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April 2, 2010

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Tomb sweeping without tears

AMIDST the spring drizzling rain, our thoughts are soaked in pain." The poem written by Du Mu, a famous writer in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), perfectly describes the ambience of the Qingming Festival, or tomb-sweeping day, which falls next Monday this year.

Merely judging from its name, this traditional Chinese festival is a day to visit family graves and remember loved ones.

After sweeping the tombs, people offer food, flowers and favorites of the deceased, then burn incense and paper money and kowtow before the memorial tablet.

According to traditional folk religion, the Chinese believe that the spirits of the deceased ancestors look after the family. Sacrifices of food and spirit money keep them happy and, as a result, the family would prosper with good harvests and more children.

However, today the Qingming Festival evokes thoughts of qingtuan (a traditional Chinese food made of rice, bean paste and artemisia), family gatherings ... and traffic problems.

"Frankly speaking, I'm a bit bored with the Qingming Festival," says 21-year-old Joyce Wu, a college student. "I don't see why we should show our feelings for the deceased only on this particular day in a stereotypical fashion, not to mention hours spent on the road stuck with buses and cars filled with people."

Tradition holds it that tomb-sweeping activities are generally carried out from late March to early April, with the peak on the Qingming Festival. Cemeteries, mostly in the city suburbs or even neighboring provinces, are crowded with people who sweep tombs and offer sacrifices.

Last year, it was calculated by the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau that more than 2.6 million local people visited their ancestors' graves on the tomb-sweeping day.

"To tell you the truth, when I arrived at my ancestor's tomb, I felt so exhausted," Wu says. "I'm not even in the right mood to express my feelings, I only hope to finish the routine as soon as possible."

The college student says that she will convince her parents to "take the tomb-sweeping activities on the Internet this year."

A lit candle, a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums plus several words - all can be done easily via the computer, and in an environmentally friendly way.

"Today we are seeking for a low-carbon life to protect the environment, and it's really time for us to make a change first on Qingming," Wu says.

But such a change will not be easily accepted by the elderly or even middle-aged people.

"Nonsense! It will be a contempt to the deceased," says Zhang Lu, a 40-something office worker.

"If all things can be done on the Internet, why do we still need a tomb? I only visit my grandparents' tombs once a year, and the on-site ritual evokes the deepest love in me toward them," she says. "For me, it seems that they are waiting anxiously in heaven to see my whole family on that particular day."

However, respect for the deceased relatives can be expressed in different ways.

"Some people express their filial piety when their parents and grandparents are still alive," says Wang Hongjie, director at the Shanghai Funeral Association. "But some prefer to express it after they pass away."

That might explain why some tombs cost around 100,000 yuan (US$14,660) per square meter, much more expensive than the rate of downtown apartments.

"I just want to give my parents an ideal place for 'rest,' and that's the only way I could think of to show my love for them," says one son, who doesn't want to be named. "I don't see anything wrong with my behavior."

Yet, some old people really don't care what happens after they die.

"I told my son that if he wants to buy me a tomb that costs several thousand yuan, then he can just give the money to me when I am still alive," says Wu Huizheng, a retired doctor in her 70s.

"I can spend that money on traveling or anything that would improve the quality of my life," she continues. "I am an atheist. I asked my son to scatter my ashes on their way home after my funeral if possible. I am not joking, I mean it!"

Rocketing prices for tombs, however, is a worry for many local residents.

"Yes, I of course desire a tomb with a beautiful environment after my death," says Zhang Wenying, a retired teacher who, with her daughter, visited Fushouyuan Cemetery in Qingpu District, one of the biggest funeral homes in Shanghai. "But I just can't believe my ears - the cost for an ordinary tomb is set at tens of thousands of yuan.

"I really don't want to add any burden onto the shoulders of my daughter. You know, she is still paying a mortgage every month for her apartment. We will work out other solutions later," she says.

But her daughter sees differently.

"I certainly will convince her to buy a tomb there," she says. "In my eyes, such money can't be saved. I would be tortured for the rest of my days if I saved the money by not buying a decent tomb for my mother!"

However, high prices for houses, whether on the ground or under, in Shanghai are not rare. The question is whether to buy or not.

"If we just change the traditional mode of burial, there are still some choices," says Chen, a staff member at Fushouyuan Cemetery. "The urns can be buried under trees or flowers, in the lawn or sealed in a wall. The price would be much cheaper."

Wang, from the Shanghai Funeral Association, says: "Today there is plenty of choices catering for people's different needs."

When society is aiming for a greener future, perhaps it is time to think about different ways to remember our ancestors in a more "clean and sensible" way.

That might explain the increase in popularity of burial at sea.

Wang says that there had been 19,039 sea burials since it was introduced in Shanghai in 1991.

"We purposely set the last Saturday of March as the Sea Burial Day in Shanghai," Wang says. "I am happy to see that there is an annual 10-percent increase in sea burials, meaning that more and more people are accepting it as an alternative."

Hopefully, in the near future, the Qingming Festival will lose its association with traffic problems and a tiring trip.


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