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    On Qingming, Remembering the Dead During a Difficult Time

    With cemeteries still shut amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many in China are unable to visit the graves of their ancestors.

    For many Chinese families, Qingming Festival is a time for the living to honor the dead.

    It’s during Qingming — also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day — that families commemorate the lives of their late relatives. They visit them in the cemetery, clean their tombs, and offer them food and symbolic money in a solemn ceremony of remembrance.

    But this year, many may not be able to observe the tradition, which falls on Saturday, even as the country is collectively grieving amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed thousands in China and tens of thousands abroad. Many cities have forbidden families from visiting cemeteries due to concerns of cross-infection from mass gatherings.

    Lin Ge, from the eastern city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province, had been waiting for this day for weeks. She told Sixth Tone she grew up watching people visit the tombs of their parents, paying homage during Qingming. But when the cemetery where her mother is buried initially informed her they wouldn’t be open this year, she was heartbroken.

    “This is the first time in my life that I’ve lost a loved one,” said the 25-year-old, whose mother died in late February from a respiratory disease unrelated to COVID-19. “I felt very frustrated. I asked myself, how can I not visit my mom for the first Qingming Festival (after her death)?”

    During the past two months, many families have lost loved ones from COVID-19. The infectious nature of the disease meant many didn’t have a chance to say their goodbyes — there was no time for last kisses or clasped hands during the final hours. There weren’t even proper funerals.

    But when cities finally relaxed their movement restrictions, some family members — especially those in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected — have lined up outside funeral homes, spaced a few meters apart, waiting to receive the urns of their loved ones who were cremated.

    Lin, who used a pseudonym to protect her privacy, couldn’t give her mother that last hug when she died in late February, as the funeral homes restricted close contact with the dead and dying. She observed her mother from a distance inside the funeral parlor, bowing before she was cremated.

    “For many others who have lost their loved ones during this period, they may feel there was not enough time to say goodbye,” Lin told Sixth Tone.

    Although many funeral homes and cemeteries have provided online services, including virtual-reality visits to cemeteries and digital flowers and candles, Lin said she wouldn’t choose these means to memorialize her mother.

    Zheng Lixin, a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School who specializes in hospital chaplaincy and Buddhist studies, told Sixth Tone that canceling interment services may leave many of the deceased’s family members unable to come to terms with their sorrow. Funerals and memorial activities, she says, are important for ensuring the mental health of surviving family members.

    “As humans, we are more than our brains: Our bodies matter,” she said. “When we encounter big changes in life, we need to let our bodies — our hearts, our intuition, even our hands — understand what is going on. The function of rituals is actually to let the family of the deceased go through a process to accept the loss of a loved one.”

    With these needs in mind, a group of volunteers with backgrounds in religious studies, including Zheng, drafted a manual to help grieving families. The manual, which has been shared over 8,000 times on microblogging platform Weibo, includes various ritual instructions for believers of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity, as well as mourning suggestions for nonreligious groups.

    Guo Yan, the organizer of the volunteer group, told Sixth Tone she came up with the idea after spending days scrolling through social media feeds and witnessing people suffering from the loss of their family members and friends. The group wanted to provide mourners with an alternative to ritual activities, as well as offer support for their sorrows and anxieties.

    “The manual’s focus is on people, not religion,” Guo said. “We are not using this manual to preach religious teachings; instead, we are using the ancient wisdom behind various religious traditions to serve the living.”

    For Lin, the young woman who lost her mother, the cemetery ultimately called her Friday afternoon to say they had reversed their decision and would allow visitors after all. Thanks to the last-minute change, she will have a chance to closely connect with her mother. In the meantime, she has been going through old chats and social media posts, remembering the conversations she had with her mother.

    “My mom told me on this day 10 years from now, we would go somewhere and build a house and plant a lot of flowers,” she said, recalling a post from Mother’s Day last year.

    Instead, Lin will walk alone to visit her mother’s tomb on Saturday, accompanied with their memories.

    “I’ll still bring the flowers,” she said.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: A woman visits a tomb in Shanghai, April 2, 2020. Xinhua)