Spring Cleaning

A few days ago was Qing Ming Festival, when Chinese families visit their ancestor’s grave and give them a good scrub.

A Taiwanese cemetery.

A few years ago, this was actually necessary. Families would load up their cars with brooms, dustpans, pruning shears, etc. to tackle the natural growth that would eventually creep up over the tombs, which are much larger than standard American grave plots.

Where Grandma and Grandpa Ho are buried.

When the weeds had been pulled out, the bushes and grasses trimmed back, and fresh flowers, fruit, wine, and whatever other edible offerings set before, burning incense would be placed in a small pot before the tomb. Incense signifies a spiritual vigil. The living light incense for the dead, or for the Gods, to show that we still respect them. Incense also marks a sort of connection between the two worlds; once the incense is lit, we are in conversation with the dead and it is while the incense burns that we believe our ancestors are consuming our offerings. After the ancestors have eaten and drunk their fill, we burn paper money for them to use in the afterlife. At the markets, one must be sure to buy the right currency: Ghost or God money cannot be burned for Ancestors and vice versa.

Nowadays, at least in Taipei, grave cleaning is unnecessary. We were lucky to find a quiet cemetery with spacious plots and tiled floors. Once a month, we pay a maintenance fee, like you would in a high-end apartment complex and the caretakers come and do the cleaning for us. Some people forget to pay the fee, and their ancestors’ graves are noticeably neglected.

Whoever lies here is writhing in shame.

But in Taipei county, land is scarce and plot burials are now rare – reserved for those who had the foresight to buy a plot early on. If you didn’t make such an investment, its cremation for you. My grandfather was the last person in our family to have a traditional, whole-body burial – the plot was bought many years before, when his third wife (and my biological grandmother) passed away. When he lived, we came once a year to worship our grandmother and our father’s great grandmother, who is buried in the neighboring plot, but my grandfather never came along. And why would he? In the second photo, the characters on the tombstone are painted gold, but they’re only gold when the person has been buried. For many years, my grandfather’s name was still in red, signifying his status as a living man.

Also for many years, Grandpa would wait patiently for us to finish eating lunch so he could go home and take an afternoon nap. Now, we wait for him.

The adults talk about where to go for lunch. My uncle (seated) was eating vegetarian that day.
My uncle takes a work-related call.
My cousins complain about work. Melody (left) works at a bank. Karen works at PWC.

Almost there…not.
To kill more time, Karen resorts to playing Angry Birds (and then checking Facebook) on our great great Aunt’s grave.

Finally, our grandparents and the Gods alike have feasted and it is time to burn paper money.

May they shop in peace.

Last year’s grave cleaning marker is removed – a stack of red paper left on the tombs to signify that the relatives have come and paid their respects:

And replaced by a new marker.


Until next year, Grandpa.

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