Special ceremonies held for babies who died before their first birthday

FAREWELL: At a special ceremony for miscarried pregnancies at a temple here, a full bottle of milk is placed in front of each urn, and biscuits, sweets and small toys scattered around them on the table.

"I just stood (there), shivering. The shower was still running behind me as I froze, shampoo dripping down my hair and body," Madam Pearlynn Yip, 31, recalled with a shudder.

"I knew then that my baby boy had died."

Ten months have passed since the death of Madam Yip's premature twins, a girl and a boy.

They were born two minutes apart last October, after four years of trying following her first miscarriage.

The housewife told The New Paper last week: "The doctors told me not to be too optimistic because my babies were very weak." The twins had been in the neo-natal intensive care unit for a week when her daughter stopped breathing.

"When my girl died, I was still holding on to hope that her elder brother would survive."

After a night's vigil, she went home for a fresh change of clothes.

Then came the call from the hospital.

Madam Yip said: "Honestly, I don't remember how I made it out of the bathroom. My husband was at work and only the confinement nanny was at home with me."

She later found out she had let out "one blood-curdling scream".

The confinement nanny rushed to the bathroom to find Madam Yip hugging herself tightly and sobbing loudly.

The babies were cremated a day later in a simple ceremony attended by close family members.

"We didn't inform anyone. All the things we had prepared, like baby clothes, milk bottles and toys were cremated together in one coffin."

She kept only one baby romper for each child in a brown chest, along with photos of the ultrasound scans of her pregnancy, in a corner of their four-room flat.

RITUAL

To help her cope with the loss, Madam Yip has held two prayer sessions for them.

The first was during the Qing Ming Festival in April, where she travelled to a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a ceremony. She paid RM$500 (S$200) each for memorial tablets engraved with her children's names.

Another 20 parents took part in the three-hour ritual, performed by three priests, to liberate the spirits of aborted or miscarried foetuses or babies who died before their first year.

It is believed the ritual will allow the infant spirits to be laid to rest and give them a chance to be reincarnated. The ceremony is not exclusive to the Qing Ming Festival.

Zue Zuen Ge, a four-storey temple at Kaki Bukit Crescent, will hold a similar ritual on Saturday. (See report on below.) Madam Yip went through a second round of prayers earlier this month, a week into the Hungry Ghost Month.

She said: "I was worried it would have been too early for my babies to be reincarnated and they could be left wandering around with no one to pray for them."

She is aware she could face criticism for her superstitious beliefs.

"Even my own husband, our children's father, thinks the same. But I want to do all that I can to ensure I have no regrets."

Her husband, who wanted to be known as Jake, said: "I am a Christian and so I don't quite agree with what my wife is doing. "But I can see the sessions have done her good and I can understand the need for my wife to get some closure," the 35-year-old army officer said.

Madam Yip, who quit her secretary job in her third month of pregnancy, hopes she can now put the pain behind her and start on a new job.

She said: "I went through so much depression after my babies died. I thought about how I didn't hold a prayer session after my miscarriage at six weeks.

"I felt so guilty and though a doctor treated me for depression, it didn't help."

Madam Yip added: "I can still remember how tiny my babies were when they were placed in my hands. I could hold one twin in each palm.

"I did not even get to see them open their eyes to look at me, their mother."

She said: "I am hoping these rituals will help my babies. It's also a way for me to seek release from my pain."

Rituals for infant spirits on the rise here

A popular practice in Taiwan, the ritual of praying for infant spirits started gaining ground in Singapore in recent years. Zue Zuen Ge was the first temple in Singapore to offer the ceremony in 2005.

Now, there are rituals on a smaller scale held at home shrines and temples.

Zue Zuen Ge managing director Hillary Phang, 47, estimates that it has performed rituals for more than 10,000 infant spirits since. He said: "Most of the 'ying ling' (infant spirits) are those of aborted foetuses or miscarriages."

AUSPICIOUS

The day-long mass ritual is usually held on an auspicious date and time selected by Yuan Zhong Xiu, a geomancy centre that is also managed by Mr Phang.

Some parents will also pay for an urn to be placed after the ceremony in one of the rooms in Zue Zuen Ge for three years. About 5,000 urns are placed there.

After three years, Zue Zuen Ge will perform another ceremony where the urns are "cremated" and given a sea burial.

Parents are discouraged from paying respects after the ceremony to "prevent the infant spirit from holding on and refusing to leave", Mr Phang said.

Psychologist Richard Lim said that superstitions aside, the rituals serve as closure for the parents.

"They will find peace with themselves and feel they can finally move on."

10 THINGS ABOUT THE HUNGRY GHOST MONTH

1) The Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as the Mid-Year Festival (Zhong Yuan Jie), is when the Gates of Hades open for the spirits to roam the living world.

2) The Chinese pay their respects to deceased relatives on the 15th day of the Chinese seventh month.

3) "Ho heah di" ( good brothers in Hokkien) is an euphemism for the visiting spirits.

4) Organising committees are formed by grassroots bodies, merchant groups or residents. Members pay an annual fee, which is used to buy items like rice, noodles and other necessities used as offerings to the spirits.

5) Committees hold auction dinners to sell auspicious items, which include the "huat chye lor" (prosperity urn) and "or kim" (black gold), a decorated piece of charcoal. The money raised is used to pay for the dinners and getai shows.

6) Front-row seats to the night's entertainment, be it a getai show or traditional opera performance, are left unoccupied and reserved for the spirits.

7) Expect more than 10 singers and about 40 songs at each getai, which cost between $3,500 and $10,000 for a three-hour show.

8) Over 60 per cent of the songs sung at getai are in Hokkien. But committee members come from all dialect groups and races.

9) About 80 per cent of the 150 or so getai singers are from Singapore, with the rest from China, Malaysia and Taiwan.

10) Singers are not guaranteed a time slot on stage - it's first-come-first-to-perform. Some sing at multiple venues. That's when the singers "pao tai" (literally translated to "run stage") and dash from stage to stage across the island.


This article was first published on August 19, 2014.
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