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Tomb Sweeping Day

The Chinese Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Festival was two days ago. Last night (one day after the holiday), I was looking through a file of old papers and happened upon a photocopy of a letter I wrote to my family on Cape Cod describing my attendance at a Qingming celebration. The time was early April, 1990, and we were on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia visiting my late wife’s family. She was Chinese. Her family had immigrated to Indonesia from Southern China during the early twentieth century.

We honored her ancestors that day, though our six-car caravan did not get mobilized and leave as early as we planned to try and beat the mid-day, subequatorial heat. The cemetery was located on the far east side of the city of Ujung Pandang (now Makassar). It was a Chinese cemetery with distinctive, rising horseshoe-shaped plots covered in part by open-sided metal roofs and individually gated. I drew this sketch (I am no artist).

We paid our respects at three sites that day, one for Fanny’s grandmother, great-grandmother, and an uncle. Her grandparents had eighteen children.

Tomb Sweeping Day involves much more than just neatening graves. It also includes ritually providing one’s ancestors with things they need in the next life. Thus, after everyone prayed and presented six incense sticks (split between two containers) to each of the departed, we burned mounds of paper money as well as large, paper packages with useful items for the ancestors’ use. The packages were adorned with stamps for “mailing.”

After paying our respects, we joined in a picnic meal with the ancestors. Food was plentiful. There was a whole roast pig set out with a knife stuck in its back to simulate eating. There were cakes, candies, fruit, and wine. Because of the by-then oppressive sun beating down on three-dozen, sweating family members, we retired early back to the grandfather’s house for the remainder of the celebration.

The day was festive. My first (and only) experience participating in Tomb Sweeping Day. I told my family at the end of the letter that I had written it because I did not have a camera with me and wanted to record what I experienced. The photographs on this post are from the same cemetery, but taken by family members who returned to honor other relatives in later years after they had passed.


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