sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

All Souls Day & cave temples - Star

Even the dead have needs

Stories by LIZ PRICE
Saturday April 5, 2008

THE STAR Lifestyle

Qing Ming or Cheng Beng, commonly known as All Souls’ Day is this Saturday. During this time, cemeteries will be busy as people clean up their family’s grave sites and pay respect to their ancestors.

The festival was originally held as a celebration of the mid-spring equinox, on the 104th day after the winter solstice.

If it is a leap year, as is the case this year, Qing Ming falls on April 4. On this day, the sky is expected to be clear and bright, hence the name Qing Ming, which translates as “clear and bright”.

A place to call home: This house is meant to be burned down to benefit a spirit.

The festival has a variety of names. These include Clear Brightness Festival, Festival for Tending Graves, Grave Sweeping Day, Chinese Memorial Day, Tomb Sweeping Day, Spring Remembrance and All Souls’ Day.

In Malaysia, Qing Ming is known as All Souls’ Day and is the designated time of the year to pay homage to dearly departed ancestors. Families also hope that the rituals of the festival will instil a sense of filial piety in the younger generation. Weekends are particularly busy as people converge to clean up the graves and spruce up the surroundings.

Nowadays, the festival has become quite commercial. In the past, only joss sticks and paper money were burnt as offerings. Today, families buy paper replicas of modern items to offer the dead. These include electronic items such as mobile phones, televisions, karaoke sets, refrigerators and computers.

I went to a shop in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur and was amazed at the variety on offer: shoes, designer clothes, jewellery, even a shaving kit. There were also packs of cigarettes, cans of beer, liquor and hampers containing herbs and food supplements.

The luxury cars caught my eye. But the most elaborate of all was a paper house with a nice garden, a driveway leading to ornate gates, two luxury cars in the porch, and even a maid, guard and dog kennel. This sells for around RM70.

These paper items will be placed in a paper chest which is sealed, and the deceased’s name and date of death will be written on a piece of yellow paper glued on the chest (like an address on a parcel).

A kiln for burning paper offerings. — LIZ PRICE

Apart from offering the paper items to be burnt, the families will also give food, tea, wine and maybe cigarettes. In China, people carry willow branches as they believe these will ward off the evil spirits that wander about on Qing Ming.

People also visit columbariums to remember their ancestors. A columbarium is a room or building with niches to store funeral urns. The word originates from an 18th century Latin word for pigeon house, “columbe” meaning dove.

Many Buddhist temples have a columbarium, especially the cave temples around Ipoh. These are a hive of activity duting Qing Ming as people burn their offerings in the massive fires in specially-built brick kilns. Food and flowers are put out for the ancestors. Some temples allow only vegetarian food to be taken in.

The temples are usually full of smoke from the incense sticks and offerings that are burnt, and a blaze of colour from vases of flowers. The counters lined with food look like a buffet in an outdoor restaurant. Whole meals are laid out, with snacks such as fried chicken and barbequed meat.

At the altars are pink-coloured buns, as well as apples, oranges and other fruits. Sparrows and other small birds take advantage of this free feast.

Chinese temples throughout the country will be busy as people give prayers and remember their ancestors. Many temples don’t have places for burning, so the people just make offerings of fruit, flowers, incense and the like.

In the olden days, people celebrated Qing Ming Festival with performances such as dancing, singing and operas. Over the years, the celebration has become more of a time to remember departed relatives.

Ipoh’s cave temples
In Ipoh, some cave temples have a columbarium. Among the more famous ones are in Sam Poh Tong and Perak Tong.

Sam Poh Tong is located just south of Ipoh in Gunung Rapat. To one side of the cave temple is an area set aside for making offerings to the ancestors. Tables are set out for offerings of food, drinks and flowers. Further on is a row of kilns to burn paper offerings.

At the back of the temple are the old square kilns once used for cremations.

Today most of the cremations take place in a purpose-built building on the other side of the compound. The columbarium consists of floor-to-ceiling compartments, each holding a small plaque and photo to remember the deceased.

Perak Tong is located a few kilometres north of Ipoh on Jalan Kuala Kangsar. The temple was established in 1926 and is famous for its cave murals. The columbarium is located outside the cave temple.

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