How China’s Tomb Sweeping Tradition – And My Husband – Helped Me Cope With Grief

(photo by mofaha via

What would my mom think if she saw me here in Ohio, sweeping a tomb and praying to ancestors — just like my husband would in China?

I’ll bet she would have cocked her head or raised an eyebrow, just as my relatives did when my husband announced our next stop. “We’re going to celebrate the Tomb Sweeping Festival,” also known as Qingming Jie. So John repeated himself and even explained it was a Chinese holiday where everyone visited their ancestors’ graves. But that only lead to polite smiles and nodding that suggested they were just trying to be nice and listen to him, but didn’t really understand.

That’s okay. If my mother was still alive, I’m sure she wouldn’t have understood what we were doing at that grave — a grave that was her own.

John laid a simple fruit salad of cantaloupe and honeydew melon before her gravestone, as if inviting her to dine with us at that moment. Then he put his hands together to pray, just as I did, and the two of us bowed towards her three times in reverence. We then brushed off the dead leaves and grass from the headstone, and polished it with a little water.

I didn’t even need to glance around at the other families there to know the obvious — no one else would come to bow or even offer food at a gravestone. I would never have done these things if I hadn’t gone to China and later married John. And sometimes, in the back of my mind, I even wondered — would I have gone to China at all if I hadn’t lost my mother when I was just 17?

Before coming to China, whenever I visited her grave I always wept at the very sight of her name, engraved forever in cold, gray marble stone — powerless and alone.

But this time, not a single tear left my dry eyes because I brought her something to eat, cleaned “her house” and showed her a little respect. Was it because it felt like something I would have done while she was still alive? Or was it because I had John by my side?

I don’t know for sure. But next time I visit her grave, I’ll be sure to bring along John and the comfort of his traditions.

What’s your experience with the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Qingming Jie)? Do you think it helps you cope with your grief better?

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21 Replies to “How China’s Tomb Sweeping Tradition – And My Husband – Helped Me Cope With Grief”

  1. I guess you don’t have this tradition in the States but in Poland on the All Saints Day all families visit graves of their relatives and friends, clean the graves, light the candles and pray. Same in Portugal (just in Poland cementaries are more crowded on that day). Don’t know if it helps to cope with grief but the purpose of this festival is to cultivate the memory of those who are gone. Surely it’s hard to feel depressed and alone cause, like I said, cementaries are crowded and decorated with flowers and candles so it looks awesome, especially after the dusk.

  2. In Austria catholics celebrate All Saints Day too. I’m not catholic though, so I have never celebrated it myself. My fiancé originally wanted to visit his grandfather’s grave for Qingmingjie this year to tell him that he’s going to get married, but had to postpone this plan because he won’t be able to fly back home for Qingmingjie.

  3. It’s a healthy tradition in Chinese culture. We actually want to know who are our ancestors. To some westerners , you don’t understand but sooner or later you will.

  4. I came from a family that does not do the ritual. I am not sure you want to honor people you barely know this way. The idea of paying tribute is good. Each culture has its own way.

    The real tradition requires you to knee down and do kowtow. As a wife, you would need to honor the ancestors this way, which is not something most western women want to be a part of.

  5. Jocelyn:

    I try to go to the cemetery to honor my relatives in a very similar fashion. I clean around the gravestones and try to get rid of the dirt and then have a private conversation with them. While I was at West Park Cemetery on Saturday, I noticed several chinese families across the way with what appeared to be lunch – I thought in one sense that it was odd and then I thought that it was beautiful to have everyone there enjoying a “picnic” at the cemetery.
    Thanks for posting.

  6. Very moving. And thanks for sharing Jocelyn!
    I don’t know if non-family members count but I last year went to visit a friend’s sister’s grave (she was older than me by a couple of months and graduated high school a year before me.)

    Tragically the girl died in a car accident due to drunk driving and she was the only one who died of all the 8 in the car…

    but anyways, I left her an orange and talked to her. Then called her sister up and said why I was there and her sister appreciated it since she was on the East coast…

    But I have been wanting to badly try to take a trip up to Wisconsin to clean my Uncle’s grave….because I fear it’s been abandoned since his wife now remarried over over 10 years ago. However, there are plans of my uncle being moved and being reburied here in Michigan where I live..

  7. @ Barbara. Hi Barbara. My friend Peter has given me permission to give you his email address. Please give me your email address and I will pass it to him and I will give you his email. Thanks.

  8. Lovely post and a moving tribute to your mother. I didn’t know her, but I have a feeling she would be very touched by this custom. It reminds me that I haven’t gone to visit my father’s grave in four years. My husband’s family, on the other hand, used to visit their father’s grave every year on the anniversary of his death.

  9. Well, my oldest brother has the honor of sweeping my dad’s tomb for the last, I think, 30+ years?? but in Taiwan, land is a scarce commodity so he had cremated my dad and put the ashes along with my mom’s. Time and culture have changed much in Taiwan – it’s the memories we have that make missing our parents ever-lasting.

  10. It’s true that land is scarce in Taiwan. Before my husband and I moved to Shanghai, we both went to see his dad’s ashes. My husband’s dad is in the Christian’s side and we went with his other relatives. One of my husband’s cousins died, sadly, and he was taken to the Buddhism side. My husband’s aunt brought in fruits and everything for him. There is a shop where you can buy a model house, shoes, and even money.

    My husband introduced me to his father. I said hi and how it was nice to meet him. We told his dad that we’re moving to Shanghai and he apologized for taking so long to see him. My aunt showed me her relatives, and such as well. It was a meaningful experience and I could tell it made my husband feel better. My husband’s father was from Hebei province.

  11. We too have an all Saints Day. People come to clean, pay respect, eat and drink among the gravestones, it really is a picnic . We light candles and say a pray. If we know of others buried in the same grave yard we will also light a candle and pay our respect.

  12. Every culture has its own way of dealing with grief, and perhaps the Chinese way appeals to people with certain mindset, like myself.

  13. This is Jocelyn’s best post ever. It demonstrates the Confucian and Buddhist way of ethics and ceremony even in grief and mourning. Most Chinese males I have known have that kind of spiritual quality that I believe comes from their Confucian and Buddhist backgrounds. I never found that kind of spiritual quality in any Western males I have ever met, even the ones who went to church and synagogues.

  14. Thanks for the post Jocelyn, to answer your question, maybe you didn´t cry because this process helped you to understand and deal with your feelings. I believe everything is easier when the person who accompanies you is truly supporting you, in any ways (organizing, making you laugh, just being there, cooking,…).

    In my family we also celebrate All Saints Day: go to the cementery, clean, bring new flowers, pray / listen to the prayers , and eat. We bring food but we eat in another place not so close to the tombs.

    Even though some of us are not Christian we do get together when possible, and visit my grandpa´s tomb, is nice to see his picture.

  15. @孟乐岚

    It is refreshing to see your comment, which goes much deeper than the typical western observation of the Chinese culture and people. The influence of Confucius and Buddhism is deeper than we realize. It’s particularly pronounced in the way we treat our elderly and youngsters.

  16. Nice of you, Jocelyn.

    Respect for the ancestors is part of tradition. However, without birth, every thing will come to end (empty). Another aspect of respect for ancestors is to procreate and let tradition continue.

    You are wonderful couples. What a loss without living legacy left behind? Euroasian kids are the most beautiful one in the world.
    Here is one example.
    Nathan Adrian

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