Celebrating Spring in a Cemetery for Tomb Sweeping Day

by M-Gillies
Tomb Sweeping day

Tomb Sweeping Day takes place annually on the 104th day after the winter solstice.

After yet another long and bleak winter, the sun is shining brightly and spring is in the air. It’s the time of year in which everyone rejoices as they begin the anticipation of summer. While many will begin their spring by cleaning out their houses and setting up their backyards with lawn furniture and gardening tools, the Chinese will be celebrating the new found weather in a very different way by sweeping the tombs of their ancestors.

On April 4, the often quiet and empty cemeteries and graveyards will soon become the hive of activity for many in China. People from far and wide will gather around the tombstones and altars of their ancestors, burning joss paper and incense, leaving flowers, bamboo sticks, food and wine, all while chanting prayers as they display their love and respect for their ancestors.

Known throughout China as  QingMing Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day, or Clear Brightness Festival, it is a day designated for demonstrating filial piety and funeral rites. In 2008, it officially became a public holiday in China and is celebrated by many overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia which observe the festival traditions faithfully.

For years, QingMing Festival has long been celebrated as an honorary festival. With its roots tracing as far back as the Zhou Dynasty when the festival first originated as the Cold Food Festival, it has, over the years evolved into the ancestral worship it is today.

It was during the Tang Dynasty when Emperor Xuanzong noticed an abundance of extravagant ceremonies and festivals taking place in honor of various ancestors. In a means to manage the celebratory festivals, the Emperor passed a decree which stated that such celebrations could only occur at the graves of ancestors one day a year.

Today, Tomb Sweeping Day continues to be greatly celebrated within China, where many residents are encouraged to take time to be outside and appreciate the greenery of spring – a time seen as the rebirth of the natural world. This tradition has grown to become the highpoint of the spring season where many residents hold memorial ceremonies for their ancestors and deceased family members.

Traditionally, families begin their day going on outings to sing, dance and fly kites. But most importantly, Tomb Sweeping Day is recognized as a day to remember, honor and tend the graves of deceased ancestors.

While ensuring the burial sites of ancestors are clean, it is also a time for family members to present offerings. These can range from food, tea, chopsticks and wine, along with the burning of joss paper – also known as spirit money or ghost money. And while joss paper is made of bamboo or rice paper and is traditionally cut into squares, the paper represents and is made to look like various forms of money used as a means of venerating the departed, but also acting as a gift, enabling ancestors

As such, some of the most important traditional customs that occur on Tomb Sweeping Day are as follows:

Tomb Sweeping: Regarded as the most important custom of the festival, cleaning tombs and paying respect to the dead with offerings are two important parts of remembering ancestors. Weeds around the tomb are cleared away as fresh soil is added to show care of the dead. Along with the burning of joss paper, favorite foods and wine are offered to the grave of the deceased as a sacrifice.

Spring Outing: While the day is regarded to commemorate the dead, it is also a time for people to enjoy themselves in the spring weather. With the trees turning green and flowers blossoming, people are encouraged to take the day to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with family.

Flying Kites: A favored activity by many people during Tomb Sweeping Day is the act of flying kites. Though it isn’t simply regulated to the day, rather flying kites is also done in the evening with little lanterns tied to the string, creating the appearance of twinkling stars in the sky. Perhaps the most important part of flying kites during Tomb Sweeping Day is the act of cutting the string while the kite is in the sky to allow it to fly free. This act is said to bring good luck and prevent diseases.

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