Honoring the Stories of our Loved Ones on Qingming or Tomb Sweeping Day

Today’s literary adventure is a symbolic one in honor of Qingming Festival, called Tomb Sweeping Day in English. In China, this is a three-day holiday to honor one’s ancestors dating back 2500 years to the Zhou Dynasty. Families visit the tombs and graves of their ancestors to sweep them clean, pay respects, and honor memories. Traditionally, visitors burn incense and candles and place food on the grave or by the tomb.

The festival is meant to be respectful but also fun. Qingming means “pure brightness,” referring to the time of year when spring starts and the days grow brighter. After paying respects, families may consume the food they brought, giving the sense of picnicking with a loved one. Later, they may like to fly kites, go hiking, plant trees, or engage in other springtime activities.

Unfortunately, this year, due to Covid restrictions in China, many families have to make brief memorial park visiting appointments or hire floral delivery and tomb sweeping services if they can’t get an appointment. In some cases, they are creating virtual remembrances. Such are the times.

Books of Life

In my case, my mother’s remains are in a columbarium, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan, who designed the Hearst Castle. The columbarium is an endless maze of chapels, gardens, and cloisters featuring Moorish, Romanesque, and Gothic elements, sumptuous decorative arts, and terraced gardens with rolling skylights.

In the Julia Morgan Chapel, Chapel of the Chimes

Urns in the chapel are book-shaped to represent the stories of people’s lives, giving the impression of a fantastical library. With trees, flowers, and skylights throughout, there is a warm, slightly humid, peaceful atmosphere with a meditative sound of dripping water from fountains. If you are in the area, I recommend a visit to the columbarium for its architectural beauty regardless of whether you have a loved one interred there. Self-guided tour maps are available.

Court of Living Waters, Chapel of the Chimes

I love that the urns are book-shaped. They remind me of quotes from Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story by Christina Baldwin:

Every person is born into life as a blank page – and every person leaves life a full book. Our lives are our story, and our story is our life. This is all you will know of me; it is all I will know of you. This is all that will survive of us: the stories of who we are, the ways that people speak our names and remember something we did, an event we lived through, a clever story we were known for, or hopefully, some wisdom.

Christina Baldwin

Baldwin’s book begs the question of how do we want to be remembered?

Meditation Chapel, Chapel of the Chimes

A Debt of Gratitude

I don’t celebrate Qingming in the traditional way, but I try to honor the spirit of the occasion. On Sunday, I brought flowers to put in my mother’s vase. There is not a place to burn incense or set out food, but I sat near her niche for a while and visited the niches of my uncles.

I thought how I am thankful for my ancestors, their sacrifices, the hardships they endured, and the foundations they laid. I feel that way about both sides of my family.

I remember Mom being amazed that my husband and I like to go camping. She and Dad partly grew up in rural areas without indoor plumbing – Dad in rural Oklahoma and Mom in rural China. She had enough forced camping to last a lifetime!

The world has come so far in a generation! My iPhone feels like a magic wand, putting power and knowledge at my fingertips. At the same time, it feels like we are living in end times with war, pandemics, and climate change. I don’t feel my generation has done our best to craft a better future.

But mulling on where I’ve come from makes me want to do better. And I hope my daughters understand what a debt of gratitude we owe to those who came before us.

On this Day of the Pure Brightness, I would love to hear how you honor your loved ones. May their memory comfort you.


An Invitation

I aim to post weekly Asian American literary and cultural adventures here. If you’ve enjoyed this or other posts, I invite you to subscribe.

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