SINGAPORE: In the lead-up to Qingming Festival on Apr 4, some Taoist and Buddhist institutions have issued new guidelines on the burning of offerings for safety and environmental reasons.
Also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, Qingming Festival is a time for Buddhist and Taoist devotees to pay respects to their ancestors - usually done by offering food and incense and the burning of paper clothes in bags or boxes.
One such institution to have issued new guidelines is the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, which is banning the burning of large paper box offerings from this year onwards.
"We started publicising the message a year ago and I’m sure our devotees and public are all very understanding about this," said Venerable Chuan Sheng from the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery. "We’re very encouraged by their response that we’re all working towards more eco-friendly policies, which will benefit all of us."
Three years ago, the monastery also installed an eco-burner with an environmentally friendly ash filtration system. This was aimed at reducing the amount of ash produced during peak periods, such as Qingming Festival and the seventh lunar month, when the number of visitors can range from 40,000 to 60,000 daily.
The eco-burner, which was installed in 2014, has an ash filtration system which helps to filter out floating ash. (Photo: Wendy Wong)
Only staff from the monastery are allowed to conduct the burning of offerings.
Since its introduction, the eco-burner has "significantly mitigated" the impact of burning, especially during peak periods, according to a monastery spokesperson. "(This) has also greatly reduced the amount of feedback we received from those staying in the vicinity."
"There has also been a lot of understanding and support in the monastery’s move to stop the burning of joss paper boxes and we hope to continue to do our part to protect the environment by introducing more environmentally friendly initiatives," the spokesperson added.
Staff remove the plastic coverings from the offerings before putting them into the burner. The plastic coverings are then recycled by the monastery. (Photo: Wendy Wong)
Another institution that is seeking to adopt greener guidelines is the Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng columbarium.
Only its staff members are allowed to burn joss paper offerings and incense sticks. Visitors have to remove the plastic covers and materials from their offerings before handing them over for burning - a policy which has been in place for around 10 years.
From next year onwards, the columbarium also plans to ban the burning of paper box offerings during peak periods.
"We don’t encourage people to burn such big items like big (paper) boxes because it always creates a lot of air pollution and flame (and) dark smoke," said the president of Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng, Sum Onn Wah.
Mr Sum said that such smoke was caused by the burning of the contents inside the boxes, such as real clothes and shoes belonging to the deceased relatives of visitors.
Starting from 2018, the Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng columbarium will ban the burning of paper box offerings (L), in favour of paper clothes in bags instead (R). (Photo: Wendy Wong)
He added that the large fires and smoke created by the burning have even prompted residents from the nearby Braddell Heights estate to call the fire services on at least one occasion, concerned that there may have been a fire.
ECO-FRIENDLY MEASURES ALSO BETTER FOR HEALTH: PROFESSOR
One expert says that such measures are not just better for the environment, but also for one's health.
Duke-NUS Medical School clinical sciences professor Koh Woon Puay co-led a study in 2014 which found that people who used incense at home for at least 20 years had an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease in the follow-up period, compared to people who did not use incense.
"Going by the principle that the smoke from the burning of incense and other offerings may contain harmful chemicals, I think any measures to reduce the public’s exposure to it, especially indoors, would be helpful at the population level," said Prof Koh.
"Our research has shown that the risk is specifically increased in people with very long-term exposure to the indoor use of incense, most of the time in their own home, and for 20 years or more," she said.
"So it is really the consistent, daily long-term exposure that creates more harm than the once-in-a-while, episodic exposure to burning, say when you visit the temple or places where burning occurs," she added.
Prof Koh also advised the reduction of exposure to burning for vulnerable populations, such as the young and elderly suffering from chronic lung disease.
With these measures in place, it's hoped that more devotees will consider other offerings in place of paper box offerings.
"From a Buddhist perspective, it is more of the mindset that matters in terms of such offerings," said Venerable Chuan Sheng.
"It does not matter very much how big or the quantity of the offering, but as long as the mindset is pure, sincere and full of gratitude and filial piety towards ancestors, that is much more important. So we encourage very much the offering of simple items like flowers, fruits, to encourage the practice of the virtue of generosity."