The Wangkang Festival – Cremation of Spirits

by Maggie Thompson

 Photo by Junipersjournal


References to cremation date back hundreds of years

Cremation is an ancient practice, described as early as the 8th century B.C.E. in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In classical times, cremation was a military procedure associated with battlefield honors. Cremation of Roman emperors included the release of an eagle above the cremation pyre to symbolize an emperor's deification and the passing of the emperor-god’s spirit.

It was in India through the cultures of Buddhism and Sikhism that cremation developed into a widely used, enduring social tradition. With their religious belief in reincarnation to other lives, cremation became an appropriate practice for expressing the ephemerality of bodily life and the eternity of spiritual life.

Cremation ritual of Wangkang

Wangkang is a rare and unusual festival in Malacca, Malaysia, designed to rid the world of wandering souls, evil spirits, and other negative elements that threaten to disrupt peace and prosperity. The grand and costly religious procession was introduced to Malacca by Hokkien migrants from Fuijan province, China. It first took place in Malacca in 1854. The Wangkang procession is only organized when mediums at the Yong Chuan Tian Temple get a command from the Ong Yah deities. The message is delivered via a small chair which, when held, “writes” characters, directing the temple committee to arrange for the Wangkang. Over centuries, the festival has taken place at varying intervals, ranging from 5 to 68 years. In recent times, the festivals were held in 2001, 2012 and 2017.

What happens during Wangkang?

After the message has been received, preparations begin with construction of the Royal Barge, which typically takes several months. Made of Malaysian merbau timber and heavy plywood, the barge is about 18 feet long and 6 feet high, with a mast 18 feet tall. The festival is held on the 15th and last day of the Chinese New Year.

Crowds gather at the temple the evening before the parade. Early the next morning ceremonies begin. Dragon and lion dancers, colorfully clad stilt walkers in traditional Chinese costumes, and more than a hundred musicians begin a procession from the temple. Teams of people pull the Royal Barge on a wheeled platform by rope around the city, halting at many key stops, where Taoist high priests lead cleansing rites to order all evil spirits and influences to get on the boat. At dark, accompanied by fireworks, the barge is loaded with bags of rice, wine, water, herbs, pots, pans, stoves and joss paper. Also known as ghost or spirit money, joss papers are sheets of paper that are burned as offerings in traditional Chinese deity or ancestor worship ceremonies during special holidays, such as Wangkang, and in traditional Chinese funerals.

The priests say final prayers as the Royal Barge is finally set aflame. It is believed the Royal Barge continues to take evil spirits on board even as it burns, thus destroying malicious demons. Members of the crowd are given small bags of tea, which they are to throw into the fire. After doing so, they must walk away and not turn back. Looking around at the flaming barge is said to bring misfortune from the spirits who are determined to do evil to those tempted to break the traditional rules.

The Royal Barge is never launched in water. No human remains are cremated. But this cultural pageantry is steeped in spiritual tradition. By way of this dramatic, fiery cremation ritual, the collected spirits and negative elements are symbolically sent off to the unknown.

Cremation in the United States

Though nothing as elaborate as Wangkang exists in the U.S., the practice of cremation is alive and well. Statistics show that in 2016, just over half (50.2%) of Americans chose cremation, while 43.5% opted for traditional burial. Several factors account for this trend:

  • Cost: Cremation is significantly less expensive than traditional casket burial.
  • Geography: Families tend to be more scattered across the country now than they were in previous generations. With cremation, there is no urgency to have a funeral within days of a loved one’s death. This allows more time for planning and travel to accommodate those coming from a distance.
  • Religion: The proportion of Americans who feel that religion is an important part of a funeral has decreased from just under 50% in 2012, to slightly less than 40% in 2016. Though the choice of cremation is more prevalent in some religious denominations than others, it has become a common element in many funerals and memorial services. Non-religious Americans are more likely than others to consider cremation.
  • Tradition: Family, cultural and religious traditions are influential factors. Nations with cremation rates of 80% or higher include Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Switzerland, Sweden, South Korea, Thailand and the Czech Republic. Americans with roots in these nationalities widely choose cremation.

Choosing a cremation urn

Choosing an urn is both an aesthetic and a practical matter.  Memorial urns for ashes are available in many design motifs and materials.  The selection can reflect the unique qualities of a loved one, personalizing whatever ceremony or remembrance the family plans. For example, Asian-inspired urns are created with traditional cultural images that can evoke family heritage, serenity, and honor of ancestors. Our article, “Celebrating a Loved One’s Life with Asian Cremation Urns,” provides a few ideas.

Practical aspects include considering where the urn will be used, displayed, or stored.

  • Keeping ashes in the home invites an urn that will be artistically beautiful within the décor. The Elite Mother of Pearl Cremation Urn is an example of a medium-size display urn. Keepsakes (also known as mini-urns), such as the Etienne Butterfly Cremation Keepsake Urn, are also a popular choice for the home.
  • Some families place cremation urns for adults in columbaria niches, which necessitates taking careful measurements to make sure the urn fits in the space.
  • For those interested in an environmentally-friendly choice, biodegradable urns for land and water are available.
  • Scattering urns are lightweight for ease of travel or hiking, and facilitate respectful scattering of ashes at a chosen site.

There are many other options on what to do with cremation ashes. We invite you to browse our blogs and planning guides for informational articles that include details on pet cremation urns, jewelry for ashes, how to select an urn for a columbarium niche, and many more related topics.

While we might not partake in the Malaysian Wangkang’s symbolic cremation of spirits, we do have the opportunity to consider cremation for a loved one or ourselves. Cremation provides many options that offer a way to honor a loved one’s life through a personalized and meaningful celebration or memorial.

Maggie Shopen Thompson, MFA, is a freelance writer and writing workshop facilitator in Montpelier, Vermont. She has had experience as a caregiver for her mother many years ago, and for her husband and daughter during their recent cancer treatments and recoveries. She is a contributing author/artist in Healing Art & Writing – using creativity to meet illness, curated and edited by Patricia Fontaine, published in August 2016.

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