Sunday, April 5, 2009

Matters of Life and Death

Although it’s not a pleasant subject to talk about, most Americans have had discussions with their families or friends about the subject of death. Death is really an uncomfortable topic for some, so we have developed ways of respectfully saying someone has died- like using the phrases “passed away, went onto glory, or went home.” Other times (usually when we’re talking about our own inevitable demise) we make light of it saying things like, “when I kicked the bucket, bite the dust, or go to meet my maker”….I want blah, blah, blah ” The Chinese however, rarely if ever talk about death. It’s one of those taboo subjects that some even considered bad luck to discuss. One thing about death is that everyone will experience it and nearly every culture has its own ideas about what happens to someone when they die.
Americans have their ideas about death and practices of honoring those who have passed away. People often go to gravesites several times a year to tend to the site, to bring flowers or sentimental items. This seems to help people feel close again to their loved one and also helps with grieving the loss of their presence with us. Although it may be somewhat common to go to a gravesite and “talk to” one’s departed relative, ultimately we believe that when someone’s physical body dies, there is no more that we can do to take care of them. It is out of our hands. Many Christians (myself included) believe that death is not an ending, but a beginning to an eternal life in a place called Heaven, where there will be no needs to satisfy, but only an eternity to spend with God and others who believe that Jesus is the way to Heaven.

The Chinese have their beliefs about life and death as well. There is a specific day which falls on either April 4th or 5th of the solar calendar and this is the one day a year that people formally honor their ancestors and celebrate the life they have been given. It is called Qingming Jie or Tomb-Sweeping Day. The festival is a combination of sadness and happiness. Qingming Festival is a time of many different activities, among which the main ones are tomb sweeping, taking a spring outing, and flying kites.

Tomb sweeping is regarded as the most important custom in the Qingming Festival from which the name of Tomb-sweeping day is derived. Cleaning the tomb and paying respect to the ancestors with offerings are the two most important parts of remembering the relatives who have passed. Weeds around the tomb are cleared away and fresh soil is added to show care of the dead. The dead person’s favorite food and wine are taken to sacrifice to them. “Sacrifices” include ghost money, ghost cars, and ghost food and clothing. Ghost money and other ghost extravagance best illustrate the popular folk belief among Chinese that there is a nether world for people under the earth where people live after death in the form of ghosts or spirits who can give blessings to the living. It is not uncommon for me to see several people every week, squatting around small fires on the sidewalk, burning their paper goods
for their deceased relatives. During Qingming Jie, tablets of stone are also set up for the dead and kowtow (bowing) is made as incense is burned. As many as possible living relatives will gather at the gravesites and remember their ancestor. They offer prayers to their deceased family member and parents of children will often pray and ask for success and achievement for their children. After they are finished the next part of the tradition begins.

Qingming Jie is not only a day for commemorating the dead, is it also a festival for people to enjoy themselves and appreciate their lives. During March, everything in nature takes on a new look, as trees turn green, flowers blossom, and the sun shines brightly. It is a fine time to go out and to appreciate the beautiful scenes of nature during the festival. Spring outings not only add joy to life but also promote
a healthy body and mind. Flying kites is an activity favored by many people during the Qingming Festival. Kites are not only flown during the day time but also in the evening. Little lanterns are tied to the kite or to the string that holds the kite. And when the kite is flying in the sky, the lanterns look like twinkling stars that add unique scenery to the sky during the night. What makes flying kites during this festival special is that people cut the string
while the kite is in the sky to let it fly free. It is said this brings good luck and that diseases can be eliminated by doing this. All in all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion of unique characteristics, integrating sorrowful tears for the dead with the continuous laughter from the spring

Although my personal beliefs about death and the thereafter are much different than that of those around me, I think it's really good to get an understanding of the culturally norms so that during holidays such as this, there can be honest dialogue and sharing ideas about issues of life and death.