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On Qingming, My Family Tidies the Graves

You won’t see the day on many western calendars. For me, it’s a day of memories, tears and laughter.

Christopher Cheung 5 Apr

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

When we visit my grandfather’s grave, it seems like every Chinese person in the city is at the cemetery too. We hear different dialects, smell burning incense, and dodge Honda Civics and BMWs as we cross the cemetery roads.

My grandfather, who was a Richmond school bus driver and known to all as a karaoke sensation, happened to die the week of April when Qingming falls, so that’s the day we usually do our annual visit.

Qingming, the traditional Chinese day of honouring the dead, takes place the 15th day after the spring equinox, which puts it on either April 4, 5 or 6.

But it always slips my mind, probably because it’s remained invisible in the Canadian mainstream even as other cultural holidays gain recognition. Qingming is not printed on Gregorian calendars, nor are we assaulted with festive ornaments for purchase near the day.

It’s only thanks to my tech-savvy grandmother, a social media guru in her 80s, that I’ve never missed it as an adult. Every year, she’ll alert the family in our WhatsApp group that it’s time for us to visit the cemetery.

To celebrate Qingming in China, some people travel hours to return to their hometown cemeteries to visit their deceased relatives. Our family in Vancouver only has to drive to Ocean View cemetery in Burnaby.

My grandfather died 17 years ago, and it was a year later, on the first anniversary of his death, that I was introduced to Qingming. Ocean View cemetery that day was a unique sight, full of people carrying out traditional eastern practices in a traditional western place.

Ocean View opened in 1919, a time when landscape architects designing cemeteries didn’t want them to look like cemeteries, especially ghoulish Victorian ones. Instead, Ocean View was designed like a park, with winding roads and lawns that mimicked the English countryside.

In 2001, when Ocean View marked Qingming officially for the first time, it was the cemetery’s busiest day of the year, even busier than Father’s and Mother’s Days.

As soon as we got out of the car, I noticed the incense. Ten-year-old me hated the smell, but I was intrigued by something else that families were burning: paper money, for the deceased to use in the afterlife.

Food was placed in front of graves for loved ones: fruit, pastries, and meat like roast pork. On some graves were favourites the deceased enjoyed in life, like cigarettes and beer.

Families ate by graves too, a kind of picnic with the departed. Qingming’s other name is “Tomb-Sweeping Day,” so graves were tidied and fresh flowers were placed.

Our family didn’t partake in most of the older traditions; I guess it’s like how families do Christmas differently. But we did clean the grave, and we did bring flowers, and we did bow to my grandfather in respect.

My older uncle went first because the order, by seniority, is important. When it was my turn, the adults taught me how to do it, “Three times. With good posture.”

That kicked off the tradition of our annual family Qingming outing — with my parents, brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandmother — which over the years has evolved into something of a grave tour.

We’d carpool to visit my grandfather, then the plot nearby where his in-laws are buried. Another cemetery was added to the tour when my great-grandmother died, and another when my remaining great-grandmother died at age 101.

(I was there when my family bought her plot, sold to us by some sort of grave realtor, an intense woman who spoke to us half the time and the other half to someone on her Bluetooth about cemetery property values. I suppose that in expensive Vancouver, graves are just another kind of real estate.)

At the end of our tour, we would stop at a Hong Kong diner, though my Uncle Richard and I have joked about stealing another family’s roast pork offering.

On some of those Qingming visits, as my family reminisced, I’d hear new snippets of information about my departed relatives.

I loved learning that my great-grandmother often took the Number 3 bus down Main Street. That other great-grandparents opened a Chinese restaurant in a Saskatchewan mining town. And that my grandfather was a regular at Richmond’s Minoru pool, and that he would go with my grandmother to dance at Chinatown’s Ming’s.

While Qingming is about the dead, it’s also a time when I think about my family who are still alive and how we got to be where we are.

It’s probably because we’re commemorating Qingming in Canada, and not in China or Hong Kong, where the day has evolved to include tomb websites to pay respects, and cardboard Apple products to burn into the next world.

To me, the fact that my grandparents were blue-collar immigrants adds another dimension to the day. This comes out in our visits when my grandmother talks to my grandfather at his grave.

“We’re OK! We’re OK!” she’ll say. “Don’t worry about us!”

Every year, she dutifully reports what’s happened since her last visit: “So-and-so is married! So-and-so is dead! So-and-so is in university! So-and-so got a job! He’s a good boy!”

On recent Qingmings, I’ve helped to clean the grave. Despite its being called Tomb-Sweeping Day, there’s no actual tomb or sweeping that’s done.

It’s a light chore — cleaning the face of the plaque, trimming the grass around the edges — but the physicality of the tasks forces you to be quite intimate with death. If crouching in a garden makes you feel close to the earth, crouching to clean a grave reminds you that you are earth.

On Qingmings when my grandfather’s vase was stuck in the soil, my grandmother told him to “Push!” And on Qingmings when we had trouble locating a grave, she told my cousins and me to call out, “Where are you?!”

I’ve never teared up on Qingming without also laughing.

There are a lot of Cantonese buried at Ocean View, and the plaques not only have the county of southern China they were born in, but also the name of the village. These weren’t prosperous places, and many only left because they had to.

So I’m always astonished to visit with parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins and think that the majority of us were able to pursue university degrees and that we are, as my grandmother would say, OK.

It’s hard not to think about other Chinese-Canadian families on Qingming when we see them at the cemetery. I love seeing how they pay their respects, especially the youngest generation.

I know they are descended from working-class immigrants like me, because of the names of their dead and the counties they come from, and I’m always curious to glimpse how they’ve fared in Canada, how Canada has treated them, and what this day that we all observe means to us here.

Some of my peers scratch their heads at the traditions, but others crouch among the graves eating buns and barbecue as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Some ride into the cemetery in the family Audi or Lexus and step out wearing Yeezy sneakers and designer hoodies. Perhaps their grandmothers are telling the dead that they’re doing OK too.

It’s inevitable that Qingming grave tours grow as loved ones die, but perhaps they will also shrink as older graves are left off tours because the living have no connection to them.

On our visits we spot graves with generous bouquets and plaques so clean you could eat off of them, but also untidy graves that tell us that no one is coming. I wonder if some families will ignore the tradition altogether as they Canadianize.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Qingming printed on an English calendar, but to me the day has always felt very Canadian, because it’s a chance to remember family who made a living here for our sakes. Visiting each grave is like revisiting a chapter in my family’s Canadian history.

There are times I can’t help but cry when we talk about happy days they weren’t around to see. But I also can’t help but laugh at times like when my grandmother shouts to the dead about the As we got on our report cards. Because the tour goes on, I feel like they’re still with us.  [Tyee]

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