An Invitation to a Grave Sweeping Ceremony in China – Anne Skyvington

An Invitation to a Grave Sweeping Ceremony in China – Anne Skyvington

A Guest Post by Roger Britton

We had been hosting Chinese students in our home for several years from our sister school in Jinan. Each one stayed with us for two years at a time attending Years 11 and 12 at our local high school. Angela was the coordinator for homestays. She dreamed of teaching in China and she had been learning Chinese for ten years.  I retired in 2008 and Angela argued it was my time to follow her.

We applied for a poor private school in Yangshuo in south-west China and entered into a job share arrangement, which they had never experienced. They got two teachers for the price of one at the boarding school.

The girls ranged in age from 15 to 20. Pershing was one of the students who spoke fluent English. She became our friend, guide and mentor.

A 6-month working visa was all we were allowed from the People’s Republic of China. We have become Sinophiles and have returned twice on visiting visas to visit our students and explore.

It was Angela who was the instigator and me the writer, photographer, teacher and follower.

Grave Builders in China

Our friendly mentor, Pershing, had something exciting to tell me:

“Roger, Mr Zhou has invited you to come to a Quing Ming Festival with his family. Would you like to go?” I had no idea what it was.

“What is that, Pershing?” I asked

“Roger, it is a Grave Sweeping Festival, a time of year when Chinese families visit their ancestors, clean the tomb sites and make offerings.”

“Sounds interesting, Angela and I would love to go.” It sounded similar to grave upkeep in Australia.

“He will take you to Fu-li,” explained Pershing in her excellent English. “It is an old village across the river.”

I quickly studied up on old Chinese burial customs. Feng sui is also called Chinese Geomancy and is important. The dead should be buried in a valley or hillside overlooking water. Many of the graves are rounded and the body is buried horizontally above ground in a shallow grave which is then filled in. The actual tomb stone is placed at the feet, unlike western headstones.

The grave is uterine in shape, like the womb and holds the body while it waits re-birth. Angela thought she would like to be buried here overlooking the river and mountains.

Fake money being burned for the ancestors

First, the gravesite is cleaned and cleared for the ceremony to begin.

Preparing the gravesitesPreparing the Grave Site

Josh sticks are lit in odd numbers, one, three, five, seven, but not in evens.

Three bows are made in reverence to the deceased.

Gifts of spirit money (fake notes) are used and lit. The smoke carries it up to the ancestors for use in the spirit world.

Round fruit like oranges and apples signify completeness and purity.

It is important for ancestors to have descendants to care for them in the afterlife. Strangely, these ancestors are not transcendent or supernatural but share the world with us. In the cemetery was an old family friend who had no descendants, so they cared for her, too

Angela and Roger with Chinese friends

At Mr Zhou’s father’s grave, a basket containing a piglet and a second basket with a chicken were placed alongside the fruit as well as josh sticks.

Offerings at the Zhou Family Grave

Incense, paper spirit money and a roll of firecrackers were rolled out. The crackers made a thunderous, deafening noise like a hundred machine guns. This frightened the bad spirits away, as it did us, so the ancestors could enjoy their offerings in peace.

The cooked piglet and chicken were retrieved and taken to the next grave and offered there as well. I think it was eventually taken home and it’s what we all had for dinner.

The whole day was a happy affair…a kind of celebration of a life well lived and children fondly remembering their parents and grandparents. The Zhous loved having us there as part of the celebrations and were delighted to have us join in honoring their ancestors.

An Invitation to a Grave Sweeping Ceremony in China was last modified: April 20th, 2023 by Anne Skyvington

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