China pays ‘virtual’ respects to ancestors

People in China are paying their respects to dead ancestors digitally as the country continues to face the coronavirus outbreak.

The Qingming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, is usually a time when people visit the graves of friends and family, sprucing up the area and making offerings to their spirits.

But amid fears of another outbreak, the government has advised people to stay away and maintain social distancing.

That’s led to some cemeteries allowing people to come as long as they’ve booked a slot, while others are banning visits completely.

But other companies and burial places have turned to modern technology as they look for ways for families to continue the centuries-old tradition.

Li Quanxi, an official at Beijing’s civil affairs bureau, said: “We want to encourage people to transform social traditions amid the coronavirus outbreak.”

What is Qingming festival?

Qingming festival is one of the most important events in the calendar to commemorate ancestors who are no longer with you.

People clean the graves and burn items such as joss sticks and paper offerings – sometimes quite large ones – to honour the dead and transmit money and other goods to loved ones in the afterlife.

The tomb sweeping period falls between 28 March and 12 April.

Making offerings online

It is not completely unknown for pay their respects online, however, with the spread of Covid-19, there are now people who have no other option.

“Cloud tomb sweeping” allows people to “virtually” clean graves and make offerings to spirits.

One website providing this service is Heavenly Cemetery. On the surface, the website looks like any usual shopping site, although it also allows people to have their own memorial halls for their loved one so family and friends can join.

Relatives can light a candle, burn money and offer objects such as Chinese rice wine and beer. There is even an option for online tomb cleaning.

Funeral company Fu Shou Yuan International launched its own online tomb sweeping service on 12 March. It operates in more than 30 Chinese cities. In its first week, its website had about 87,000 visitors.

George Chen, whose grandparents are buried in Shanghai, visits their tombs every year but will be marking this year’s Tomb Sweeping Day online for the time being.

He told Shanghai Daily: “Old traditions are deeply rooted, but it is quite understandable because it is a special period. I will pay virtual respect and visit the scene once the epidemic ends.”

Getting someone to do it for you via livestream

While taking part in “cloud tomb sweeping” does mean you get to send offerings, it does not include the physical cleaning of a loved one’s tomb.

So some burial spots are now offering relatives a chance to watch a member of staff clean the tomb via a live stream. Others will send you photographs of the cleaned grave.

One cemetery in Shanghai is offering packages where a “valet sweep” starts from as little as 35 yuan (£4).

Babaoshan funeral parlour, in Beijing, also offers live stream services.

Zhou Weihua, deputy director of the parlour, told Chinese news agency Xinhua that live streaming could become a future trend.

“Helping clients sweep tombs and holding online commemorative activities not only meets the demand in this special period but also offers more options for people to remember their deceased family members in the future.”

What about Wuhan?

China reported 3,199 deaths from coronavirus with 2,559 of those in Wuhan, where the first cases were recorded late last year.

The city is still in a lockdown which is expected to end on 8 April, and the government has announced that cemeteries will remain closed until 30 April.

Wuhan’s civil affairs department said it would make “unified arrangements to organise staff at cemeteries to hold a collective ceremony to pay tribute to the deceased”.

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