A couple of days ago, I went with my father to the temple to pray to/for my deceased grandfather, because it was 清明节, a day where you’re supposed to visit the graves of your ancestors to pay your respects and clean up the grave and things like that.
There’s only one cemetery still open for burials in Singapore (and even then, the graves are exhumed after 15 years) so most people are cremated instead. Which means no graves to sweep. What we usually do when we go to the temple on Qingming is: lay out all the food (the deceased’s favourites) nicely on a table (for them to eat); get some joss sticks and light them, then ‘pray’ to the buddha (??) at the altar; stick half of those joss sticks in a huge urn full of joss sticks; go to the marble block/mini tombstone with our grandfather’s photo and particulars and pray to/at/for (???) that. Sometimes people buy lots of ‘spirit money’ or paper cars/houses to burn to give to the deceased. I also see priest doing some chanting for families, reading from books while knocking on the wooden block.
There’s a whole lot of question marks in there because… my parents aren’t particularly religious (or so I like to think). Visits to the temple have always been once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences and the significance of what it done is never explained. As a kid when we saw the grown ups being all solemn, we don’t dare question too much and just imitate what they do, and do what we’re told.
But after my recent bout of questioning religion, unexamined beliefs and irrationality…this time round I found myself wondering. Does my Dad really believe my grandfather will get to enjoy the food and wine he puts on the table? and who are why ‘praying’ to or what are we ‘praying’ for?
And, more importantly, if I don’t believe in any of this, why did I agree to come along? If I can attack people of other faiths for just blindly going along with what always has been done and look down on such practices, am I not being hypocritical if I close my eyes to the irrational practices of my own family? Why not attack these senseless rituals of burning joss sticks and stacks and stacks of ‘spirit money’?
I have this anecdote I like to tell people when I want to illustrate how ‘strange’ my mum is: She gives me free reign to do many things other mums would deem risky or dangerous such as traveling overseas on my own or learning to ride a motorcycle. Yet she vehemently refuses to let me get my ears pierced. And I’m a girl! There are parents in Singapore who will bring their daughters to pierce their ears at a young age, and parents who will not even allow their sons to ride a motorbike!
It’s really silly, and I obviously don’t buy her reasons why I shouldn’t pierce my ears at all. But still, I’m not going to disobey her and pierce my ears. Because I don’t want pierced ears badly enough to disobey, disrespect and upset my mum.
And I realize that’s a principal I apply to other issues as well: that you give more leeway to your parents. Parents are excused from ridiculous beliefs that you’d normally wouldn’t stand for in other people. You might chide them or try to explain it to them for the billionth time, but you’re not going to pick a fight about it.
Of course, you’d have to draw the line somewhere, like if your parents’ beliefs involved causing harm to others, or if they were being exceedingly unreasonable about something that means a lot to you, but I think most times, respect and love for your parents (and family) should have priority…
So why did I agree to go along and participate in rituals I didn’t believe it? Because I know it’s important to my father, something solemn and saddening for him. So if he asks me if I want to come along, I will, as a simple show of support, because he’s my father.