How are Buddhist altar tables arranged during funerals?

During a typical Buddhist funeral in Singapore, there are multiple altar tables set up for different ritualistic purposes.

Main table (in front of the deceased)

The main table (in front of the deceased) is typically arranged with flowers, candles, and photographs of the deceased. If you are doing this yourself, you will want to place the table in a central location so that it is visible to all attendees. It is also important to make sure that there is plenty of space around the table for people to gather — especially so for monks to chant their blessings.

Typically, an urn for joss sticks would be placed in front of every other element of the table. It would be centralised and cornered by two (or more) other candles, followed by a couple of red plates with fruits laid horizontally to each other. Usually, the foods used are pears, oranges and apples. Each signifies a symbolic meaning — from prosperity, fortune and harmony respectively. Sometimes, pears are replaced by green apples in funerals.

Beyond that, several food items are placed after the red plates of fruits. Consisting of traditional Chinese dishes — stir-fried vegetables, rice, roasted meat and soups are served with chopsticks stuck atop of them. Pink lotus buns and brown buns are common pastries during such processions as well.

Afterwards, flowers are lined across the side of the altar tables (or whichever convenient unfilled space). Monks would then place their scriptures on the altar, along with several important chanting instruments — such as the wooden tortoiseshell, gong and bell. Holy water is also normally placed alongside these items.

Taoist Prayer tables

Separate altars might be set up depending on the customs involved. It is not unusual to see elaborate altars with Taoist gods (The Three Pure Ones) at the other side of the funerary procession. Most of the items placed there are similar to what is seen on the main table, however, a series of Taoist props may be placed there for ritualistic purposes.

Such props may include a paper umbrella, a paper lantern attached to a wooden pole and Taoist-specific scriptures.

Often times this Taoist construct can see up to six Daoist masters chanting in unison! They may also play instruments during the prayer session itself, however, a traditional Chinese band is typically there to accommodate for that.

This is usually present with Taoist funerals specifically, and they might have different customs for differing dialect groups. However, it is not uncommon to see this during Buddhist funerals as well — especially when the deceased is a believer in both.

Closing thoughts

There is no real way to organise an altar table “correctly”. It can only be labelled as “traditional” at the very most — hence if a family has a specific request, it is often customary for funeral directors to advise and make arrangements accordingly.

Despite practices that lasted beyond a century, many activities were watered down from the truly “traditional” practices of Medieval China. Hence, the most important thing directors want to preserve is the closure and gratitude (towards the deceased) families experience throughout the ages.

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