Taoist Funeral – What is Hsien Deng?

11 Jan 2019

Hsien Deng (or 善堂), is a Taoist funeral ritual commonly carried out on the last night of the funeral wake. There are many unique props involved in this traditional ritual which might confuse people in its purpose and significance to a Taoist funeral.

Symbolism

A Hsien Deng is conducted for family members of the deceased to guide their loved ones to the afterlife. In Taoist lore, the spirit of the deceased is said to wander and linger in the mortal world. If the spirit is unable to pass into the underworld, it can become lost and might turn vengeful. This ritual allows the family to ensure that the their loved one is taken care of and passes peacefully.

Ritual

The ritual is facilitated by a Taoist Priest who will conduct the chanting and prayers. The priest, backed up by a team of traditional musicians, will sing, speak and chant during the session.

An important prop used during the ritual is a paper lantern which houses or guides the spirit of the deceased. The priest will hold onto the lantern and guide the family to bring their loved one across a bridge called  the 奈河桥 (nàihé qiáo).

In Taoist lore, this bridge spans across a river separating the mortal realm from the underworld. Family members bring offerings such as clothing and money across this bridge. The family then returns to the mortal realm by crossing back the same bridge. After the ritual has ended, paper offerings such as the paper house and gold/silver incense paper is burnt to be sent to the spirit to be used in the underworld.

Permanence of Death

An alternate way of reading 奈河桥(nài hé qiáo) is 奈何桥(reads the same). Some believe that instead of a river, it is a bridge of no return with its meaning derived from the chinese proverb 无可奈何(wú kě nài hé). The proverb 无可奈何 describes a situation of regret and helplessness for an individual, where there is no way out. This closely ties in with the Taoist believe of a spirit’s “left over business” and its feelings of helplessness as it can never return to tie up any loose ends he or she has left behind.