April 5 is an official holiday in China. It is the annual cleaning and decorating of family graves. During the week, you’ll see a lot of activity around Toronto cemeteries with large Chinese populations. Among these are Elgin Mills, Pine Hills and Mt. Pleasant. If you go, don’t expect a sad event. It is a time of respect for and worship of the ancestors.
Chinese people who adhere to old traditions burn incense, paper money, paper cars, paper clothes, etc. at cemeteries then. This is their way to give these items to the dead. They might share a meal with the spirits of the deceased too. The money and goods help the departed get what they need in the after life.
During the Qing Ming festival, the living might also pour wine on the graves. You’ll see offerings of fruit, food, as well as flowers there too. This is part of ancestor worship, a belief that deceased relatives can influence the fortunes of the living. The spirits of the ancestors have to be kept fed and happy so they will send wealth and other good things your way.
Fascinating too are the columbariums favoured by Chinese people. Inside the glass-covered niches containing the ashes and usually a picture, you might also find tiny miniatures, symbols of the pastimes or obsessions of the departed. You’ll see favourite belongings, foods, flowers, and even furniture. I’ve even spotted a miniature copy of Playboy magazine. Poignant are the teddy bears and baby shoes if the family members died as children.
Outside the columbariums, you’ll find fresh fruit, favourite drinks, and food, along with smoking incense and flowers. There’s no room for these inside.
My own Chinese father used to celebrate this festival in Brockville, Ontario. Many of the eastern Ontario Chinese are buried there. He even invited non-Chinese friends. We had to bow three times toward the grave stones, smoking incense in hand.
Afterward, we would have a great picnic. Our dad used to order barbecued pork and chicken from Ottawa or Toronto.
Many Chinese grocery stores in Toronto sell the paper money now too. During my father’s time, the miniatures and paper items were not available. In Market Village, the mall to the east of Pacific Mall in Markham, you can find a store that specializes in items for the dead. Look for symbolic watches, airplanes, gold bars, and credit cards that can be burned. The credit cards are labeled “Bank of Hell.”
There seems to be other Chinese funeral traditions now too. In some cemeteries here you can pay for a ceremony where the newly departed are introduced to other people buried nearby. I only heard about this last year.
If you are invited to join a family group, consider yourself fortunate. Consider yourself a close friend. There’s an old story. Someone once asked a Chinese when his ancestors drank the wine. The Chinese person answered, “When yours comes up to smell your flowers.”
Let me know of the burial customs of other cultural groups.