Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Today is Ancestors Day in many Asian countries, a day to remember and honor the departed. It is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day or Qing Ming, which means pure brightness. Ancestors Day is celebrated 15 days after the spring equinox and is the climax of a 2-week celebration when it’s believed that the ghosts of the departed walk the earth.
It is a time when the living remember and pay tribute to their ancestors, by meditation, prayer and by making offerings to those who have become trapped in the spirit world. In order to help these detained spirits overcome their bad karma and guide them back into the cycle of reincarnation, family members offer food and money to them so that they will watch over the ancestral family. Relatives color eggs, have picnics and fly kites during Qing Ming to celebrate the rebirth of nature – the cycle of reincarnation. The festival began during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907,) and over 450 million people around the world will celebrate Ancestors Day this year.
It is during this festival that family members tend to the graves of their forbearers. The gravesite, temple or crematorium is cleaned and tidied, dirt is swept away and cremation urns are polished. Food, along with paper that resembles money or electronic items, called joss paper or ghost money, is offered to the departed to bring them happiness in the afterlife.
Food offerings consist of what the ancestor was fond of eating, steamed fish, chicken, or eggs, served with rice and wine. The food is prepared and offered cold, since cooking is not allowed on this day. The food is then arranged in a certain manner, similar to the practices of feng shui, on the home alter in order to bring the family good luck, plentiful harvests and more children. Incense and candles are lit both on the home alter or at the burial site. Food is also taken to the tomb to be offered, but the public offering consists mostly of bread and water.
The joss paper money, also known as hell money, is offered to the dead so that they can continue to have necessary and valuable things in the afterlife. This guarantees that the deceased will be happy, and ensures they will be helpful to living relatives who may need to ask for special favors or assistance from them. Joss paper is squares or rectangles of bamboo or rice paper with images stamped upon them. Shops in China now offer joss paper versions of credit cards, televisions, computers, even iPads and iPhones. The current price for two paper iPads and four iPhones made from joss paper is about 90 cents in U.S. currency. These gifts or offerings are then sent to the deceased by way of burning. The burning of these tributes has led to frequent problems involving uncontrolled fires. More than one thousand tons of paper is burnt each year during the festival. Statistics from last year indicate that over 1,650 fires broke out during the celebration, resulting in 17 deaths and 32 injuries.
We, in the U.S., do not have such a festival to honor our ancestors. As close as we come is Memorial Day, held the last Monday in May, a day to pay tribute to those who have died while serving our country. That date may jog our memories to drop off some floral tribute at the cemetery. But to actually have a designated time to honor our ancestors, to tend to and repair their graves, and to just relax and enjoy the park-like atmosphere of the cemetery, we don’t really do that, not anymore. I can remember my grandmother and great grandmother talking about ‘Decoration Day’ of years past. About how they would prepare a picnic basket with cold fried chicken, drop biscuits and iced tea, then cut and gather peonies and roses to place on the family graves. After everything was ready they would gather the family and head out to the local graveyard where they spent the afternoon tending the relatives graves. When the work was done, they’d enjoy a picnic. I’ve always liked that idea, spending an afternoon cleaning, tending and visiting with our ancestors, our links to the past. So maybe today, on this Ancestors' Day, I’ll gather some spring flowers, grab a box of chicken and head out to ‘visit’ my grandparents. It’s just another way to offer thanks for all that they did for me. I’m sure they won’t mind if its store-bought chicken and biscuits - but a paper iPad? Ummm…no. But, if I could get joss paper with an old radio tuned to the Grand Ole Opry? They would be in heaven!