Temple bans burning of bulky offerings

A long-simmering conflict between preserving an age-old tradition during the Qing Ming Festival and showing consideration for the environment has come to a head.

The Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road, the largest Mahayana Buddhist temple in Singapore, will impose a ban on the burning of bulky paper boxes as offerings to the dead during this year's festival, which falls on April 4.

Known as "treasure chests", such boxes contain items such as paper clothes and watches, common paper offerings representing items that had given devotees' relatives pleasure and comfort in life.

Read also: Stop throwing coins into turtle ponds

Buddhists and Taoists customarily burn incense paper items to show filial piety to their ancestors during Qing Ming. Chinese of other faiths may also mark the occasion. The 2010 census recorded more than a million Buddhists in Singapore and over 330,000 Taoists.

A Kong Meng San spokesman said such boxes, which typically measure about 55cm in length and 40cm in height, will be banned as the cardboard used to make the boxes "leads to higher amounts of ash and smoke emitted during burning". While the burning of other paper offerings in the monastery's burners is still allowed, the temple will not rule out the possibility of extending the ban to other items.

Read also: 6,000 celebrate chap goh mei at temple

Ash created from the burning of incense paper by devotees has long been a bone of contention with the temple's neighbours. In 2012, residents of two private estates formed a committee to get the temple to contain the ash from its burners that lands on their properties. The temple redoubled cleaning efforts and installed burners that were more environmentally friendly in 2014. But out of concern for the environment, it decided to introduce the ban this year . It started sending out word on the ban on social and mass media platforms about a year ago. The temple expects daily weekend crowds of 40,000 to 60,000 during the Qing Ming period, which lasts for about a month from mid-March.

Read also: Khlong San neighbourhood that's full of historical treasure

Two other temples in Sengkang, the Puat Jit Buddhist Temple and Nanyang Thong Hong Siang Tng Temple, also said they would discourage visitors from burning bulky paper offerings from this year.

At the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng columbarium in Bishan, pre-recorded messages will be played over loud hailers to urge visitors to avoid burning bulky items.

Peck San Theng's general manager, Mr Liu Khee Sang, 62, said items such as paper cars or bungalows can be 2m or 3m wide and are burnt in 10m-tall urns. As a safety measure, only its staff are allowed to burn the offerings and joss sticks, and they will stop accepting big items from next year.

Read also: Temple steeped in mercantile history

Worshippers like housewife Tay Cheng Toh, 62, welcomed the move to be more environmentally friendly. "We don't want to be a nuisance to other residents," she said.

But others said the move dilutes a valued tradition. "Imposing a ban is like asking people not to give out red packets during Chinese New Year," said copywriter Cindy Tan, 60, who will burn offerings at the San Qing Gong temple in Bedok.

This article was first published on Mar 22, 2017. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.