A friend’s Insta-story reminded me that March 30 this year was not only Good Friday, but also the beginning of the observance period for the Chinese tomb-sweeping festival known as Qingming (清明). The coincidence of two religious festivals, each revolving around different ways of honouring the deceased, struck me deeply. And so, I was drawn to discover how each of these groups would experience the same day in their distinct ways.
The Qingming Festival occurs on the fourth lunar month each year, and on that occassion families will visit the resting places of their deceased family to clean tombstones and make offerings to their ancestors. My friend had told me that many families would choose Good Friday to ‘do their duties’ since it happened to be a public holiday. True enough, the buses leading to the Buddhist Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery were seething with passengers. Many were toting large green and red bags printed with images of Chinese deities and thick golden characters – packages containing the necessary food offerings and paper money to be burnt in the belief that the dead can use them in the afterlife.
Beyond the wire fence separating the compound from the road outside, the monastery was bathed in a serene, tranquil quiet. The only sound came from the gurgling of the artificial waterfall at a nearby rock garden. A lady saw two young Buddhist monks walking by and immediately dropped into a deep bow with her palms clasped together before her chest. The rest of the crowd marched determinedly on towards the columbarium located at the other end of the temple compound, which also housed monastic living quarters and a Buddhist college. On any other day I would have stopped for longer to admire the colourful, dynamic-looking dragons, phoenixes and mythical figures straddling the orange-tiled roofs of the prayer halls. But the urgency of the crowd took hold of me quietly and led me on.
The pungent whiff of incense smoke alerted me to the beginnings of the area demarcated for prayers. Part of a concrete courtyard and the inside of an indoor carpark had been set aside for worship. Long white plastic tables stood end-to-end in rows laden with assorted fruits, opened styrofoam boxes of rice, juice packs and orange steamed cakes known as huat kueh which are commonly used as offerings. People were milling around on chairs and streaming in from the slip road – entire families, adult children leading their parents and younger children holding the hands of their parents. A group of older children clasped their palms together to show their infant cousin how to perform her prayers. Over the din of conversation came the insistent tok-tok-tok-tok of a monk tapping an instrument known as a wooden fish, while an old lady and her two grandsons shook their clasped palms fervently. A golden statue of an eminent priest encased in glass, ringed staff in hand, appeared to watch over the proceedings with yellow and purple blossoms adorning its feet.
“Forgot the oranges!” I heard one middle-aged ‘auntie’ yelp, before her voice melded back into the buzz of chatter from people milling around the tables. Young monks in grey robes and face masks bustled around wiping melted wax and stains off the tabletops, while their older saffron-robed counterparts leaned back in plastic chairs to idly watch the crowd go by. Children were playing nearby on grass patches while older men smoked in groups. It felt as much a family occasion as it was a devotional one. Even now I find myself still somewhat amazed at how devotees can worship at Chinese temples clad in khaki shorts and flip-flops – a move that would be considered irreverent in many other religious settings. Yet the act of ancestor worship seems to be as much a matter of remembering family and cementing blood relations as it is an act of prayer. After all, the monks’ intercessions were to aid in swift and favourable reincarnations of the deceased, in light of the family’s concern for their metaphysical well-being.
I saw the same clasped palms at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd tucked away along Queens Street in the heart of the city district. The crowd was more diverse – Chinese, Tamils, Filipinos, Eurasians and even some Malay-speaking families. The clasped palms came from white-clad church elders as they beheld icons of a crucified Jesus at the front of the sanctuary. The wooden fish was replaced by the dulcet tones – “Le-et us pray, let us knee-el down” – of a Catholic priest at a wooden podium. A solemn, reverent hush blanketed the congregation. Some bowed their heads, others respectfully made the sign of the cross as they entered and left. One of the altar boys, who looked no older than ten years, made furtive glances towards the pews, but was otherwise as silent as the rest.
A drone rose in unison from the worshippers as everyone read aloud the account of Jesus’ crucifiction from the Gospel of Luke. The congregants took on the voice of the hostile Jews – perhaps as a form of self-condemndation. Their voice was a drone rimmed with years of routine tradition. Perhaps it was that same tradition that drove the worshippers to kiss the feet of small icons of Jesus that were distributed throughout the sanctuary by church elders. Yet all the same I found myself drawn by the intensity of their worship, and the quiet allure of the visual representation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
The juxtaposition I witnessed that day struck me. It was hard not to recognise common idioms between both groups – the clasped palms, the priests, the icons that became focal points for prayer. Death and remembrance were the main objects of both commemorations. Yet one group made sacrifices to help their ancestors, while another rejoiced in how one sacrificed himself. One group hoped that by intercession the souls of others would be freed. One group celebrated how the death of one other freed their souls.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many worshippers at both the Buddhist monastery and Catholic church performed these rituals primarily out of a sense of obligation. Far be it from me to judge where the heart of worship lay for each of the people I saw that day. Rather, I walked away with a comforting reminder of the beauty and freedom of worship we can enjoy.