Tomb-Sweeping Day feels a little different this year.
In normal times, Chinese commemorate the holiday, also known as Qingming Festival, by going to the countryside and cleaning their ancestors’ graves. In the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, however, officials worried about transmission risks in large crowds have tried to dissuade people from taking part in on-site tomb-sweeping. Instead, many public cemeteries are advertising services like online tomb-sweeping or paid third-party tomb-sweeping.
The issue is even more pointed in the central Hubei province, and especially its capital, Wuhan. The region’s three-month-long battle with the coronavirus — including two months of near-total lockdown — cost thousands of lives. And because COVID-19 is infectious, many family members were denied a final farewell to the bodies of their loved ones, which were quickly cremated. When Wuhan’s funeral parlors and cemeteries reopened in late March, and residents were finally allowed to pick up the ashes of those they had lost, they had lines that sometimes stretched out the door. How do you even start to address all this pent-up grief?
Burials, funerals, and other rituals after major disasters are a way to say farewell to the dead, console the living, and heal the wounds of personal and collective pain. They shape our memories of the event into a shared social legacy; they can be a lesson, a warning, and a source of emotional encouragement or spiritual motivation.
They also generally come in two kinds: personal and collective. The former generally consist of things like burials and family-centric sacrificial ceremonies, such as making food offerings or kowtowing in front of memorials at home. The collective are generally orchestrated top-down and tend to focus on memorials or public services. Both are necessary, but the way we commemorate disasters must be attentive to the thoughts and needs of the people most affected.
Traditional Chinese custom designates a three-step ritual for remembering the dead: mourning, burial, and memorial. The body of the deceased is usually kept at home for three days, during which mourners can offer condolences, then hold a funeral procession and burial. Family sacrifices are made every seven days up to the 49th day — the so-called the seventh seven. After that they become yearly occurrences, such as on the anniversary of the person’s death and on Tomb-Sweeping Day.
A booth selling paper money ahead of Tomb-Sweeping Day in Wuhan, Hubei province, April 2, 2020. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
While there are folk religious components to this, like lighting a changming lamp or burning paper money to ensure the dead can smoothly pass into the other world, the way these rituals help the living break free from the shadow of the deceased and come to terms with the reality of death are important, even to the nonreligious.
For years, the Chinese government had its own three-step process for commemorating natural disasters: catastrophe, rescue, and expressions of gratitude. Wang Xiaokui, an academic specializing in disasters and folklore has pointed to the deadly Tangshan earthquake, which killed at least 240,000 people in July 1976, as an example.
In the quake’s aftermath, official media focused on residents’ “anti-earthquake spirit” and their gratitude to the Communist Party of China for leading the relief work. Compared with the situation now, there was less space given to individual expressions of grief. At the time, the state viewed traditional sacrifices and burial services as part of the country’s feudal past, and the severe damage the quake caused meant the dead were buried quickly, often in unmarked graves.
Meanwhile, those who had lost relatives or loved ones in the disaster quietly burned offerings of paper money on silent streets.
Over the years, these individual expressions of memory and mourning persisted in the city, especially on Tomb-Sweeping Day and the anniversary of the earthquake, July 28. Eventually, a private company spied a business opportunity and unveiled a memorial wall on which residents could carve the names of those they lost — provided they paid a fee. Despite the project’s crass commercialism, the company received thousands of orders from people looking for a place they could visit, touch their loved ones’ names and cry. Finally, in 2008, the local government ordered the project torn down and unveiled a free wall of its own, in a move Wang saw as indicative of changing official attitudes toward grief and death.
Nevertheless, state-backed collective memorial rituals in China still tend to frame events through the lens of grand, patriotic narratives. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and similar institutions press visitors to “never forget the national humiliation.” Memorials to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, meanwhile, offer popular science lessons about earthquakes while emphasizing the successes of post-disaster reconstruction efforts.
Disease outbreaks are slightly different: It’s difficult to pin down a definite date or choose a specific site for the memorial. Mainstream commemorations of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome primarily consist of documentaries, retrospectives, and similar projects. Yet the emphasis remains on the nation’s mobilization, its united struggle to control the outbreak, and the legacy of the fight.
This time, the official narrative has likewise described the situation as a “war” against the virus, one waged by an ostensibly homogenous society: a determined government, brave doctors, and steadfast civilians. On April 3, the authorities announced the country would observe a national day of mourning, timed to coincide with Tomb-Sweeping Day. The previous day, the Hubei government honored 14 victims of the virus, including the once-reprimanded whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, as “martyrs.”
Holding a national day of mourning or building a statue to Li Wenliang – as one Hubei politician has called for – can be valid way to commemorate a disaster, but it’s also vital to provide a means for traumatized individuals to vent their emotions, find hope, and preserve personal or “unauthorized” memories. Some already exist, like Li Wenliang’s last Weibo microblog post. Netizens have turned it into a “tree hollow,” a place where they can spill their thoughts, leaving him more than 750,000 comments. Some thank him and say they miss him, while others tell him Wuhan has finally contained the virus and wish him peace. One may share feelings of bewilderment and pain; another may talk about Li’s courage.
Our emotions and recollections from the past three months — as varied as they are — are all a part of the collective legacy of this disaster. There is no one right way to process them.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: People mourn after a sea burial in Shanghai, April 1, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)