Tomb Sweeping – A Time of Remembrance
Published in COT April 2022
Written by Pai Su-yu
It was the weekend of the annual Tomb Sweeping or Qingming holiday. Our car’s pre-dawn journey was almost a solo highway endeavor. Few cars were seen on our route up the mountain. Maybe other drivers were paying heed to the Central Weather Bureau’s traveler warnings of dense mountain highway fog. Water droplets collected on the front windshield. The rhythmic sound of the windshield wipers made me drowsy and soon I was asleep.
Thud. I woke up with a start as Mr. Wang’s car bumped its way along a narrow mountain road. One turn after another continued into what seemed like endless wilderness before we finally arrived at our destination. How Mr. Wang remembered his way was beyond my comprehension.
As we helped unpack the car, Mr. Wang’s wife explained to me their family’s particular Tomb Sweeping rituals.
Getting up early and being at the ancestral gravesite by dawn was one of them. This was because the transition period from night to day is considered the best time for communication between earth and the spirit world.
The links between the descendants and their ancestors are strong and thought to be consequential. Therefore, care of the grave and the presentation of offerings are connected to the well-being of the descendants. Mr. Wang, his son, and brothers quickly began pulling up and removing the tall grass and weeds that had grown up around their departed family members’ grave.
The space directly before the tomb was carefully swept. Then the family gathered to begin their ritual of respect. A candle was directly placed in front of the grave on either side of it. This was followed by the central placement of an incense container or censer filled with a large number of unlit incense sticks between the two candles. Next, fresh flowers (usually chrysanthemums of lilies) were placed at each end of this row of ritual items.
Their family’s ceremony would begin with the lighting of the candles and incense. Traditional ceremonial offerings of a beverage, food, money and incense were present. There were plates filled with oranges, favorite foods and snacks once enjoyed by their loved one(s) including stacks of paper money or joss paper – carefully arranged on this altar of respect for the spirits of their loved ones. I later learned that a wide variety of food items like vegetables, fish, chicken, sweets and wine or tea could also be offered. When I asked why there were so many different types of food choices, Mrs. Wang told me that this was a sincere sign of respect to want to share with their ancestors, especially those ancestors that had special snacks that they had once liked.
Since Mr. Wang is now the head of the family, he stood before the tomb and offered prayers of gratitude to Tu Di Gong, the deity that protects the earth’s soil and his family’s gravesite from harm. He continued to say prayers for departed family members, as we all stood quietly in respectful silence. Holding sticks of lit incense between both his hands, Mr. Wang looked at where his ancestors were resting and bowed to them. Sheets of paper money were removed from their bundles and burned. This money, I was told, will then be transformed as the smoke rises, taking it to their ancestors.
When all the offerings and prayers were completed by family members, everyone sat down to enjoy a meal together. Oh, I was also told not to sit in front of the tomb while eating, because it was bad manners. Mrs. Wang overheard this and quickly offered me a place next to her on the picnic blanket.
I learned a lot more about my own family from this experience, especially how traditions and rituals hold families together even during periods of strife – for they are the glue that connects us to each other.
Pai Su-yu…is a well-known writer and educator, whose interest in different cultures leads to some amazing life adventures.
Read more about the traditions of Tomb Sweeping Day