An American Abroad

Qingming Festival

Today was the last day of Qingming, otherwise known as Tomb-Sweeping Festival in China. On this day, family members and friends go the graves of their deceased friends and relatives to pay their respects. Rachel, one of my Chinese friends, invited me to go to the graveyard with her and her family.

It was a beautiful spring Monday. We drove about 15 minutes out of Yuxi into the foothills that surround the town. We parked and walked up a hillside into the cemetery. Graveyards here are generally built on hills and presided over by a mountain god.

Our first stop was Rachel’s mother’s grave. Rachel’s father filled a bucket with water and wiped down every surface of his late wife’s headstone and the recessed box where her ashes lay. He arranged flowers in large vases. He carefully laid out a variety of foods — fruit, fish, meat, tea, rice, and cakes. This is food for his wife’s ghost to eat. He lit some sticks of incense, bowed, and put them in a bowl. Rachel then approached the grave, knelt, bowed three times, and also put incense in the bowl. Then, because the food is to be shared with the ghost’s family, Rachel and her father gathered up about half the food they had put down on the grave to take home to eat.

I asked if I could take a photo, but Rachel said it would not be appropriate. I did, however, sneak a picture of one of the graves next to her mother’s.
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We then went to the grave of Rachel’s husband, who died in his early thirties just a couple months ago. About a half dozen of his friends were already there, laughing and talking. Rachel told me that although funerals can be serious, people are jolly at Qingming as they remember the good times they had with the deceased. Since I knew Rachel’s husband, I got some incense to put on his grave. I started to kneel and bow, but Rachel stopped me, explaining that you only bow to the graves of older relatives, not to peers.

As we descended the hillside, we stopped at a large smoking pot-shaped fire pit and put “money” in the pot to burn. The smoke sends the money to the people’s ancestors for use in the afterlife. A little lower down the hillside, people were lighting firecrackers to scare away any evil spirits that might be in attendance. (At least that’s the official story; I think Chinese people just like any occasion to light firecrackers.)

Afterward, we went to a restaurant for lunch. Rachel’s father brought out some homemade baiju (a powerful hooch that is between 40% and 60% alcohol by volume), and before I knew it we were drinking and toasting at 11:30 in the morning. From the look of me in this picture, I think it’s possible that I had more baiju than I should have.
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Having eaten and drunk way more than usual for me at lunchtime, I went home and took a nap.

Strange to say it, I enjoyed Tomb-Sweeping. (True, we didn’t actually sweep any tombs, but tomb-wiping doesn’t sound as good, does it?) I don’t think Americans have anything quite like it. Sharing a family meal with a ghost seems like a psychologically healthy way to remember the dead. The laughter at the graveside, the firecrackers, and the big meal afterward prevent the event from becoming too somber. And the holiday says much about the power vertical connections among generations of Chinese family members.

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