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A Taiwan News guide to the 'do's and dont's' of Tomb Sweeping Day

A brief guide to what is expected and what is forbidden on the day of the Tomb Sweeping ritual

Cleaning the grave of a family member (Image by Flickr user Alec @ Taiwan)

Cleaning the grave of a family member (Image by Flickr user Alec @ Taiwan)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – With the Qing Ming Festival (清明節), or Tomb Sweeping Holiday just around the corner on April 5, many people around Taiwan will be preparing to visit the graves of their deceased family members.

The tradition, which occurs on the first day of the fifth solar term of the lunar calendar, includes tidying up around the grave site, and placing fresh flowers to honor one’s ancestors.

The tradition is meant as an expression of gratitude for one’s parents or grandparents. It is considered one of the most important acts of a truly filial son or daughter in the Confucian tradition.

Besides simply cleaning the grave, the religious will also conduct rites and prayers in hopes that they can help the spirits of their departed family members attain a measure of comfort and contentment in the afterlife, possibly receiving some good blessings themselves in return.

The expected etiquette and customs surrounding grave sites in Taiwan, as well as other Asian countries, can be complicated. Since the holiday’s supposed origins from the Spring and Autumn period, many related traditions have emerged from Chinese history and local folklore, while others emerged from ancient practices of Feng Shui.

Taiwan News has compiled a list of the “do’s and don’ts” for anyone that may finds themselves visiting family tombs with relatives over the coming weeks.

When to go

Families generally plan to visit the graves of their relatives in the week leading up to, or in the ten days following the actual date of the Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s not necessary to visit the tomb precisely on April 5.

Whichever day the families do make the visit, tradition says the earlier in the morning they begin the ritual, the better. Many families try to reach the grave site by dawn, since the transitional period from night to day is considered the best time for communication between the earth and the spirit realm.

Some families will spend several hours at the tomb, and it is not uncommon for families to arrive in the afternoon, but as a general rule, morning is considered best.

Remember the essentials

Consensus says that there are four items that are important for the Tomb Sweeping ritual: Wine, Food, Joss Paper/ Incense, and Fresh Flowers.

For the flowers, lilies or chrysanthemums are the appropriate choice. For the food, be sure to bring dishes that the relative would have enjoyed in life; don’t bring sweets for someone who preferred salty snacks, and don’t bring meat products if the person was a vegetarian.

Also, during the ritual, the food should not be enclosed in wrappings or boxes. Making the food accessible is considered a sign of sincerity.

A Taiwan News guide to the 'do's and dont's' of Tomb Sweeping Day
(Image from Flickr user Dionysus Peng)

The family should visit the tomb together

Many families believe that if the ancestors are going to bestow blessings on their descendants, then it is best if there are no stragglers for the occasion.

If the family arrives in two or more groups to pay their respects, then by the time the last family members arrive to say their prayers and offer their gratitude, the grandparents may already be out of blessings to offer, since they gave them all to the first group that arrived earlier.

..except the family members that should not go

Many follow the custom that pregnant women, very young children, and sick family members should not visit the tomb site, since these family members are considered susceptible targets for hungry spirits that may be wandering around graveyards, preying on the increased number of visitors coming to grave sites around the Tomb Sweeping Holiday.

Food for the day

Tradition suggests that the families performing the tomb sweeping ritual should avoid eating food that has been touched by fire for the day. It is recommended to eat cool food items; think picnic style foods like wraps, salads, and sandwiches.

Also, as for the food prepared for the offering to the ancestors; it is very important that people do not partake of the food in front of the tomb itself. It would be considered disrespectful to the spirit of the deceased. Instead, respectfully remove the food from the site after the ritual is complete, it can be consumed later in a different location.

Dressing for the occasion

Before going to visit the grave site, it is important to consider one’s attire. First, avoid extremely bright colors, like reds, yellows, oranges, pastels and neon colors. The bright colors might be seen as gaudy and offensive to the spirits of family members.

However, too much black is also a bad choice, not because it will offend the family spirits, but because wandering hungry ghosts may be particularly attracted to those who dress entirely in black. The best choices for clothing are muted and natural colors like those expected in a work environment.

Also, women, and men for that matter, should avoid clothing that exposes too much skin, as dressing provocatively may be considered offensive or enticing, depending on the spirit.

A Taiwan News guide to the 'do's and dont's' of Tomb Sweeping Day
(Image by Flickr user Chasing Donguri)

Cleaning the grave site

Obviously it is called the Tomb Sweeping Day for a reason. When family members reach the tomb site and before the ritual, the grounds need to be tidied up, and debris swept away.

Sometimes fresh soil may be needed to repack parts of the earthen mound. When doing this, take care not to take soil from the earthen mounds of other tombs. Likewise, when moving around the grave site, people must avoid stepping on, or otherwise disturbing neighboring tombs.

And as a general rule for visiting a grave yard, avoid speaking loudly and obnoxiously. Try to be quiet, respectful, and avoid using foul language.

The traditional Qing Ming (清明) ritual

After the grave site has been cleaned and the fresh flowers laid, families should first say a quick word in gratitude to the Earth deity which is essentially the caretaker of the entire grave yard, then a word to individual tomb guardians may be in order.

Without the preliminary prayers and expressions of gratitude, the Earth deity or the guardians may feel slighted and bring visitors bad luck, or become lax in their duties of keeping the tomb secure from undesirable spirits.

Once that is said and done, the food will be presented and a small fire started. The incense should be lit by family members in order of seniority. The prayers and burning of joss money offered to the ancestors, should also be performed in the same order.

It is also custom to place a few sticks of incense in front of the neighboring graves and say a quick word honoring their occupants as well. This is done to keep the peace among neighboring spirits, and is said to also raise the prestige of one’s own family members in the spirit realm.

Leaving the tomb site

Once the ritual is complete, the tomb tidied up, and the ancestors properly honored, many people want to be sure that no residual bad energy or bad spirits will accompany them after their brush with the spirit realm.

Even though the tomb sweeping and ritual usually accompanies a peaceful day outdoors with the family, and a positive setting to reminisce about family memories, often over a picnic near the tomb itself, many people still practice a few precautionary measures to ward against bad spirits following the day’s events.

First, go to a crowded or noisy place after leaving the tomb site. Somewhere like a street market, an area full of pedestrians or a supermarket will do the trick. Any lingering ghosts will hopefully be distracted or overwhelmed by the dynamic atmosphere, and give up trailing you.

Second, some people believe that stepping over a small fire is a good ward against any clingy spirits. But even better, it is suggested once a person arrives home, they immediately take a bath, and preferably one that includes flower petals or pomelo leaves. Some flower scented body wash, might also do the trick.

And lastly, if someone feels physically or emotionally unwell in the days following the ritual, and cannot discern the cause, it may be a good idea to visit a temple, or perhaps a Fengshui specialist to seek a consultation (maybe a regular doctor too).

Other than that, just enjoy the holidays!

A Taiwan News guide to the 'do's and dont's' of Tomb Sweeping Day
(Image by Flickr user Rita Wei)

(The information for this article was compiled using the following sources: Xing Fu blog, China Travel, Way Fengshui, Star2 (A), Star2 (B), and Chinese American Family)