Ching Ming (also spelled Qing Ming), one of two annual “grave-sweeping” observances in the Chinese calendar, coincides with Easter this year, which seems vaguely appropriate to me. They are both commemorations of death, transition, and afterlife. Of course, Easter focuses on a single individual while Ching Ming is when Chinese families honor their ancestors. I might be stretching things, but the emphasis in both cases seems to be on continuity after death.
Due to social distancing and family work schedules, we went last Saturday to visit the Lau clan’s ancestors. We were a smaller group than the last time I joined them—only sixteen of us hiking up the hill from Number 10, the family home, to Cheung Chau Cemetery. Along the way, the six cousins, who grew up in the same house shared stories and memories. One cousin pushed a cart carrying a roast pig in a red plastic tote bag. Others carried flowers and bags of oranges, candles, incense, and paper offerings for the deceased. The pig and oranges would be offered and then taken home to be consumed after the ancestors “ate.” The flowers would be left, and the rest of the offerings would be burned.
Quite a few families had the same idea, so the columbarium area was crowded, and the cemetery was smoky. Ashes from paper offerings drifted on the breeze and sifted into our hair. We started at the grave of Great Grandmother, where we always begin the tour. Fred’s uncle and brother brought along a paint trowel and a flathead screwdriver to clean away dirt and weeds. The flowers were arranged and oranges piled into little pyramids. We all stepped up in birth order (wives with husbands) to kowtow three times and plant sticks of incense in the holder full of sand. Then we were off to the next family grave to repeat our actions.
Family members talk to the deceased at gravesides—saying hello and goodbye. Sometimes making jokes. This year a cousin said all this will be online in the future and playfully said we should ask for text confirmation for the hell money we burn, to make sure it was received on the other side. They also talk to non-family dead, apologizing and asking permission because gravestones are so packed together that all of this ritual involves stepping over and on the neighboring stones.
There is a bare patch in the cemetery that always fascinates me, and on Saturday we saw two men digging there. In the past, many Chinese were buried twice, with bones ritually disinterred after decomposition and reburied in baskets or urns. Because there is no burial space left in the cemetery, Cheung Chau dead are now cremated and their ashes placed in niches in columbarium walls. The diggers were probably dealing with the last wave of two-part burials, and I imagine the empty space will eventually be “developed” into more columbarium space.
Ritual still has a place even when there is no space. I watched people carefully cleaning their loved ones’ images on the niches and putting flowers into the tiny vases attached to the walls. Offerings of food, candles, and incense had been set out in front of the wall, and paper offerings were being burned in a nearby bin.
The outsider and chronicler in the family, I am always asking hard questions. As we trundled the pig and oranges back to Number 10, I asked one of the younger family members if he thought that his generation would do perform these rituals when the parents were gone. His answer was probably not. He said that most of them don’t have any idea what to do. They just go along to be with family and do what they are told. He echoed the cousin who said this will probably all be online in the future, a comment I had thought was a joke. He didn’t think it would be a problem to gather online. How sad I thought.
What is lost when traditions die out? I later asked my husband what mattered most about Ching Ming, and he said it was the bonding of family, the storytelling, the being and eating together. What I also saw was that cemetery traditions like Ching Ming reinforce ties to place, to cultural identity, and to the past. They acknowledge that ancestors live on through their descendants. As each generation becomes more modern and Westernized, I wonder if they will even know what they have lost.