The Ching Ming Festival, also known as “Tomb Sweeping Day”, is a time in early spring when families travel to the cemetery to rever their ancestors and bring offerings to supply them for the coming year. The offerings can take the form of food (meats, oranges, liquor, other favorite dishes of the ancestors), flowers and plants and paper in various forms. If the weather is nice, families will set up picnics and eat the food after it’s been offered to their ancestors. Rituals include the burning of incense, bowing and talking to the ancestors.
Paper offerings can be “hell” money, folded “gold” ingots made from paper, and even paper fashioned to resemble earthly objects like cars, mansions and iPhones. They need to be burned to transmute into a form that is accessible by ancestors, so containers are used for the burning process and to hold the ashes. In this particular cemetery, the containers tend to be repurposed from restaurant supply containers that held soy bean oil or other ingredients at volume. Families use what is convenient and at hand, and this speaks to the industries that Chinese in the Americas have been working in for generations out of necessity.
Many Chinese American families, regardless of religion, perform this ritual each spring. Every family has their twist on the tradition and it evolves over time. As generations pass, we try to remember how our ancestors did it, but it’s never exactly the same twice.
I’ve participated in this ritual with my family for so many years, and this past year was the first in which my grandmother didn’t attend because of her health. She was the last of her generation in our family to attend. We didn’t have her to rely on for all the proper steps, what to say to our ancestors, and other particulars of the ritual. We had never written anything down, so we had to piece it together from memory. We mumbled a mix of Chinese and English and figured that our ancestors would understand our intentions regardless of the language. We asked my dad again about all the ancestors we had to visit and how they were related to us, and wondering what it had been like to live in Chinatown.
When we were ready to perform the rituals, we all knew that there would be a container somewhere on the hill near the family plot to burn our paper offerings so we didn’t have to bring one. It led me to thinking about how other families pass these rituals down. I felt comforted that these containers were always available where there was a concentration of Chinese family burial plots.