Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Ching Ming (Clear and Bright)

In Chinese, 'ching ming' literally means clear and bright, and it is a day when a family, as one unit, pays their respects to their ancestors. The Ching Ming Festival, falls on the third lunar month of the Chinese calendar, is the day people visit cemeteries to honor their ancestors and beautify their graves. For that reason, it is sometimes called the grave sweeping day.

Ching Ming is a Confucianism tradition of ancestral worship based on the moral duty of "filial piety" and concept of "family", dated thousands of years ago. It is still observed in awe by most Chinese, especially the older generation, around the world.

Besides bringing all family members to the cemetery, they also bring along with them fresh flowers, steamed whole chicken, rice wine, fruits and steamed sponge cakes, as offerings to their ancestors.

At the cemetery, families will first of all, clean up the graves and then lay the offerings before their ancestors' tablets. Other rituals include the cleaning of the headstone and the lighting of joss sticks or incense and burning of paper money. Some however, will go the extra mile by burning replicas of cars, bungalows, cameras or any modern convenience you can think of as part of the offering! This is believed to make the soul happy and also to respect the ancestors, ensuring that they have enough to eat, have money to use and are comfortable in the after life.

Each member of the family will bow three times in front of the headstone with their hands clasped, the right fist cupped in the left hand. Some people wanted their body to be cremated when they died. Their ashes will be put into a jar and stored in temples located near the cemetery. In this case, relatives will visit these temples during this festival. All ritual offerings will be done in the temple.

In order to bring good luck to the family, they will sometimes have a picnic, at the grave site, after the rituals were over.
For our family, that was last Sunday morning at the Forest Hill Cemetery. It is a week earlier than usual due to my sister's departure to visit China next week. Snow was still on the ground, but we made the best of it.

As we were about to leave, Andrew noticed small stones placed on top of nearby tombstones and asked me why they were there. I told him I don't but will try to find out. It wasn't until the following day that I found an explanation on the Google Newsgroup soc.genealogy.jewish:
When a family member or close friend visits a grave, a rock is often placed on top of the tombstone to note that the grave was visited. This is a symbolic act of honoring the deceased by helping in their burial. It serves a similar purpose to the flowers or wreaths seen in non-Jewish cemeteries. If you see rocks on top of tombstones, please do not disturb them.
Well, that was odd. The rocks were on top of Chinese tombstones. So, unless this is a Chinese custom as well, they may have been left there by Jewish friends. Maybe, the graves actually belong to Chinese Jews. Chinese Jews have got to be a very small minority, especially here in the United States. And what are the chances that there are so many buried here in this particular lot?

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