Tomb Sweeping Day

A major cornerstone of every culture and belief system is how people view and deal with death. This weekend we got up close and personal with a Taiwanese holiday that honors dead ansestors, called Tomb Sweeping Day.

One of my local teacher friends invited us to drive down to central Taiwan to celebrate with her family. It was incredible to witness this special day and talk about the end of life and afterlife with my friend.

For Tomb Sweeping Day, all of the family travels to be with the grandparents. Sometime during the day, only the men go down to the graves or tombs of the ancestors and have a ceremonial cleaning of the area and special prayer to the relatives. The relatives are either buried in the giant mole hill style grave yard (the rich ones) or are cremated and put in a box in a huge Chinese pagoda tower vault (the regular ones). Family members aren't buried near each other, and most graves or ash storage places have a photo of the person placed on the outside of the container.

When we arrived at the cemetery, the first thing we noticed about the area was the huge amount of ash raining down on everyone. No, it wasn't the dead bodies, if that's what you were was from all the "ghost money" that people were burning to make sure that their family members were financially taken care of in the afterlife. It's very common to see people all over Taiwan burning this cheap yellow paper, and they even sell it in some supermarkets. But it was still odd to be in the place where it is believed that the ancestors can quickly receive it.

Another example of this ritual is a story my friend told of when her mother had a dream about the dead grandmother. In the dream, the grandmother told her mother that she didn't have a house, so the next day the family went to the cemetary and burned a paper house and money for Grandma to be secure.

This explanation made me beg my friend for the ins and outs of the afterlife. Her response was shocking, but not because of how foriegn and unfamiliar it sounded, but of how similar it seemed to some brands of Christianity, especially Catholicism.

According to my friend, who comes from a religious background mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confuciusism-very representative of most Taiwanese, after a person dies, his or her soul is released. They experience a period of judgment and eventually are sentenced to heaven or hell. Some living people are worried about relatives and will go to a medium to find out where the family member went. The family is responsible for the funeral, burial arrangements, as well as the aformentioned financial security of the deceased, and the ancestors before those.

I would still like to talk to more people on this subject just to see if their responses would differ as much from person to person as the answers would in the States.

A final word on Sweeping Day. I think it's very meaningful to take a whole day off to spend time with family and think about and contemplate life and post-life. We were so glad to witness this event because not only did it let us see into a part of Taiwan culture unknown to us, but it set the stage for beautiful conversation to take place, and we all thought of our dear grandparents and how much we love them, as well as the rest of our family.


Anonymous said...

the burning of the ashes is meant to be 'carried' to the heavens for the ancestors. my understanding of the afterlife is that you are judged in the 'underworld' and must pay for your sins, if you've been good, your trip to the underworld is short, if not too good, then it's a longer stay, but regardless, every soul must make that trip.

transmorgified said...

Fascinating stuff! My girlfriend is Taiwanese - and I will be in Hsinchu County in August - so I heard about this, but seeing pictures makes it all the more relevant.

I notice your mention of how familiar it sounds to Christianity. I too noticed this while visiting a Hindu temple about a year ago. While the gods were literally foreign to mine, the devotion, contemplation, and care was something somehow understood in spite of language and cultural differences.

I'll be RSS-ing your blog... great stuff.

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