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Ancestral Tablet and Its Significance

The exact style and size of a tablet varies greatly across the regions and cultures utilizing the practice. In China, ornate tablets known as a “spirit way” may be commissioned with stone statues of animals and human guardians, which are status symbols for prominent families. Unmarked wooden tablets known as “sotoba” in Japan have been traditionally used for the average person and while they may be very simple in appearance, many are handed down for generations and valued as family heirlooms. Though the practice has been around for hundreds of years, changes in societal values and modernization have led some to question the relevance of keeping up the practice. Nonetheless, in uncertain times many turn to tradition and the comfort it brings, and even in the bustle of modern life—reverence to ancestors and their guidance still remains an important part of the East Asian psyche.

These tablets are inscribed many times with the names and details of the deceased and with the hopes of the maker, will house the spiritual presence of that person. Continuing to speak to the spirits and making offerings to them is said to improve the spiritual well-being of both the deceased and the living family. Tablets may be erected for famous ancestors and even carried to other locations; however, for the average person, they are usually placed in an ancestral temple. Tablet may also simply exist as inscriptions in a registry, or in modern times even an internet registry. This practice began with the influence of Confucianism and has grown in popularity over the centuries. Though in more recent times the practice has faded in many urban areas due to space and cost, upkeep of ancestral graves and tablets still plays a major part in the psyche of East Asians and Asian immigrants. A specific example of this is the Japanese holiday of Obon. Many still return to rural areas in Asia to either clean the graves of ancestors or hold a family reunion. Though the practice has been less viable in the west, some Asian immigrant families still have tablets and graves in their home countries. Given the strong presence of this practice, it is likely that both tablets and graves will continue to be cherished and maintained by future generations.

Ancestry is an integral part of being a human, and with that, reverence to those who have passed on is a common theme throughout human history. From the ancient to modern age, many forms of honoring the deceased have evolved, but many of these practices have a commonality of reverence and maintaining a connection with those who have passed on. Ancestral tablet is a tradition coming from Chinese and Japanese culture, where a physical monument in the form of a wooden or stone tablet is erected in the memory of a deceased loved one.

Definition of Ancestral Tablet

The term “ancestral tablet” in Indonesia refers to a plank object made of wood, bamboo, or metal, employing the physical shape as well as the ideational structure of a split-level house. Like the house, the tablet is a divided structure, and the divisions within it represent either identical or analogous divisions in the cosmos. The basic building materials for the tablet are a set of requisite, symbolically charged objects that are transformed into or placed on a frame-like structure. These objects stand for and are, in essence, the same as those used to create the parts of a house. The tablet becomes a house when it is ritually re-loaded with parts of a house during a cosmic and social reintegration of the world. Normally, at this time the relative positions and orientations of the parts of the tablet are transformed into a duplicate of those in an actual house, as the parts are possessed by and moved into proper places by supernaturals. A tablet discovered in the field in 1976 shows a clear example of this point, because it was dug from its original position in a hot field, one of the poles was found lying beneath the ground where it had apparently split during a house-cleansing ritual meant to induce the return of the villagers’ souls from their safer to dangerous world.

Purpose and Importance of Ancestral Tablets

The most important purpose of the ancestral tablet is that it provides a record of the lineage of the family. From this lineage, the different members of the family and the relationship of the different branches can be known. The keeping of the tablet in the home serves as a constant reminder of the continuity of the family line. In the Japanese temples, there are tablets that have been in the keeping of the temple for many generations. Often when the family dies out, the descendants have no record of the family which the temple tablet would provide. The temple may therefore return the tablet to the family of the original donor at their expense, but the usual custom is to give the family a new tablet engraved with the same name. The original tablets given to the temples by the families are sometimes of historic value and when this is known, the temple generally refuses to return them. This relation of the temple tablet to the home tablet is much the same as that of the Zushi to the Tera. The Tera may serve many different families but the Zushi is always kept by one family and it maintains the relationship to the different temple tablets. Another purpose which a tablet serves, particularly in old age, is that it provides a memorial of the deceased. A man and his wife lie buried side by side in a grave which will ultimately pass to the ownership of the oldest son. If there is no distinguishing monument, the descendants many generations later do not know to whom the grave belongs. The erecting of a grave monument is a considerable expense to later descendants whose connection with the original ancestor is not known. The tablet serves the same distinction as the monument and at the same time provides a record that will link the name of the deceased with the living members of the family.

Understanding Ancestral Worship

In general sense, worship means the reverence, honor and homage given to the divinity, even to inanimate objects with a view to placating it, gaining its favor and securing its help in man’s efforts at satisfying his needs and desires. It is a common knowledge that human beings all over the world worship some supernatural forces or beings, besides what has been called as pure religion or philosophy or worship of God in its later philosophical development. Nowadays we find various forms and degrees of development from the simple or purest religion to the grossest forms of worship of idols, animals, trees, stars, ghosts etc. With the development of those various religions and worship, under various tribal and national cultures, different castes and communities have taken to their own way of worship and mode of worship. It is true that by worshiping our ancestors, our people are not trying to force themselves into going back to any period of those practices which may be harmful to human development and welfare and are discarded now, being irrational and unsuitable to the present time. But there are some practices and modes of worship that were rational and good and suitable to the welfare and happiness of the then society. By understanding the mistakes in earlier practices and modes of worship, our society can give suitable information to our ancestors about their mode of worship at that time. This will bring home to the ancestors the failures and successes in their efforts to get happiness for themselves and their descendants, and as such they will get feelings of their success in performing their duty of life.

Cultural Significance of Ancestral Worship

The author describes how he has been a tutor in the PAS (Programme in Asian Studies) and has taught students of many lineages, such as Malays and Filipinos. An endeavor of the author to highlight the significance of ancestral veneration in various cultures is evident through the recording of his conversation with a Filipino student who felt that the topic was quite relevant to his own culture and had heard about the Chinese custom of burning joss papers. Various interviews regarding the topic were carried out with different individuals who were from different walks of life but with the same cultural lineage. One of the interviewees was his landlady, an old English lady who was a retired anthropologist. She was interviewed as an exception to the rule. This exception was to show that a person of any cultural lineage may change religion or become secular, but there will always remain some link to ancestral culture.

The article describes societies with ancestor-worshipping cultures in various parts of the world. The Japanese culture is said to hold a strong familial bond and has certain parallel customs to the Chinese. The Ainu were the indigenous people of Japan, and the Jomon potteries in which they carried out rituals bear resemblances to those of the Chinese. Africa is considered the epitome of ancestor-worshipping culture. The author says he has seen in modern-day Africa how a family venerates a photograph of a recently deceased relative. To exemplify, he narrates the way of life of an African student whom he had taught.

The first section delves into the cultural significance of ancestral worship. The author uses his own experience to appeal to the readers. He shares his experience from India where his driver, who was proud of his social class and caste, often spoke of his high-born ancestors. This shows how Indian society has a hierarchical system. The Indus civilization is quoted to show the beginning of ancestor veneration. It had an advanced system of rituals, practices, and burial sites. An example would be the ritual of immolation, which existed until a very late date in Indian history. The ancient Chinese custom of ancestor veneration is defended by arguing that the Shang and Zhou dynasties were morally superior to ancient Greece. But since the latter developed philosophy and the former did not, the former is seen as barbaric and uncivilized. The writer argues that ancestor veneration is a key aspect of the religion and culture of a society and is unfairly judged by biased topics.

Practices and Rituals Associated with Ancestral Worship

The more important of the two major rituals, the treatment to the dead, is practiced by the majority of Chinese as well as many other cultures and societies. The custom of burial and other treatments to the dead may take various forms, but the belief is that souls are best cared for in a place which resembles the abode of the living. The dead are buried, and the spirit tablet is set up as a means of preserving the contact between the way of life of the living and the spirits of the dead. A Chinese has said that the tablet is, as it were, a letterbox through which the deceased can be given news and where the luck which the living may have can be transmitted to the spirits. At festival times, the dead are believed to return to visit their families, a fact which is the cause of both rejoicing and misfortune, for the living who meet their ancestors’ spirits experience a sense of their true presence, yet those who have no descendant cannot share in the society’s joy. At this time in many places, the custom of entertaining the spirits has clear and constrictive form, in that food which has been arranged in advance is being or symbolically offered to the deceased, and there are even cases of families that eat before a table with an empty place for the spirits and later place the remains of the meal in a separate dish for the spirits’ partaking. A family feast is another means of providing for the well-being of the deceased, for in it they taste without the need for cost the happiness of their prosperity. Ancestors are believed to still take the same pleasure in theatrical performances as they did in their living years, but since there are religious restrictions regarding such plays, usually the purpose is to display hospitality to the spirits by making the performances an offering to them. The same is said to be true of later small-scale acts in which models of horses and the like are maneuvered, since according to one theory, the spirits of ancestors yearn for recreation of the same kind as in the living world. The burning of incense money is a ceremony which has many variations and it is known in various forms in Japan as well by Japanese Buddhists.

There are two major rituals and several minor ones which are widely spread among the Chinese. The treatments to the dead, the feasts given to them, the theatrical performances held for their entertainment, the burning of incense money, and various ceremonies are all shared by many different levels of the society. These rituals are neither static nor of a particular fixed form; they are continually being transformed by society and those that have ceased to be meaningful are gradually eliminated. The inauguration ceremonies which were conducted by a Chinese official, the affiliation of a son to his father’s family by going to the gravesite, asking forgiveness from a family member who has died, these specific acts and many other general customs have in recent times ceased to exist.

Ancestral Tablet Placement and Design

The ancestral tablet is usually placed in the most important area in the house, this being the central living room or the ancestral hall. There are various Feng Shui rules that detail the exact location in which the tablet should be placed, but generally it should be placed in a location higher than eye level when entering the room but should not be placed directly on the floor, for this is a sign of great disrespect. It is believed that the tablet should be placed in such a way that the ancestors can observe the activities of the living in order to help and protect them from any danger or misfortune. It is essential that such a tablet not be placed in a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom or any place that has an extremely negative chi for this would be highly disrespectful to the deceased as it would be a sign that they are being forgotten. Families must consider their own circumstances before designing and making a tablet. Cost is always an important factor and sometimes they are simply not able to afford a quality tablet. In cases where people have died young or have there is an unexpected death, families may choose to wait a number years before putting up a tablet in order to save money in making only one trip to the engraver. Older women and children who have died young usually do not have a full-sized tablet, instead it is replaced with a smaller and less expensive one. A family that intends to intern the deceased’s ashes may choose to simply make a niche in a wall and place the tablet inside this is in effect quite similar to building a small altar.

Choosing the Right Location for Ancestral Tablets

Ancestral tablet rites, however, are not confined solely to August, as the festival of Chung Ming provides a mandatory spring cleaning for the altar and a change of paper effigies. In time, many of these solemn rituals may be realized at the Ancestral Tablet Complex as spirits are honored during a period of daily devotion lasting from one to a whole week. Future construction will also allow for many more participants, as medium-provided evidence for the existence of multiple spirit dwellings at QMA may lead to separate rites for conflicting or recent spirits.

Ancestors return to share the Quartz Mountain camp with their descendants each August during the annual kai bei ceremony. During these days, the descendants will make offerings at the altar, present burned incense to the newly arrived spirits, and make known their wishes to the spirit-mediums who will hopefully convey this news to their eager ancestors. Ancestral tablet and accompanying paper effigies are set up at the altar to provide a dwelling place for the spirits throughout their brief stay. These are later burned to send the ancestors back to their usual abode in the spirit world.

Belief in the spirits of the ancestors is a cornerstone of Chinese religious life. These spirits are not the revered dead of Western culture, but are a force that requires somewhat formal ritual to keep happiness, prosperity, and good fortune flowing from generation to generation. Ancestral rites center on the family altar and in the home. However, for the new immigrant, still aspiring to one day own a home, the construction of a new altar promises a stronger link between the Chinese past and American future. The altar is a place where many future choices will be made, many reflections on the value of tradition to the family will occur.

Factors to Consider in Designing Ancestral Tablets

A suitable posthumous tablet should be dignified and should reflect the rank and status of the deceased. For example, a poor man should have a simple design, while an officer should have a more ornate design. Chinese culture places strong emphasis on the importance of hierarchy and status, and this concept carries through into the design of a posthumous tablet. This concept can be related to Durkheim’s idea that society is more important than the individual. While a posthumous tablet is an individual item, and the design is a matter of personal taste, designing a tablet in a way that would not reflect the social status of the deceased is considered to bring dishonor to the deceased and his or her family. Another important factor in the design of a posthumous tablet is the inclusion of a door spirit. A door spirit is a carved or drawn face that serves to keep the door closed and prevents evil spirits from entering the room. Typically, a door spirit will face the edge of the tablet or face the natural alignment of entrance to the room the tablet is placed in (figure 2). The door spirit usually has a fierce and angry look to it and is located near the bottom of the tablet. The inclusion of a door spirit is important because it is believed that after death, the deceased will receive no more protection from the gods, and evil spirits and demons will try to possess the soul of the deceased. By placing a door spirit on a posthumous tablet, the spirit of the deceased and its virtues will be protected from evil influences. Failure to include a door spirit can lead to bad fortune for the deceased’s descendants.

Symbolism and Meanings behind Ancestral Tablet Designs

The idea of filial piety is an important part of Chinese culture and is evident in the practice of ancestor veneration. The term filial piety is a translation of the Chinese words “Xiao” and “Lao”. The character “Xiao” signifies love that children bear for their parents while “Lao” indicates the respect of the elders to the young. Ancestral veneration through the use of the ancestral tablet is an embodiment of this ideology and is often the only contact the living have with their deceased relatives. This makes the concept of an ancestral tablet being the focal point of contact with the deceased ancestor very important. Without this connection, an ancestor can become lost and spiritually hungry, causing havoc in earthly affairs.

The main function of the ancestral tablet is to represent the departed ancestor, being the spiritual embodiment of their existence. It is believed that upon death, an individual’s soul becomes partially divine, existing in a high state of spiritual existence and capable of influencing events on earth. The tablet is the focusing point of the connection between the living and the deceased ancestors and is a symbol of filial piety. It is believed among the Chinese that when filial piety is practiced and the ancestors are venerated, the ancestors will assist their descendants from the spiritual realm.

Maintaining and Honoring Ancestral Tablets

The general custom is to place the tablet in the inner or ‘eastern’ room of a Chinese house; as it is the cleanest and respected area whereas the poorest position would be putting the tablet in any form of makeshift shrine suggesting the family is in poverty. Ancestral tablet is placed on a tablet stand and has a portrait of the deceased person, written on the portrait would be the deceased’s name and date of birth and death. Every year there is a prayer ceremony during Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festivals in an attempt to guide the ancestors in the right path, prayers may vary between regions and differing dialects of the Chinese language. During Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festivals, the family will burn incense and imitation money as an offering but in modern days this tradition has been banned in public areas due to the fire hazards. Ancestral tablets may have a varying lifespan according to quality and tradition so there are special shops that sell the services to make a replacement tablet and to dispose of the old tablet in a respectable manner.

Ancestral tablets have a significant role in the daily lives of the Chinese. It is a symbol of respect for their ancestors, a mode to understand gratitude, and build humbleness. The tradition follows Confucius’ beliefs that children are connected to their parents while the parents are alive and connected to past ancestors as mental offerings. Confucius also wrote ‘filial piety’, where it is an important aspect in Chinese culture to care for their parents continually until their death in any case. According to Wong Shee Ping, Chinese ancestors are ‘spirits’ not in actual physical form and they have no form of employment to earn money in the underworld, therefore it is essential for Chinese people to honor their ancestors by maintaining their spiritual well-being. Failure to maintain ancestors can lead to neglect and disrespect and it may cause repercussions on the family (Wong Shee Ping, 1998).

Proper Care and Cleaning of Ancestral Tablets

It is important that the descendant has a pure and sincere heart when he makes offerings to his ancestors. The descendant should try to provide an atmosphere filled with peace and tranquility, using this time to remember his heritage and to ponder on the continuity of his lineage. During the time of the offering, incense should be lit, and the fragrance should be considered an essential element in purifying the surrounding atmosphere. The act of bowing is another way to show respect. The deep kowtow is the highest form of reverence. It is said in the Liji, “One should deeply kowtow, with the hands touching the ground; this is the greatest sign of respect.” A less formal or abbreviated kowtow called the “half kowtow” is acceptable today. While contemplating one’s ancestor, the descendant should bow in the direction of the tablet; it is unnecessary to kowtow in the direction of each individual ancestor. After the offering, the descendant should chat informally with his ancestors, keeping in mind the deep respect he should show to those who came before him. It is important to avoid talk of unlucky or dirty matters, as the goal is to provide an atmosphere in which the ancestors will feel comfortable. The offering rite lasts from twenty to forty minutes. At the end, the descendant should make a bow and thank the ancestors for bestowing their blessings upon him.

Offerings and Prayers to Honor Ancestors

Various ritual prayers and recitations from scriptures are performed at the kamidana, with the family joining in the saying. Taoist, Shinto, and Buddhist devoted households will perform the ceremonies of their respective schools of thought. Engaging in conversation or saying anything improper or dirty should be avoided, as it should be remembered that to the ancestors, hearing and seeing is perpetual and any mistaken acts could cause real harm to the wrongdoer’s family. At the completion of the ritual, it is important to remember to thank the attending gods and ancestral spirits for having listened to the prayers before closing with a formal bow.

Sample 1: We believe that by merely having an ancestral tablet enshrined in a kamidana in a prominent part of the home where the family can see it, the ancestors’ spirits are drawn near to partake of the reverence and offerings offered to them. There is no set rule as to how often or when offerings and prayers should be made to the ancestors. This is much a matter of personal preference, religious conviction, and practice. Personalities and individuals also differ as to the sanctity of belief and feeling in their filial piety to the ancestors, and so they may follow various ways and means of offering prayers and making offerings to the ancestral spirits. It is said that the offering of rice, water, and sweetened tea together with some form of vegetarian dishes called shojin ryori (vegetarian food) is purely a Buddhist adaptation.

Columbarium Singapore: Tranquility and Remembrance in a Dense Metropolis

Singapore, a densely populated island nation, faces a unique challenge in managing burial space. Columbaria, facilities housing cremated remains, have become a practical and respectful solution. These final resting places offer solace and remembrance for families within a space-constrained environment.

Columbaria in Singapore are not simply repositories for ashes. They are designed with tranquility and dignity in mind. Many columbaria are architecturally significant, incorporating elements that create a serene atmosphere. Verdant gardens, water features, and open spaces provide a sense of peace for those visiting their loved ones.

Furthermore, columbaria cater to the multicultural and religious diversity of Singapore. They offer niches that cater to different rituals and customs, ensuring that families can memorialize their loved ones according to their traditions. This inclusivity fosters a sense of respect and understanding within the community.

Columbaria also play a role in preserving Singapore’s heritage. Ancestral halls within columbaria serve as a place for families to gather and honor their lineage. This practice strengthens family bonds and keeps traditions alive across generations.

However, with limited space, columbarium niches are often leased for a specific period. This can create anxieties for families worried about the long-term placement of their loved ones’ remains. Additionally, the focus on practicality can sometimes overshadow the emotional and spiritual aspects of grieving.

Despite these challenges, columbarium Singapore offer a practical and dignified solution for managing burial space in a densely populated city. They provide a place for families to remember and honor their loved ones in a tranquil and respectful environment. As Singapore continues to evolve, columbaria will likely play an increasingly important role in meeting the needs of a growing and diverse population.

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