bears the name of a deceased, attached to the tip of a long thin bamboo stick, carried by the eldest son or eldest grandson. If the deceased had no offspring, a nephew would do.
[Five Elders Lead the Way]
Inviting the Five Celestial Elders and Five Immortal Boys to serve as guides for the deceased.
Five Celestial Elders: Green Emperor of East, Red Emperor of South, Yellow Emperor of Center, White Emperor of West, Black Emperor of North
Five Immortal Boys: QīngLíng Boy of East holds a green lotus, JīnHuī Boy of South holds a red lotus, ZhēnJué Boy of West holds a white lotus, KaīMíng Boy of North holds a blue lotus, MiàoGuāng Boy of Center holds a yellow lotus. They greet the deceased soul and serve as heavenly guides.
The Taoist priest leads the family in prayer chanting: 10 scrolls of 《Precious Litanies of Nine Realms of Darkness》, three scrolls of 《Precious Repentances to the Three Primes》, and 《Scripture on Salvation》. At the conclusion of each scroll, the soul-summoning banner is raised and respects paid to deceased ancestors.
[Request for Pardon]
Apart from prayer chanting and delivering speeches, Taoist priests would act out various scenes, including meeting with the pardon attorney to implore his service in requesting for a pardon letter, feeding the joss paper horse on which the pardon attorney would ride as fast as he could to the Underworld, and pleading with the ruler of the Underworld to grant pardon.
[Destroy City Walls]
Also known as “Rescue from Hell”, based on the Classic of Filial Piety where Mulian rescues his mother from the Underworld. The Taoist priest leads descendants to travel around an octagonal city constructed of joss paper, explaining each checkpoint along the way, then the city walls are destroyed in order to free the deceased ancestors from suffering in the Underworld.
Offering tea and liquor as a token of gratitude to the presiding deities.
[Repayment of Treasury Debts]
Repaying the loans obtained for reincarnation according to the deceased’s Chinese zodiac. During the burning of treasury banknotes, descendants should keep banging metal objects to scare away roaming spirits from committing robbery.
[Appease Roaming Spirits]
The host family prepares food and paper offerings to appease roaming spirits.
[Dismantle Joss Paper House]
On the final night of the ceremony, the joss paper house is dismantled and burned, marking the end of the mourning period.
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang / Michael Lerk
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Evon Pang
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